Hector, a large, rumpled teacher at an English boys' school, has what his headmaster calls "an old-fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words."
So does playwright Alan Bennett, whose latest work, "The History Boys" began a triumphant engagement Sunday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre. It is a remarkable play in a remarkable production, graced by the splendid original cast from the National Theatre in London.
Directed by the National's artistic head, Nicholas Hytner, "The History Boys" is both intellectually rigorous and emotionally affecting. And very, very funny. It's filled with warm, often gentle humor, a comic spirit that grows out of situation and character.
The plot? A group of senior students are studying for exams in history to get into either Oxford or Cambridge, Britain's most prestigious universities. And they come up against the teaching philosophies of two very different instructors.
Hector (Richard Griffiths) embraces education in all its forms. After all, he is a teacher of what is pejoratively called "general studies." The man celebrates high and low culture and all points in-between. From Shakespeare to the poetry of Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith to the music-hall tunes of Gracie Fields to such silver-screen classics as "Brief Encounter," the man embodies the joy of learning.
Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a young, up-and-coming teacher brought in to help the students gain entrance to the top-notch schools. He sees education as a means to an end -the manipulation of learning to get what you can, preferably success of the monetary variety.
Set in the middle of the go-go 1980s, the play delivers the classic battle between idealism and relentless self-absorption. Several British critics have said it could be an indictment of the Thatcher era. You can tell where Bennett's heart belongs.
Griffiths commands most of the evening's attention. He gives an expansive, memorable performance as a funloving yet lonely man whose career, now in its twilight years, has superseded his private life. And Hector is not above giving his students a little grope when they sit behind him on his motorcycle - actions that eventually get him into trouble.
Then there are the students, a parade of hormone-plagued youths who span the spectrum of pupils. Most memorable are the heartbreaking Posner, the shy, gay one (a fine job by Samuel Barnett) and the handsome, popular and sexually precocious Dakin, portrayed by a charismatic Dominic Cooper.
It's Dakin who trips up the repressed Irwin, whose insecurity eventually comes through despite his smooth machinations.
The play's sole female role is that of a dour history instructor portrayed by the formidable -and hilarious - Frances de la Tour, an actress with the impeccable timing of a Swiss watch. Ciive Morrison, who plays the oblivious headmaster with crisp efficiency, completes the faculty.
The production, designed by Bob Crowley, moves with cinematic fluidity. Hytner uses film of the boys' school adventures to bridge many of the scene changes.
"The History Boys" has a lovely ending, one in which the boys, one by one, tell what happens to them later in life.
It's a touching conclusion to a tale of people we have learned to care deeply about
Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," which came to the Broadhurst Theatre last night trailing clouds of glory and awards from London's National Theatre, could well emerge as the cult hit of the season.
So I'm sorry to say I found it hopelessly overblown, overhyped and overrated.
Admittedly, it has one indelible stage portrait from Richard Griffiths - a hitherto underrated actor in the role of his lifetime -and beautifully calibrated performances from the terrific Frances de la Tour and an admirable newcomer, Stephen Campbell Moore.
No doubt, with its London Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it will appeal to the Anglophile lurking within so many New York theatergoers.
They will relish the opportunity to recognize such arcane English names as George Formby, sing along with Gracie Fields in "Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye," or watch a teenager act out Celia Johnson's last scene in the movie "Brief Encounter."
The play itself - despite what you'll hear elsewhere -isn't up to much, though it's full of sterling production values and deftly staged by Nicholas Hytner.
"The History Boys" concerns the upper sixth form of a boys' grammar school in the North of England (think high school, senior year) and the efforts of a couple of teachers to coach them through the admissions process of England's oldest universities, Oxford and Cambridge.
There are eight boys, and incredibly they all get in, which would make the school unique among English grammar schools, particularly as none of the charmingly loutish boys shows much glimmer of intelligence.
One young man doesn't even know the meaning of the word "meretricious." The playwright certainly does.
The underlying theme is the true meaning of education. Bennett maintains (and who will deny him?) that humanitarianism and the cultural benefits of education outweigh all other considerations.
