Monday, November 28, 2011

The History Boys

The History Boys by Alan Bennett debuted in London as a play in 2004, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre. The production traveled with great success and fanfare to New York in 2006, when a movie version (directed by Hytner, with the original cast) also went into release. Sometime during those History Boys hoopla years I did read the play, and I remember liking Alan Bennett's introductory essay better than his actual text, but with no very strong feelings one way or the other. Not until last night did I get around to the acted-out version, on DVD. So what I was watching had already been in circulation as a film for five years, this I know – but I do not think that time-lag is what gave me such a bad case of the heebie-jeebies. The whole project was a huge false sentimental muddle, if you ask me, and the problems all kept spiraling back to the same irresolvable conflict between the story Alan Bennett wanted to tell and the vehicle he built to tell it.

In that twenty-page introduction Bennett frankly talks about his problems trying to fit terrestrial realities of time and place and social change into the constraints of a thoughtful 90-minute script about the upper reaches of the ancient English rituals of education. Crucially he confides that his own provincial, working-class, gender-segregated, state-funded school possessed a core of bright hardworking boys in 1951 (of course including Bennett himself) whose examination results gained a good many more places at Oxford and Cambridge than was usual for that undistinguished institution. At several other points in the introduction Bennett goes out of his way to point out spots in the text where Posner, the central schoolboy character, mirrors his own recollection of his own private, personal circumstances and feelings.

Bennett seems never to have considered setting the play in the 1950s, but never explicitly says why not. Instead, he explains that he wanted his play to be "timeless" and conceived it initially set in the present. After he was well into a draft he learned that the entire process for application and acceptance to or rejection from Oxford and Cambridge had changed so radically since 1951, that none of his own vivid memories of that watershed ordeal could be used if the play occurred in the "present time" of the early 2000s. The sorts of extended essay-based exams that Bennett and everyone else over the course of several centuries crammed for and then sat for had been abolished, and he concluded his best choice was to set the play in the 1980s . . .

"... when people seemed to think the system had changed. It's significant that without looking it up nobody I spoke to could quite remember the sequence ..."

"Luckily," Bennett goes on, "the eighties were a period with no special sartorial stamp, no wince-making flairs, for instance, or tie 'n' dye."

The decade of David Bowie and Vivienne Westwood had "no special sartorial stamp"? This is fatal for any artist, to suppose that because he is not paying attention, nothing is happening. Little wonder, then, that the finished film absolutely shimmers with phoniness – as if it truly does belong to every decade and no decade between 1950 and 2010. It sounds like the 1950s, but you're told it isn't. They say it's the 1980s, but you don't buy that either. So what happens to the suspension of disbelief? It never happens at all. You don't believe. Therefore, you don't care.