By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like many working-class people catapulted into an elite world, Bennett has no illusions about either milieu. He feels equally — and from a literary standpoint, productively — uncomfortable in both. He has written with amused scorn about British television documentaries (many of them made by well-born Marxists) that prop writers of humble origin against the Northern slag heaps that supposedly inform their every written word. He also shows a healthy contempt for upper-class snobbery, has made no attempt to jettison ?his strong Yorkshire brogue, remains partial ?to bangers and mash, and writes with uncondescending affection about his ordinary parents’ efforts at self-improvement. Bennett is warm and proprietary, but never sentimental, about his family — in Untold Stories, the latest collection of his diaries, just published in this country, he writes movingly and unsparingly about his mother’s depression and decline into dementia, and offers horrifyingly funny thumbnail sketches of his upwardly aspiring aunts.
On one level, The History Boys is a staged debate between elite and middle-class philosophies of education — “the conflict between education proper, education for life as it were, and education as a view to examinations,” as Bennett calls it. But like most of his plays, it is ?also a more generalized lament for cultural decline in societies obsessed with quantifiable certification. Fatally flawed and gloriously alive in the pettily careerist world he inhabits, Hector is the teacher Bennett wishes he had had, and, judging from the play’s roaring popularity on both sides of the Atlantic (it’s coming soon to Los Angeles), he’s not alone. “I had a boring history teacher, very factually based like Mrs. Lintott in the play,” he tells me. Most of us did, though I for one will always cherish the Hector-like wit of Miss Dunlop, a spectacularly bosomed virago who wrote on my report card that “Ella has considerable analytical powers, which she rarely uses.” There was more than a touch of Hector’s chronic anachronicity in the intense, mostly unmarried woman instructors at my girls-only high school, who saw teaching as their calling whether they were good at it or not, and who were passionate about trying to equip us for the well-rounded life rather than for careers. No easy task with girls whose idea of culture was feet up in front of the telly watching Top of the Pops. “Now you’re in Muriel Spark country,” Bennett says drily. Indeed, though it’s alarming to reflect that basically the same lofty ideas about art and life that bring Hector to classical liberalism propelled Miss Jean Brodie into the arms ?of fascism.
The History Boys is also wonderfully astute and tolerant of the nonchalantly homoerotic culture of the single-sex school. (The intensely private Bennett, who lives with his partner of 14 years, Rupert Thomas, a Condé Nast interior-design magazine editor 30 years younger than he is, only came out publicly in Untold Stories, which — after a bout with colon cancer that doctors gave him only a 50 percent chance of surviving — he thought would be published posthumously.) Just as Hector’s boys take his clumsy gropings in stride, we laughed our heads off, with the usual schoolgirl cocktail of fondness and cruelty, at the gym mistress who told us to turn round three times in the post-hockey shower, and watched avidly as we did. I don’t recall a single one of us who felt “violated.”
The immediate inspiration for Hector, who’s played by a gargantuan (in every sense) Richard Griffiths in both the play and the film, was an essay on education by the literary critic George Steiner that Bennett had been reading. But though Bennett, a self-effacing man who has bemoaned “my timorous and undashing life,” has little physically in common with his flamboyant, oversize protagonist, there are bits of the playwright in this physically awkward man, a perennial outsider like the many other marginal misfits who wander through Bennett’s works — most notably in the mordantly funny, ineffably sad Talking Heads monologues and, in real life, the famous Miss Shepherd, the elderly transient who camped out in Bennett’s yard for 15 years and was immortalized onstage by Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van.
Though Bennett skews left politically — he’s a vehemently outspoken critic of British involvement in the Iraq war, and turned down an honorary degree at Oxford because the university had accepted an endowed chair from Rupert Murdoch — like Hector, he is an unabashed cultural conservative who mourns the passing of common public experience, both high and low, in a media-fragmented world. His plays, diaries and monologues are stuffed with literary and historical allusion, but, like Hector too, he is thoroughly versed in old films, from the vintage Hollywood pictures like Now, Voyager and Brief Encounter that pop up in The History Boys, and which he saw on those boyhood movie outings with his beloved “Mam,” to the cheerfully vulgar Carry On comedies of the 1960s. (He rarely goes to the movies now, in part because his partner works late, but also because he prefers the ornate old movie palaces with names like the Gaumont and the Ritz to watching movies in the new “mini-mas.”) Like those films, and perhaps because he moves so seamlessly between high and popular culture, Bennett has tremendously wide public appeal. He has been dubbed a national treasure, an honor he could live without. “I think it’s because I’m not a threat to anybody else,” he murmurs resignedly. “Here, I’m regarded as so cozy.” Then he brightens. “But you’ve got to have something to shelter behind. And I’d rather be thought cozy than be thought a real shit.”
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