The History Boys

The History Boys Summary and Analysis of Act Two: Scenes 1 – 4

Summary of Act Two, Scenes 1 – 4:

[Act Two: Scene 1 (pg.58), Scene 2 (pg. 63), Scene 3 (pg. 67), Scene 4 (pg. 70)]

Five years in the future, Irwin, who is in a wheelchair, is narrating a television program about the Rievaulx Abbey. During a break, a man approaches Irwin and Irwin recognizes him as one of his former students. The man is a Cambridge dropout who is writing a story about his time as Irwin's student and the scandal surrounding Hector's departure. The man, who turns out to be Posner, pressures Irwin to admit that something happened between him and Dakin. Irwin realizes that Posner is wearing a microphone; Posner pleads with Irwin for a quote, claiming that the newspaper will not publish the story without Irwin's input. Irwin is angry at Posner and wheels himself away. Before he leaves, Posner asks Irwin to sign one of his books, and he coldly acquiesces.

The next scene goes back in time to Hector's classroom. Hector, who is irritable, announces that the Headmaster has decided that Hector and Irwin will be teaching lessons together from now on. However, the boys are in jovial moods and fail to understand the gravity of Hector's announcement. This wears thin on Hector, so he screams at the boys and dismisses class. The boys are frozen in shock; Hector starts crying. Finally realizing that Hector is serious, Posner awkwardly rubs his teacher's back. In an aside, Scripps shares his regret for not being the one to comfort Hector. The boys are embarrassed by Hector's outburst but they end the lesson on a high note by playing their movie guessing game.

The next scene consists of a conversation between the Headmaster and Mrs. Lintott. The Headmaster points out Hector's numerous failings as a teacher. He then admits that he is almost glad that Hector was caught "handling his pupils' balls" (68) because it has given the Headmaster a justifiable reason to fire him. In an aside, Mrs. Lintott shares her distaste for the Headmaster. Irwin enters and reveals that he thinks Hector is a good teacher.

In Scene Four, Hector and Irwin teach their first joint lesson. The topic of discussion is World War II, specifically focusing on how the boys should approach the subject of the Holocaust on their exams. Hector interrupts Irwin while he is teaching to question how they can possibly analyze the historical significance of the Holocaust without demeaning the victims' suffering. Irwin tries to frame Hitler’s actions against the political climate of Germany during that time, but Hector vehemently disagrees with his colleague's approach. Posner is also mildly offended because he is Jewish and some of his relatives died during the Holocaust. The lesson ends abruptly.

Analysis of Act Two, Scenes 1 – 4:

In the first four scenes of Act Two, the mood is regretful. The act begins some time in the future with Posner (now a journalist) coming to see Irwin. It quickly becomes apparent that as a grown man, Posner is disillusioned and unhappy; he dropped out of Cambridge and is living a directionless life. Irwin is also regretful, which comes through in his answers to Posner's questions. He admits to being interested in Dakin but claims that nothing ever happened between them. It is not clear at this point if he is telling the truth; Irwin is certainly very private throughout the play, but he also is guilty of making false claims. Nevertheless, he becomes irate when Posner questions him about Dakin and his tone throughout the scene is decidedly bitter.

In this flash-forward, Bennett brings his reader/audience closer to unraveling the mystery of what transpired during the boys' final term. We learn that Posner, at least, did get into Cambridge - but he dropped out. This tidbit foreshadows the tragic ending and the play's overall message that getting into Oxbridge at any cost is not necessarily a foolproof ticket to a successful and/or happy life.

Despite his admission to Cambridge, Posner has clearly been unable to overcome certain events from his past, which is reinforced by the fact that he has come to grill Irwin about his relationship with Dakin after so many years. Posner is looking for answers to questions that shouldn't be relevant to his life anymore. The theme of living in the past is further underscored by the fact that Irwin is repeating the same words on his television program that he used years before while teaching his students about Henry VIII.

The play then shifts back in time. After being caught fondling his students, Hector’s regrets are overwhelming. He is “somber and distracted” while announcing that he and Irwin will be sharing lessons. However, the boys do not understand the gravity of Hector's bad mood. This is likely because Hector's teaching style has always been erratic and he clearly does not respect physical boundaries. He hits the students and they also know what to expect when he offers them rides on his motorcycle.

It is not until Hector starts crying that the boys begin to comprehend that something serious is happening. At this point, the boys become embarrassed and seek to comfort Hector. Hector’s regret for his actions is evident in his distant demeanor towards his students and his refusal to take any more boys on his motorbike. Meanwhile, Scripps expresses his own regret for not being the one to comfort Hector, but rather, writing down his recollection of the experience much later on. This establishes Scripps as the de facto narrator of this story; he is the one who is still interested in exploring the events of this time and he also has the professional skills to do so.