This worthy brand of uplift is maintained by a fat and lovable schoolmaster (Griffiths), whose homosexuality - he fondles his pupils' genitals while they ride on the back of his motorcycle -is regarded as a harmless aberration.
Opposed to him is a new, younger teacher (Moore) - a man only latently homosexual and far less sensitive - who tries to instill in pupils a kind of smart-aleck, counterintuitive approach to history.
He suggests they pretend to question accepted knowledge - that Germany, say, started World War I -on the premise that such unlikely nonsense will make them more appealing to various admissions boards.
The writing is full of sub-Wildean quips, the best being, "Archaeology is the nearest history comes to shopping," which doesn't really mean anything, but it has a nice cultured ring to it.
And so does the entire play. Hytner has directed it with dazzling ease, and the actors give the entire evening a credibility that, under the circumstances, is positively amazing.
Hulking over all is the extraordinary Griffiths, whose stillness can project an eloquence of Shakespearean proportions.
De la Tour, dry and caustic, is perfectly cast as the feminist schoolmistress in a quietly hostile male environment, and Moore, half-uncertain, half-amused, really seems to encapsulate the glib, smooth-talking communicator seeking to debase eternal cultural values.
The boys -all a good bit older than their stage selves - make a smooth ensemble, the standouts being Samuel Barnett as a shy Jewish homosexual; Dominic Cooper as the glamorous object of everyone's affections; and Jamie Parker as a nifty piano player.
"The History Boys" is worth seeing if only for Griffiths -not to mention a refresher course on Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Stevie Smith, Philip Larkin and other true-Brit examples from what Bennett, quoting Frances Cornford, calls "the long littleness of life."
The seats in the Broadhurst Theater are no softer or wider than the ones in most Broadway houses, where the penalty for playgoing is almost always fanny fatigue. Yet for the entire, substantial length of the "The History Boys," the madly enjoyable play by Alan Bennett that opened last night, you somehow feel nestled in a plump armchair that has been custom made for your body — a perch that you are reluctant to leave, even after more than two and a half hours of sitting.
The components that induce such unexpected comfort are not ergonomic but theatrical, and of a seductive polish that New York audiences have seldom experienced of late. Granted, the themes and situations of this comic drama, imported with its original cast from the National Theater in London, about a battle for the hearts and minds of schoolboys preparing for their university entrance exams are not of a kind to put American theatergoers at instant ease.
This is a work in which the most likable and, by the play's standards, most moral figure is an obese English teacher who regularly swats his students in class and fiddles (to use the euphemism of choice) with the more attractive of them after school. The play's central theme is the essence of that looming abstraction, history, and how it should be taught. Specifically British educational terms, slang and place names abound, as do quotations from Auden, Larkin, Hardy and Shakespeare. Why, there's even a long classroom scene conducted entirely in French.
Yet none of this is likely to occasion head-scratching for anyone who falls prey to the charm of "The History Boys," and that should be pretty much everyone. As staged by Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National, this production moves with a breezy narrative swagger that transcends cultural barriers.
Mr. Bennett may have serious things on his mind, but he and Mr. Hytner take a cue from the classic entertainers of the music hall: variety and timing are what hold a restless audience's attention. Musical numbers, video sequences, scholarly debates, the acting-out of vintage movie scenes, moments of shocking emotional nakedness and wry internal monologues travel cheek by jowl here, with a cast in which every member stands out as an individual worthy of attention. Then there is the lure of Mr. Bennett's dialogue, as shimmering and warming as a fine Cognac. As befits a play about precocious, irreverent students — a category to which the 71-year-old Mr. Bennett still seems, on some level, to belong — "The History Boys" is a bright brooder with a strong streak of the showoff.
A beloved and ubiquitous figure in Britain, where playwrights enjoy a celebrity unknown to their American counterparts, Mr. Bennett has never developed an equivalent following stateside. He is probably best known as a member of the pioneer satiric troupe Beyond the Fringe from the 1960's and more recently for his droll, sad "Talking Heads" monologues — portraits of the Eleanor Rigbys of the world venting obsessions and grievances. Much of his work, including the sex farce "Habeas Corpus," a West End hit that sputtered on Broadway in 1975, has been perceived here as obstructively English, in the manner of culinary concoctions like toad-in-the-hole.
