By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There’s little danger of that. For all his reported media shyness, in conversation Bennett is kindly, well-mannered, convivial and endlessly curious. He describes Sacha Baron Cohen, whom he met while both were queuing up to renew parking permits in London’s trendy Camden Town, as “a lovely man” and admires Cohen’s Ali G bravado with the wondering envy of the painfully sensitive. “I mean, how can he be so . . . thick-skinned is not the word, but how can he carry it off when he’s so much on the edge of deeply embarrassing?”
For a shy man who shuns the spotlight, though, Bennett sure gets out a lot. Untold Stories is studded with theaterland gossip, much of it deliciously bitchy. There, Bennett is generous to those he admires, noting the passing of beloved friends like John Schlesinger, who directed Bennett’s superb teleplay about the Anthony Blunt affair, A Question of Attribution; Alan Bates, who played the Soviet spy Guy Burgess in the television version of An Englishman Abroad; and, of course, Nigel Hawthorne, who played the lead onstage and in the film of The Madness of King George. Bennett tells me that John Gielgud, with whom he worked on Forty Years On in 1969, was “such a gent, and reckless with his abilities as he got older. He would do anything to work. He’d do a dozen things, and maybe three would be worth it. The rest would be rubbish, but it would be worth it for the three.” Still, Bennett is no teddy bear when it comes to those he finds pretentious or conceited. He calls Alec Guinness, who played the lead in The Old Country, “overprotective of his own ability” and caps it off with a devastating “He would have been nothing without his wife.”
There’s nothing the least bit cozy about Bennett’s plays either. Like many acute observers, he wields a judgmental pen, and never more pointedly than in his skewering of Hector’s nemesis, Irwin, a teacher addicted to trendily contrarian theories of history who, to Hector’s disgust, is bent on giving the boys flashy techniques designed more to grab the attention of examiners than to expand their knowledge of the world. Bennett, whose mistrust of tidy theory is brought to incisive life by The History Boys’ Rudge, who summarizes history as “just one fucking thing after another,” would be the last to deny that Irwin is based in part on the stroppy young British historian Niall Ferguson, who achieved notoriety for suggesting (as Irwin does in the play) that World War I was a “mistake rather than a tragedy.” Bennett remains unrepentant in his criticism of historians who stand received ideas on their heads for the sake of looking smart, but he admits to feeling regret on learning from his partner, who works in the same building as Ferguson’s wife, that the family was deeply hurt by the portrayal.
In the screen version of The History Boys, Irwin has been softened and made substantially more sympathetic, as has the sad fate of one of the boys. Those changes came from Hytner, not Bennett, who made sure that when the play opened on Broadway, after the film wrapped, it was restored with its original bite. To my mind, there was no compelling reason to turn the talky The History Boys into a movie, other than to ride the coattails of its stage success. But one forgives Hytner all his spurious cinematic contrivances, if only because this funny, tragic work is sturdy enough to resist most forms of tampering. At the end, Bennett challenges his audience by craftily undercutting the elegiac tone of the boys singing “Bye Bye, Blackbird” with an unwittingly hilarious speech by the headmaster, who absurdly invokes banking lingo to eulogize a man so unworldly he probably never kept a checking account. That is Alan Bennett’s genius. He can make you laugh and cry at the same time, but he never lets you off the hook.
The History Boys opens Tues., Nov. 21, in Los Angeles theaters. For Scott Foundas' review, see Film.