Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Bennett's the History Boys: Unnoticed Ironies Lead to Critical Neglect

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Bennett's the History Boys: Unnoticed Ironies Lead to Critical Neglect

Article excerpt

Any one, or a combination of the following, may be the reason why Alan Bennett's play The History Boys (2004) has received virtually no serious attention to date from academic critics: it's an unusual hybrid; it's middlebrow; its politics are dubious; it's hard to label; it has attractive surfaces but no depth; it's not sure about what it wants to say; and why should a seventy-year-old playwright make a breakthrough to genuine accomplishment? (Of course, these are only surmises based on some probabilities: no one has reason to write about why s/he has not written about the play.) The disparity between the effusive praise from newspaper and periodical critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and its neglect in the academy, is not an unprecedented phenomenon, but it is an interesting one nonetheless. Without any insinuation that this alone validates claims to genuine merit as dramatic literature, we might, purely observationally, note that the play won the Tony, the Drama Desk, the Olivier, the Outer Critics' Circle, and the London Critics' Circle awards for best play (Jury 13; "Royal Performance").

Excessive modesty on Bennett's part does not help his case with those critics who feel, legitimately enough, that it is their job to dig deep beneath surfaces. About his first play, Forty Years On (1967), a play set within a boys school, Bennett has written, "I listen to the BBC Critics. They all say it is very funny, but what it is about, what I am trying to do, is there a message? Nobody knows, and I certainly don't" (Writing Home 416). The general judgment of reviewers and literary journalists is that The History Boys (2004) is funny, endearing, and meaningfully serious, and that, indeed, this second play set in a boys school does have a message or messages. This time Bennett has made no move to dissuade critics from the idea of 'message'; that is to say, no dissuasion outside the text of the play itself. The idea of reviewers generally, and, it seems, of most audiences, is that the message lies in an unequivocal endorsement of all save one or two of the ideas, teaching methods, attitudes, and sympathies of Hector, the charismatic teacher operating within a liberal humanist tradition. While this view of the play is not outlandish or hopelessly naïve, it does, despite the critics' beneficent intentions, deny the play much of its irony, nuance, dialectical force, and ideational density and compression.

Whatever the ultimate merit of The History Boys as a piece of dramatic literature, it has a much more complex and ironic structure than has been commented on to date, and it is, in fact, the skillfully embedded ironies that give the play a weight and depth that do indeed make it a respectable contribution to serious theater. The play's deep ironic structure not only saves it, unquestionably, from didacticism and sentimentality, but also, in my contention, makes it ideationally challenging and intellectually humorous. Failure to apprehend the full depth and extent of the irony within the play causes a significant depreciation of its worth as dramatic literature. If the irony goes unrecognized, the play then seems only to make the totally unsurprising point that substance and integrity are to be preferred to superficiality and expediency, and that there is no problem in distinguishing the genuine from the counterfeit. Critical neglect seems almost justified if, in fact, the play's intellectual content is as thin and dubious as all that.

The History Boys, a play full of performances of various kinds, is, in fact, a play about performance(s), including a bit of self-reflexivity as Bennett encourages us to interrogate his own performance in the writing of the play. People who begin to contemplate the meaning of this play sooner or later come to realize that it cannot simply be an endorsement of all that Hector seems to represent. At this point, though, they may meet, at least temporarily, a quandary. Assured critical judgments about any element of the play may seem at first to be in doubt because of questions about slippery and ambiguous perspectives and the extent of ironic dimensions. …

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