"The History Boys" could well change that perception. Though its speech and immediate frame of reference are as local as ever, its appeal is far more elastic. There is, of course, the universally irresistible and frightening energy of adolescence, so expertly harnessed here. But the Western world has, for better or worse (and I know on which side Mr. Bennett would come down), become so much more homogeneous in the last several decades, with broad cultural concerns that translate into any language.
The big issue in "The History Boys" is the emphasis on presentation over substance — on the ascendancy of spin. At the play's center are two schoolmasters at a grammar school in the mid-1980's (read: age of Thatcher) in Northern England. Hector (Richard Griffiths), a 60-ish man of expansive size and eccentricities, believes in learning for its own sake, a defense against man's inevitable solitude.
The young, iconoclastic newcomer Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) — brought in to coach the brightest of the students on how to impress the examiners at Oxford and Cambridge — insists that in interpreting so-called facts, truth is beside the point. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he says. "It's a performance." Guess which of these men winds up working in government?
This opposition of sensibilities sets up the broad framework of "The History Boys." It also does not shy from embracing the conventional sentimentality of inspirational schoolteacher tales, sweet and somber, like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Browning Version" and the film "Dead Poets' Society." And as the boys' intellectual allegiances shift from Hector to Irwin, Mr. Bennett doesn't avoid excessive thematic tidiness or heartstring-pulling.
It's the idiosyncratic life that teems within this framework that makes "The History Boys" so captivating. This quirky, ineffably human vitality shows up most obviously in the classes presided over by Hector, where performing Rodgers and Hart and Piaf songs and improvising a rowdy dialogue in French set in a brothel are regular fare. But in these scenes, and in their mind-shaping counterparts led by Irwin, you're always aware of the complex emotional currents of doubt, perplexity and eroticism that throbs among practically everyone onstage.
The actors playing the students are, to a boy, superb, though you are especially likely to remember Dominic Cooper (as the cocky school Lothario) and Samuel Barnett (who plays the sensitive misfit and who naturally has a devastating crush on Mr. Cooper's character). Frances de la Tour, of the papyrus-dry delivery, is a withering joy as the most fact-bound of the teachers, even if the speeches Mr. Bennett has given her on the feminine perspective are a bit forced. As the narrow-minded, ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison comes closest to caricature. But in the context of a world in which authority figures are dartboards, the exaggeration works.
Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Campbell Moore brilliantly subvert the stereotypes their characters might fall into. They both affectingly channel the unease with life and essential loneliness that Mr. Bennett, in works from "Talking Heads" to "Single Spies" and "The Madness of George III," maps better than anyone these days. And each has a one-on-one scene with a student — Mr. Griffiths with Mr. Barnett and Mr. Campbell Moore with Mr. Cooper — that is as resonant with levels of meaning and ambivalence as anything Mr. Bennett has written.
Designed by Bob Crowley, with lighting by Mark Henderson, the show's physical production matches the fluency of its dialogue. There's never a patch of dead air. When you think about the show afterward, you may judge it occasionally guilty of some of the sins ascribed to Irwin, especially glibness at the expense of authenticity.
But while you are watching Mr. Bennett's boys of all ages, you're too enthralled to keep such critical notes in your head. That's because he so successfully adapts another dictum from Irwin. No matter what you do, Irwin counsels his exam-bound students, remember that history must be entertainment. Mr. Bennett, with less cynicism and more heart, applies the same rule to the teaching of history, with compellingly watchable results.
Forgive, please, the impulse to find useful justifications for the sudden unlikely appearance of "The History Boys" on Broadway. The temptation is to locate the American relevance in what appears to be a very English, extremely talky, unapologetically literate play about an arcane British school system from the '80s.
