“The History Boys”

the_history_boysLast night I made my acting debut in the Tony Award winning play, “The History Boys.”  It’s the story of a small group of pupils in a British school who are being groomed for admission to Oxford and Cambridge.  The story follows this small group as they navigate through two very different teaching philosophies as well as their own sexuality.  Those of you who have seen the movie are aware of the mature content and may even be surprised that a high school has allowed it to be performed at all.  I am proud to say that I work in a school that strives to address controversial material in a mature and educational manner.  Needless to say, the weeks rehearsing have been challenging given the dialog between student and teacher, though in the end I think we’ve all learned something from one another about this thing called education.

Two scenes in particular stand out to me given my interest in historical memory.  The first takes place in a full classroom and the second between a teacher and student:

Scene 1

Scripps: But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it?  What has that got to do with anything?  Let’s go back to 1914 and I’ll put you a different case.  Try this for size.  Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it.  Though there’s no reason why we should want war.  Nothing in it for us.  Better stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings.  These are facts.  Why do we not care to acknowledge them?  The cattle, the body count.  We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died.  A photograph on every mantelpiece.  And all this mourning has veiled the truth.  It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember.  Because you should realise that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something that by commemorating it.

Scene 2

Posner: Hodge?

Hector: Mmm – the important thing is that he has a name.  Say Hardy is writing about the Zulu Wars or later the Boer War possibly, these were the first campaigns when soldiers…or common soldiers…were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.  Before this, soldiers…private soldiers anyway, were all unknown soldiers, and so far from being revered there was a firm in the nineteenth century, in Yorkshire of course, which swept up their bones from the battlefield of Europe in order to grind them into fertiliser.  So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer boy.  Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name.

8 comments… add one
  • Sherree Tannen May 1, 2009 @ 14:24

    Hi Bob,

    I am a huge fan of the Beatles, too. Penny Lane named for a slave trader? Oh my. I truly wonder what else we don’t know.

    Thanks for the suggestion concerning “Amazing Grace”. I will see it when I get the chance. Sherree

  • Kevin Levin May 1, 2009 @ 11:59


    Thanks for sharing that and for reminding me that I still need to see, “Amazing Grace”.

  • Bob Pollock May 1, 2009 @ 11:50


    Your comment reminded me of an article I read a few years ago regarding Penny Lane in Liverpool. It seems Penny Lane was named for a slave trader, and there was a suggestion that this was improper and should be changed. As a huge fan of the Beatles for most of my life, I was dismayed to learn that Penny Lane might cease to exist. (You can google Penny Lane slave trade, if you are interested.) Goes to show that problems of memory and historic commemoration are not limited to us “Yanks.” By the way, if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend “Amazing Grace.” It’s a great movie.

  • Mike May 1, 2009 @ 11:34

    Well Kevin Break a leg. Have fun I have been tempted to join our towns local theater but I have not found the time.

  • Kevin Levin May 1, 2009 @ 8:26


    At times it’s a bit over the top, but the bigger issues surrounding the various philosophies on education as well as the obsession with getting students into the top schools makes it an ideal play for a college-prep school. Perhaps you need to be in education to really appreciate it. Ultimately, it’s been a hell of a lot of fun.

    • WD Apr 16, 2012 @ 5:55

      Truly Kevin, watching this as an educator (my wife is an NBCT social studies teacher, and I’m a laid off social studies teacher) is a completely different experience than if you’ve only ever been a student. Great piece.

  • Harry May 1, 2009 @ 5:42

    Hector’s analysis of the Hardy poem was one of the bright spots of the film to me. While I found the overall story straining and pretentious, perhaps even straining to be pretentious, there are enough nuggets like this to make it worthwhile.

  • Sherree Tannen May 1, 2009 @ 5:20

    Those are powerful scenes, Kevin.

    I just read an article about the commemoration, in the 1990s, of the transatlantic slave trade in the British cities of Liverpool and Bristol. The author relates how two elderly viewers of an exhibit remark that they are shocked to discover that England was involved in the slave trade, since they thought that the slave trade was run by “The Yanks”. I don’t know how awareness has, or has not changed , in England in the past decade. Favorably, I think and hope. I didn’t quite know how to process that information. To these two rather pleasant British citizens, as I perceived them to be from the author’s description, England shared none of the history, or of the responsibility, for slavery. That involves a lot of nameless men and women, who would have remained nameless except for the determination and courage of their descendants. Rather reminiscent of the same situation across the pond.

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