The History Boys

Have you ever found yourself worrying about university admissions? In Alan Bennett's play The History Boys (2004), the students are going through very much the same thing. In the world of 1980s Britain, they grapple with themes of sexuality and education, all while trying to get into Oxbridge.

The History Boys The History Boys

Create learning materials about The History Boys with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    The History Boys, content warning, StudySmarter

    The History Boys: play

    The History Boys follows a group of students and teachers at an all-boys English grammar school in the 1980s. The boys have been placed in a class designed to get them into either Oxford or Cambridge, as they all show substantial potential. Hector, the English teacher, and Mrs Lintott, the History teacher, are central to the text. Mrs Lintott is a traditional and straightforward teacher. However, Hector is more unusual. He is eccentric and likes to teach in a way that actively engages the students.

    Hector does not believe in traditional exams, instead encouraging his students to focus on using their academic knowledge to help them in their future lives. It is also bluntly stated that Hector molests his older male students. He will regularly select one of them to take a motorcycle ride with him in order to do this. Uncomfortably, all the students seem to accept this because of their respect for Hector.

    The History Boys, an old building in Oxford with ivy on the walls, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Many of the students in the play are trying to get into Oxford.

    The school's Headmaster decides that the boys need extra help to get into university and, therefore, hires Irwin, a recent Oxford graduate, to act as a teaching assistant. When it is revealed to Hector that he and Irwin will share classes, he becomes infuriated, feeling he is being usurped and disrespected. Irwin teaches the boys how to stand out in their university entrance exams. He encourages them to explore unusual ideas as long as they can solidly back them up. This will help them to catch the examiner's attention.

    Posner, one of the students, comes to Irwin in confidence to discuss his sexuality. Posner believes he may be gay. He has a romantic interest in one of the other boys, Dakin, but Dakin is insistent that he is heterosexual. In reality, both Irwin and Dakin feel an attraction to each other that neither will admit.

    One day, the Headmaster witnesses Hector being inappropriate with one of the boys on his motorcycle. He calls Hector to his office and orders him to take early retirement when the current school term is up. The Headmaster has been looking for a reason to get rid of Hector for some time, as he dislikes his teaching methods. The two men agree that until the end of term, Hector will share all his classes with Irwin. He is also forbidden from going on motorcycle rides with his students anymore.

    In the second act, the play jumps forward a few years into the future. Irwin has become a successful television journalist and is shown to be in a wheelchair. He is visited by Posner on his lunch break from work. Posner questions him on his relationship with Dakin when they were still in school. This irritates Irwin, and he leaves, refusing to answer.

    The play then moves back to its original time period of the early 1980s. Hector and Irwin are teaching a class together, making their starkly different methods apparent. The class is learning about the Holocaust, which Hector believes should not be written about in an exam out of respect for the victims. However, Irwin argues that it should be treated as the historical event that it is.

    The entrance exams are fast approaching, with the school carrying out mock interviews for the boys. One weekend, they all go to either Oxford or Cambridge to take their exams, with every boy in the group successfully being admitted to their university of choice. Upon returning, Dakin has a conversation with Irwin. He has uncovered the fact that Irwin has been lying about being an Oxford graduate, and Irwin admits to this. Dakin then flirtatiously asks Irwin out for a drink which Irwin hesitantly agrees to. Dakin also dislikes how the Headmaster has treated Hector, who he still has a great deal of respect for. He has found out that the Headmaster often harasses his secretary, Fiona. Dakin uses this information to blackmail the Headmaster into allowing Hector to keep his job.

    After Hector hears the news, Dakin wants to share a motorcycle ride in celebration. However, the Headmaster forbids this, ordering Irwin to ride with Hector instead. The motorcycle crashes while driving, killing Hector and leaving Irwin permanently bound to a wheelchair. The cause of the accident is never revealed. The play ends at Hector's funeral, where all the boys remember him fondly, despite all that has happened. Mrs Lintott reveals that the majority of the group have gone on to be very successful, although Posner leads an isolated existence and Timms has turned to drugs.

    The History Boys: book

    The History Boys is a comedy drama.

    A comedy drama is a work that ties elements of drama and comedy together. The genre is sometimes known as a dramedy. Dramedies can have dark and serious moments that are interrupted or subverted by jokes and humour. For example, The History Boys mixes the humour of the students' interactions with each other with the serious issue of Hector's inappropriate behaviour.

    The History Boys weaves both comedy and drama together throughout the play. The dialogue of the play can often be humorous, periodically lightening the mood, as seen in the below quote from one of the students, Rudge. However, this is juxtaposed with the heavy and dark topics that Bennett's play addresses. Hector's molestation of his students and their acceptance of it is a particularly shocking aspect of the play. Issues of class, sexuality, and struggling to find your place in the world are also explored. Juxtaposing comedy and drama creates a balance in the play.

    How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another. (Rudge, Act 2)

    The History Boys: themes

    The History Boys explores what life was like for a group of mostly working-class teenage boys in the 1980s against the background of university applications and emerging sexualities. Below are key themes from the play.

    Sexuality

    Sexuality is key in The History Boys as the characters come of age and explore their identities. Sexuality in the play is significantly investigated through the two LGBTQ+ students, Posner and Dakin. Both struggle with their sexualities in 1980s Britain, an often homophobic society in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Posner is able to admit his sexuality to both himself and Irwin, seeking out a confidante.

