Summary of Act One, Scenes 1 – 4:
[Act One: Scene 1 (pg.3), Scene 2 (pg. 8), Scene 3 (pg. 12), Scene 4 (pg. 17)]
Act 1 opens with Irwin (in his 40s and wheelchair-bound) advising some MPs about how to employ his journalistic style of argumentation in order to sell the public on a controversial bill.
After that, Hector comes onto an empty stage wearing motorcycle gear, and eight 16 and 17-year old male students strip off his eccentric attire and help him into his jacket and bow-tie.
The History Boys takes place in Northern England in the 1980s. The setting shifts to a sixth-form classroom. Hector congratulates his students on passing their A-Levels and welcomes them back to school, where they will be preparing for their university entrance examinations. Hector is ambivalent about the course in General Studies to which he has been assigned, calling it a "waste of time" (5). He also disapproves of the boys’ common goal to earn a spot in either Oxford or Cambridge; he encourages them to consider other institutions instead. Lockwood, however, speaks for all of the boys when he says that an Oxbridge education is a "tried and tested" goal (6). We learn that Timms is outspoken; Scripps is the most pious of the boys.
In the staff room, Mr. Felix Armstrong (the school's Headmaster) and Mrs. Lintott, the history teacher, discuss the "Oxbridge boys" - they have never had so many students with such excellent A-Level scores before. The Headmaster commends Mrs. Lintott for teaching the boys so well, but he believes that they lack the necessary polish for admittance into the top-tier schools. Hector enters, and he admits that he tried to get into Oxford but was rejected; he went to Sheffield instead. Mrs. Lintott went to Durham. Both teachers bemoan the fact that intelligence is no longer enough to secure a spot at one of Britain's finest institutions.
Outside, Irwin (aged 25) enters the school. In an aside, Scripps takes note of the stranger's youthful appearance and wonders about his mysterious arrival. In private, the Headmaster briefs Irwin, who will fulfill the role of a "supply teacher." Irwin's only role is to prepare the boys for their Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews that will take place in three months. The Headmaster informs Irwin that Rudge is the one "oddity" (11) in the group because he has no hope of attaining a desirable placement. Besides Rudge, though, the Headmaster thinks that the rest of the boys have potential. He informs Irwin that if he is successful in coaching the boys to scholarships and thus, bringing prestige to the school, he will be eligible for a permanent position there. The Headmaster has arranged for Irwin to give the boys three lessons a week.
The third scene begins in the middle of one of Hector’s lessons. The boys are practicing the subjunctive tense in French by acting as if they are in a Parisian brothel. Dakin is playing a client being serviced by a prostitute and, as part of the act, Dakin removes his pants. The Headmaster (with Irwin in tow) interrupts the lesson just as Timms is about to simulate giving Dakin oral sex.
The boys quickly conjure up a lie to appease the startled Headmaster, claiming to be play-acting a scene that takes place in a World War I military hospital. Irwin participates in the scenario, adding that Dakin has been wounded in battle and is now suffering from shell-shock. The Headmaster eventually pauses the exercise and informs Hector about the new teaching arrangement with Irwin; Hector is furious.
At the end of the lesson, Scripps agrees to go on a motorcycle ride with Hector. After Scripps and Hector leave, the remaining boys discuss Hector’s mysterious process of selecting boys for motorcycle rides. After that, it is time for Irwin's first lesson. Almost immediately, Irwin questions the way the boys have learned to approach essay writing, calling their work dull. He warns them not to bore the examiners, who will be wading through hundreds of essays. Irwin is also quite open about his disdain for the injustice of the university preparation process, which has been exacerbated by the inequities in British secondary schooling. Over the course of this scene, we learn that Posner is Jewish and Akhtar is Muslim. Meanwhile, Dakin reveals that he is seeing Fiona, the Headmaster's secretary.
Analysis of Act One, Scenes 1 – 4:
The opening scene of the play takes place in the future, with a 40-year old wheelchair-bound Irwin talking to a group of MPs. This helps to establish Irwin's style of arguing. He is advising the MPs on how to present a bill that will abolish trial by jury in "at least half the cases that currently come before the courts." He encourages the MPs to give this rather disturbing news a positive spin by claiming that the bill "does not diminish the liberty of the subject but amplifies it" (3). In addition to introducing Irwin's habit creatively framing certain historical facts to achieve a desired result, this brief scene also mirrors the set-up of the committee that will assess the boys' viva voce examinations later in the play.
Bennett's characterization of Irwin is defined by his employment of various rhetorical strategies to make controversial arguments regarding historical events. In this way, Irwin is the most progressive of the boys' two teachers, even though he is willing to help the boys prepare for their examinations while Hector finds the Oxbridge ritual to be outdated. Irwin teaches the boys his preferred method of attacking a historical question; he tells them to argue an unpopular opinion (i.e. the United States was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor) as a way of shocking the examiners and grabbing their attention. Though Irwin's method is decidedly unorthodox, a few of the boys take to his lessons and begin to craft arguments in Irwin’s style.
This idea of having to entertain the examiners rather than just impress them with intellect alone speaks more to the educational climate than it does to Irwin’s teaching style or even the boys’ preparedness for the exam. Despite their impressive A-Level scores, the Headmaster believes that the boys need “polish;" their applications will have to be flashy if they have a chance of gaining entrance into Oxford or Cambridge. This suggests that the competition for spots at top-tier universities has become impossibly intense for students at public schools. The Headmaster knows this; it is the reason he hires young Irwin in the first place. Mrs. Lintott's straightforward style of teaching is no longer enough.
In his introduction to The History Boys, Bennett describes attending Leeds Modern School in the 1950s, "a state school which... regularly sent boys on to Leeds University but seldom to Oxford or Cambridge" (vii). Though he was always a good student, Bennett credits his acceptance to Oxford to the 'Oxbridge lessons' that the Leeds Headmaster introduced. Similarly, Irwin also suggests that knowledge alone is not sufficient to earn the boys in the play a place at one of these hallowed institutions. Bennett therefore presents the need for state school students to supplement their education as a contrast to private school students who have been groomed to get into into top-tier universities since primary school.
Bennett chose to set The History Boys in the 1980s because it was when "people seemed to think the system had changed" (xx). The Headmaster's conversation with Mrs. Lintott about their school's dismal acceptance statistics in previous years reflects the realities of Britain's educational climate at that time; a disproportionately low number of public school students were matriculating to Oxford and Cambridge. In response to this pattern, Bennett writes, "I'm old fashioned enough to believe that private education should long since have been abolished and that Britain has paid too high a price in social inequality for its public schools" (xxi). However, he is not hopeful that such a thing will ever happen. His cynicism is therefore reflected throughout the play.