‘History Boys’ opens Rep’s season

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has opened its 41st Mainstage Season with a stunning production of the Tony Award-winning play The History Boys , by the acclaimed playwright Alan Bennett. Artistic Director Steven Woolf directs The Rep’s production, and is correct in describing it as better than the recent film version. “The film is fun, but the play is much, much better,” says Woolf, who lends his considerable directing skills to work with a superb cast and production crew to draw the audience into the trials and tribulations of eight students at a British school who are being crammed with history, French and the arts in order to increase their chances of gaining admission to either Oxford or Cambridge.

Not only does Bennett’s multi-layered, humorous and affecting play deal with contrasting styles of teaching, the debate over the real purpose of education and the individual and collective agonies and joys of the eight students, their headmaster and three teachers, but also features a major Jewish character, David Posner, well-played by Jonathan Monk, and a powerful debate between two strong-willed teachers over whether and how the subject of the Holocaust can be taught as “objective” history.

Posner is the only identified Jewish student among the group of eight, extremely bright, working-class British boys aged 17 or 18, who are about to finish “grammar school,” which in British education is equal to high school graduation in the United States. There is one identified Muslim student, Akhtar (Bhavesh Patel), who would go on to become a headmaster himself as we are told in a flash-forward segment. The rest are all apparently Protestant or Catholic. In his introduction to The History Boys , Bennett says it is loosely based on his own much earlier experience with the pressures of British students to do well enough to gain admission to either Oxford or Cambridge, or “Oxbridge,” the so-called “ancient schools.”

Anderson Matthews, a veteran of several recent Rep plays, is excellent in the role of the headmaster, overly eager to get as many of his graduating seniors into the ancient schools as possible, to such an extent that he seems willing to sacrifice sound educational principles in order to prepare the boys to perform well in their interviews and entrance exam essays. The favorite teacher of the boys is Hector, magnificently portrayed by Thomas Carson. They are also taught by Mrs. Dorothy Linott, described as their “unflappable” history teacher, and the only female in the daily lives of the boys. Carolyn Swift gives an edgy, sardonic interpretation to the important role of Mrs. Linott, whose take on history is far different from that Hector and his young rival, Irwin (Bryant Richards in a textured, convincing peformance).

Hector is the consciously eccentric, over-the-top “Old School” teacher from the “Mister Chips” era, training his students to recite Housman, Auden and Larkin by heart, as well as to sing popular tunes and learn French by enacting ribald bordello scenes, much to the horror of the stuffy and strait-laced headmaster. Hector also has one serious behavior problem: he lets his students take turns riding with him on his motor bike, where he sometimes touches them inappropriately, one of several strong homo-erotic subtexts laced through Bennett’s complex play. The boys, who are going to school during the Margaret Thatcher-era of the mid-1980s, do not react strongly to Hector’s misbehavior, which is of course extremely serious, another indication of their affection and respect for their veteran and quirky teacher.

Irwin, who is every bit as brilliant as Hector, has an entirely different set of marching orders and approach to education. The headmaster has made clear that he expects Irwin, a revisionist historian, to do everything possible to prepare the boys to get into Oxford or Cambridge by giving them “clever” and off-center bits of information that would impress their interviewers during the admissions process to the ancient schools.

The entire cast of The Rep’s production of The History Boys is excellent. In addition to Jonathan Monk as Posner and Bhavesh Patel as Ahktar, excellent work is done by Adam Farabee as Timms; Eric Gilde as Dakin, who is the object of Posner’s unrequited love and the source of much torment to Irwin; Charles Sydney Hirsh as Lockwood; Matt Leisy as Scripps; Seven Pierce as Crowther and Brian White as Rudge. The boys not only act superbly, but when needed burst into song and dance routines which enhance the fast-past action which makes the talky, two-act play move along seamlessly from scene to scene. Woolf’s direction is enhanced by good work by the artistic staff, including Adrian W. Jones, scenic designer; Elizabeth Covey, costume designer; Marcus Doshi, lighting designer; Tori Meyer, sound designer; Glenn Dunn, stage manager and Champe Leary, assistant stage manager.

The Jewishness of David Posner’s character comes into sharp focus when Hector and Irwin are forced to “team up” in a full-court press to cram the boys in preparation for their efforts to get into Oxford or Cambridge. Irwin wants the boys to answer questions differently than the examiners might expect so as to stand out from the pack. “If you want to learn about Stalin, study Henry VIII. If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher, study Henry VIII. If you want to know about Hollywood, study Henry VIII. The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or better still, the side. Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse,” Irwin lectures the boys.

In this spirit, Irwin, with Hector reluctantly looking on, tells the boys, “I thought we might talk about the Holocaust,” which prompts Hector to ask, “But how can you teach the Holocaust?” Irwin asks the students to join the debate, and Akthar offers, “It (the Holocaust) has origins. It has consequences. It’s a subject like any other.” Student Scripps disagrees. “Not like any other, surely. Not like any other at all.”

Hector responds with fury, “They go on school trips nowadays, don’t they? Auschwitz, Dachau. What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their Coke?….Do they take pictures of each other there? Art they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate. Just as questions on an examination paper are inappropriate. How can the boys scribble down an answer however well put that doesn’t demean the suffering? And putting it well demeans it as much as putting it badly.”

Irwin, cold and detached as always insists that the subject can be taught, saying “It’s just a question of tone, surely. Tact.” Hector snaps back, “Not tact. Decorum.” Student Dakin answers with an Elie Wiesel-like response, “Whereof one cannot speak therof one must be silent.”

Irwin’s insistence that the Holocaust can be taught objectively as against Hector’s insisting that teachers and students should “simply condemn the camps outright as an unprecedented horror,” prompts Posner, the lone Jewish student to respond. “But to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained, then it can be explained away.” Unmoved, Irwin says, “one of the historians’ jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be…even on the Holocaust.”

Later the headmaster calls Irwin on the carpet to read him an angry letter from Posner’s father who complains bitterly that Irwin spoke so coldly about the Holocaust. “Mr. Posner calls it a ‘unique historical event’ and says that it can’t be compared with the Dissolution of the Monasteries.” Irwin reluctantly apologizes and agrees to do so in a letter to the Posners, but still insists, “I’m sorry. It was my fault. I was too…dispassionate, I suppose. The Holocaust is not yet an abstract question. Though in time, of course, it will be.”

In The History Boys , Alan Bennett bravely challenges the audience to grapple with complex intellectual, moral and educational dilemmas; an entire scene is done in French, and he deftly combines humor and bittersweet sadness in his award-winning play. Steve Woolf, the fine cast and artistic staff should be applauded for their powerful production of a major theatrical work.

( The History Boys will complete its run at The Rep’s Mainstage on Sept. 30. For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit The Rep Box Office, 130 Edgar Road, call 314-968-4925, or visit The Rep online at www.repstl.org.)

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