    However, Dakin has a more complicated relationship with his identity. He sleeps with the Headmaster's secretary, Fiona, but is also attracted to Irwin. He even goes as far as to proposition Irwin and ask him out for a drink. Irwin, on the other hand, experiences same-sex attraction that he represses. It is likely societal homophobia has made it difficult for him to accept himself.

    There was a significant and sustained struggle for improved LGBTQ+ rights in 1980s Britain. The gay rights movement had been active since the 1960s, but there was still extensive discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity. This was exacerbated by the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s.

    The virus HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) began to be passed between humans during this time. It attacks the body's immune system, developing into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which typically proved to be fatal at the time as effective treatments had not yet been developed. The LGBTQ+ community were particularly impacted by AIDS, with countless people losing their lives. Mainstream media and governments demonised the community, portraying them as an infectious danger to others and providing insufficient medical assistance.

    The darker side of human sexuality is shown through the character of Hector. He behaves inappropriately towards his students, molesting them on his motorcycle. The Headmaster condemns Hector's behaviour, but through the intervention of one of his students, Hector is allowed to remain as a teacher. This is a surprising turn of events for an audience who would often expect this type of behaviour to have consequences for Hector. Bennett shows that those who do wrong sometimes go unpunished.

    Education

    Education is also central in The History Boys. There are various teaching styles presented in the play, with no definitive answer given on which one is most effective. Hector believes that learning, especially of literature, can be used to enhance later life. He teaches his students to learn from quotes and poems that they can take lessons from in order to help them with difficulties and heartbreaks later on in. Hector sees the goal of learning as gaining wisdom.

    The History Boys, a blackboard with a desk and chair in front of it, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Different teaching styles are juxtaposed in the play.

    Both the Headmaster and Irwin have a very different approach. They are more focused on academic success and getting into a prestigious university. Irwin advises the boys to take unconventional and attention-grabbing positions in their entrance exams in order to catch the examiner's eye. This seems disingenuous and fake to Hector.

    All the boys go on to be accepted into either Oxford or Cambridge, and the majority of them lead successful lives. However, it is unclear which, if any, teacher helped them achieve this. Some of the boys question Irwin's methods which may suggest they did not implement them in their academic careers. On the other hand, Posner drops out of university and spends his life isolated and struggling. It seems that the educational wisdom that Hector made him memorise was not useful in this case.

    Alan Bennett: The History Boys

    Alan Bennet was born on 9th May 1934 in Leeds. He attended Oxford University, studying history. Bennett remained in academia for a time, making money by lecturing. However, he eventually decided that the profession was not for him. In 1960, Bennett performed as part of a group at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a world-renowned arts festival. This performance was very well received and launched Bennett into a career in theatre and entertainment.

    Bennett created multiple sketch comedy shows for the BBC, including On the Margin (1966) and Talking Heads (1988). He also wrote numerous plays, many of which were highly acclaimed. Single Spies (1990) won a Laurence Olivier award, and The Madness of George III (1992) was also nominated for an Olivier award. The History Boys (2004) was one of Bennett's most successful works to date, winning a Tony award for Best Play. The following year Bennett made The History Boys into a well-received film.

    Today, Bennett lives in London with his partner, Rupert Thomas. He has become a respected figure in the theatrical world. Bennett is still writing, with his last play, Allelujah!, being put on in London in 2018.

    The History Boys: quotes

    In a play such as The History Boys, dialogue is key. It contributes to both the dramatic and comedic moments in the play text. Below are important quotes from Bennett's play.

    QuoteLocationExplanation
    'Posner envied Dakin his navel and all the rest of him. That this envy might amount to love does not yet occur to Posner, as to date it has only caused him misery and dissatisfaction.'Act 1.These lines are said by Scripps, one of the students. They show Posner's struggles with his sexuality and his attraction to Dakin. He cannot yet understand his feelings, misidentifying them as something else.
    'Mr. Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam, sir. It’s to make us more rounded human beings.'Act 1.This is how Timms describes Hector's teaching style. He cares little for academia and exams. Instead, Hector believes he is using great works of literature to impart wisdom upon his students that they can use in later life. He even forbids his students from using certain materials for their exams.
    'Pass it on, boys. That's the game I wanted you to learn.'Act 2.These lines come at the end of the play, said by a ghostly Hector. This is the message he believes he has been passing on to his students. Hector sees the key purpose of knowledge as something to be passed on from generation to generation.

    The History Boys - Key takeaways

    • The History Boys is a 2004 play written by Alan Bennett.
    • It follows a group of teenage boys in 1980s Britain as they struggle with sexuality and university admissions.
    • The History Boys is a comedy drama.
    • Two key themes in the play are sexuality and education.
    • Alan Bennett is a well-known figure in the worlds of theatre and entertainment, having won multiple commendations, including Olivier awards and Tonys.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The History Boys

    What happened in The History Boys?

    In the play, all the students try and succeed in getting into Oxbridge with the help of Hector and Irwin's teaching.

    What is the message of The History Boys?

    The History Boys shows the unpredictability and unexpectedness of everyday life. Despite any expectations, all the boys get into their chosen university and despite his inappropriate behaviour, Hector keeps his job, supported by the students he has abused.

    Is The History Boys based on fact?

    No, the play is fiction.

    Who were the original History Boys?

    The students in The History Boys consists of Dakin, Posner, Scripps, Rudge, Akthar, Crowther, Lockwood, and Timms.

    Who is the narrator in The History Boys?

    Scripps is the primary narrator in the play.

    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team The History Boys Teachers

    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App