And though parallels and pertinences exist to be explored, there are more important things to know about the serious Alan Bennett comedy that relocated from the National Theatre last night with Nicholas Hytner's original cast and production intact.
This is ebullient, crackling, miraculous theater - as moving as it is intellectually extravagant, as entertaining and humane as its description sounds Byzantine and overeducated. The masterly playwright, best known here for his screenplay to "The Madness of King George" and the exquisite all-the-lonely-people monologues called "Talking Heads," mingles intimate portraits with merciless social insights and aching compassion within the sweep of an almost three-hour evening.
At its most basic, this is an indictment of the distortion of education for status. Much as today's Washington pushes quantifiable achievement over learning, "History Boys" centers on a class of precocious high school boys being trained for scholarship exams that could catapult them into Oxford or Cambridge - conflated as Oxbridge.
Richard Griffiths, in a performance of staggering grace, plays Hector, an eccentric, open-minded professor of general studies in a North England school that never seems able to get its graduates into the privileged universities. The headmaster - savagely played with wiggly, oily self-interest by Clive Merrison - brings in a young hotshot (Stephen Campbell Moore) to prepare the class in exam-passing. The eight young men are bright, sure, but they need what's described as polish and edge. Or, as one canny kid puts it, it's not enough to know history. The way to attract the right attention is to get an angle.
To complicate the ethical certainties, the wise and iconoclastic professor also likes to fondle students while driving them around on his motorcycle. Bennett cheats a bit on the pedophilia issue for hot-button America by insisting now that the boys are all 18, though the script puts them at 16 and 17. More to the point, this is not a melodrama about dysfunction and damage. The students seem well adjusted, if pretty condescending, about their teacher's limited transgressions.
Given the daunting girth of Griffith (Harry Potter's cruel Uncle Vernon in the movies), the very image of this man in a leather jacket and helmet is less threatening than quirky. The fellow also hits students over the heads with assignment books, but we wouldn't think he is a bully. Ultimately, as Bennett says and anyone who has ever loved learning knows, "The transmission of knowledge is erotic."
So, in its odd-duck way, is Hytner's brilliant production. Mostly, we are in one of those plastic modem classrooms, designed by Bob Crowley with patterns of low-hanging fluorescent lights and walls that slide away for other locations. Above it all, occasionally, are black-and-white films of these boys in hallways and libraries and all the vibrant romanticism of late adolescence.
The impeccably smart and endearing young actors play together as if they've been embodying these characters for years - which, in London and on tour and in an upcoming film-they have. Not a bit incidental is the only female teacher, played with a wonderfully sly sense of straightforward knowledge by the invaluable Frances de la Tour.
Since Hector's students are expected to know "Brief Encounter" as thoroughly as they know Walt Whitman, we are treated to the boys recreating movie scenes, talking French in an imaginary brothel and singing, among other angelic incongruities, "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." While others look for the usefulness in knowledge, Hector - that is, Bennett - reminds us the meaning of learning by heart.
Transatlantic travel can be a treacherous adventure in the theater. Shows lauded on the London stage often founder in Gotham while Broadway hits have been known to leave West Enders cold. So feeling the ripples of appreciation as a New York audience connects to "The History Boys" makes a captivating work even more deeply satisfying. This very British play from that peerless observer of English life, Alan Bennett, is in many ways sprawling and untidy, but invigoratingly alive with ideas. And Nicholas Hytner's superb production also is alive with an unruly energy that mirrors the sexual and intellectual vitality of the gifted lads at the play's center.
The National Theater smash arrives on Broadway after repeat repertory engagements in London, followed by U.K. and international tour stops and the shooting of a film version with the same director and cast, to be released by Fox Searchlight later this year.
Returning to a setting distant in time but close in milieu to that of his first play, "Forty Years On," Bennett gives ample evidence here of why the British press tirelessly refers to him as "a national treasure." Among his contemporaries, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Caryl Churchill are brilliant intellectual playwrights, but Bennett is as much a humanist as an intellectual. His plays are the work of a restless, questioning mind but also of a gentle soul and an immovable outsider whose writing has remained impervious to the effects of success and privilege. It's the sparkling balance of the literate with the poignant that makes "The History Boys" so enjoyable.
