The History Boys & Fine Teachers RememberedFriday, October 03, 2008
Harold Pinter wrote his first play, The Room in 1957. One year later my English teacher at St Edward's High School, in Austin, Texas, Brother Dunstan Bowles C.S.C (Congregation of the Holy Cross) was reading the play to us in class and telling us of this "exciting and new" playwright. I have my doubts that the conventional school sytem of the city and its English teachers even knew of the significance of eventual Nobel Winner (2005) English playwright. The reason we knew is that our school (which just happened to be a Roman Catholic school) had extraordinary teachers and we obtained an extraordinary education.
Many of those teachers linger in my heart and they are a combination of all the talents (and perhaps a few of the faults) of English teacher, Hector ( played so beautifully by Bernard Cuffling) in Bennett's 2005 play The History Boys. We saw it performed by the Arts Club Theatre Company at the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday. The History Boys has some of the good points (a few) of the James Bridges 1973 film The Paper Chase, and even some good ones (very few) from Animal House . Best of all this cerebral play has in Bernard Cuffling not that stuffy Houseman (John) but one who can freely quote the other Housman, A.E.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
`Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.'
But I was one-and-twenty
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
`The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.'
And I am two-and-twenty
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
A Shropshire Lad, XIII, A.E. Housman
The 8 likable and fairly well adjusted young boys (almost men) of the Sheffield grammar school in the 80s brought me fond memories of 11 boys I had met and photographed back in November 1983 at St. George's School in Vancouver. I had been assigned by Vancouver Magazine editor, Malcolm Parry to accompany writer Don McLellan. I immediately realized that my take of this premier Vancouver private school was going to be in direct oposition to McLellan's. He had never gone to a private school and I had. He saw the boys as rich and privileged (which they were). I determined then that somehow I was not going to attempt my usual objectivity in my approach of the photography and I was going to make all my pictures of the boys, rosy and pleasant to compensate for the expected ( I never read the article because I was afraid to do so). I was most proud of the cover and years later at my eldest daughter's graduation from York House some the boys (now men) approached me with smiles on their faces.
I felt these same emotions of pleasure and excitement of attending a good class with a good teacher in a good school as I watched The History Boys in action. Every single boy was dead on his part and I immediately gave them the names of some of my ex classmates from school.
All of the boys, but one, are testicularly groped by Hector while riding with him on his motorcycle to some undisclosed destination. In the end Hector is found out (most knew anyway but looked the other way) and the ending incorporates a tidy one that somehow does not punish Hector for his lapse in morality. It is fate that punishes Hector with finality.
As I watched this play I remember a friend whose husband was assassinated (both were very young) during the regime of a dictatorial and military government. My friend has paraded having been the wife of the man and talked about this experience during all her life. She joins organizations that trumpet human rights of the left and close thereof. This is her cause. But she is a modern member of the new left as her credit cards are ready to help her consume. Irwin, Hector's assistant would probably have advised her, "Read about Henry VIII then forget and push on!"
If any one of those boys from Sheffield had been living here and had had their testicles groped I am sure we would be paying still for all kinds of treatment, and having to read all kinds of revealing biographies of having to have lived with the shame.
Surely both the play and the above paragraph are two extremes. The former one is a laissez fair approach while in the latter it never ends.
In Bennett's play everybody gets his eventual reward even the cynical Irwin (played by Irwin, and oh! so handsome when he removes his glasses). Is is touching? Is it symmetrical? Is it, that only the boy who is not groped Posner (nicely played by Daniel Karasik) somehow does not become the success that all his peers become?
The History Boys had all kinds of comic touches which I am sure are direct injections from Vancouver's funniest director and one of its funniest actors (watch out Donald Adams!), Dean Paul Gibson seen above left.
As I left home I imagined Gibson playing Irwin and wondered if he would have handled handsome and troublesome Dakin (played with gusto by Charlie Carrick) any better?
The History Boys runs until October 25.