The History Boys

Alan Bennett’s 2004 play may feel eerily familiar: after all, it is about students revising for important exams. But the playwright is famous for illuminating grand themes through his seemingly ordinary characters, and The History Boys is no exception. The play is set in a northern school in the 1980s, where the students are preparing for tough Oxbridge applications. And as they and their teachers squabble about appropriate methods of education, what they are really discussing is the value of truth, knowledge and — of course — history itself.


What is history? Teacher Mrs Lintott treats the subject as a series of dates and facts. But the boys find this boring and straightforward. They prefer to debate questions such as whether the past repeats itself. And their lives often act as a metaphor for the subjects they study. For example, the paths the boys take after leaving school can be traced back to their time in the sixth form.


One of the play’s biggest arguments circles around the purpose of education itself. Is it simply to pass the exams needed to get to the next stage of life? Or is knowledge, as Hector believes, worth pursuing in its own right?


As they study for their exams, the boys are also exploring their sexuality — and at least two are coming to terms with their feelings for other boys. In the 1980s, LGBT people were beginning to be accepted — but there was still a long way to go.


There are very few women in the play. Fiona and Hector’s wives are mentioned but never seen. And for the teenage boys, girls are little more than objects. Eventually, Mrs Lintott gives her own seething assessment of women’s role in history: to follow behind men ‘with the bucket’.


By focusing on a northern state school, Bennett draws attention to the inequality which is still found in education. The boys are highly intelligent — but that alone is not enough to get them into Oxbridge, unlike those with private school training or family connections.