Set in a Northern high school (grammar school in Brit usage) for boys in the mid-1980s, as Margaret Thatcher's reforms were sweeping the country, the play reflects on the process and purpose of education. At its heart is roly-poly English master Hector (Richard Griffiths), who seeks to inspire his students, teaching them to think for themselves by "lining their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact." As he says to Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a fellow teacher of more conventional methods, "You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
A beloved, unorthodox teacher viewed as subversive by the establishment forces around him immediately calls up associations with such figures from "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "Dead Poets Society." But Bennett's approach is more original, and far from black and white.
Hector is both progressive and a representative of the old guard -- an impassioned breed of educator gradually being phased out to make way for strategists who coach students to ace exams but do little to instill the deeper desire for learning. His opposition is Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young history scholar brought in by the school's ambitious headmaster (Clive Merrison) to groom the boys for their Cambridge and Oxford entrance exams. But despite the cynicism with which he imparts academic survival skills, Irwin is no soulless nemesis; he's both suspicious of and awed by Hector.
The veteran teacher is made considerably less benign by his habit of "fiddling" with his sixth-form students while they ride pillion on his motorcycle. As the headmaster observes when the transgressions are brought to his attention, Hector's advances appeared "more appreciative than exploratory." And the 18-year-old boys, led by cocky Dakin (Dominic Cooper), are with one exception fully in command of themselves. Bennett doesn't condone Hector's behavior but nor does he judge him. The play requires that our sympathies remain with him, and it's a measure of the writer's sensitivity and Griffiths' finely wrought, moving performance that this is achieved.
Bennett's wise, affectionate depiction of youth distinguishes the play, focusing on two boys in particular. Smart but shallow Dakin employs his sexual magnetism freely to his advantage, while gay, Jewish Posner (Samuel Barnett) wryly and painfully reveals his love for his charismatic classmate, notably in an aching rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" at the piano.
Like the busy collage of art and pop culture images plastered over the classroom walls of Bob Crowley's clever utilitarian set, Hector attempts to stoke the boys' appetites for self-expression, encouraging their immersion in literature, philosophy, movies and popular songs. His discussion with Posner of a poem by Hardy about a fallen soldier is one of the play's most emotional scenes. Describing the times when the reader recognizes something of himself ("It is as if a hand has come out and taken yours"), Hector explains his vocation but also something of himself in a moment of sudden vulnerability.
Recitals of scenes from "Now, Voyager" and "Brief Encounter" are comic high points, as is a hilarious French lesson, interrupted by the headmaster while the boys are roleplaying a bordello scenario. The young cast is uniformly excellent; in addition to Cooper and Barnett, especially sharp work comes from Jamie Parker as a budding writer whose religious beliefs give him a different perspective, and from Russell Tovey as sports-loving, working-class Rudge, judged to be the dimmest bulb in the class.
That the play strays perhaps unnecessarily into melodrama doesn't make it any less affecting, and Hytner calibrates the balance between overt comedy and brainy wit, between big-issue sociological considerations and quiet introspection, with a supremely confident hand. The scene-change videos, shot by Ben Taylor, of students and faculty around the school, backed by bursts of '80s Brit pop (Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Madness, etc.) supply animated punctuation that helps this lengthy show fly by.
Alongside Griffiths' illuminating performance, Moore etches a vivid, complex character, self-serving yet far from inhuman and not without his own struggles. Merrison creates a delightfully arch caricature; like Smithers from "The Simpsons" dropped into an academic setting, he's a noxious blowhard, enthralled by his own perceived wisdom.
With her hangdog face and bone-dry delivery, the sublime de la Tour subtly steals every scene she's in; she has some of the most memorable lines in a play with an uncommonly high quotability factor. As a woman patronized her entire life and teaching a subject dominated in every sense by men ("History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket.") Mrs. Lintott injects an acerbic view that's just one of many thoughtful reverberations here of a playwright looking on from the margins with incomparably keen skepticism and humor.