Summary of Act One, Scenes 5 – 8:
[Act One: Scene 5 (pg.22), Scene 6 (pg. 23), Scene 7 (pg. 29), Scene 8 (pg. 33)]
Scene 5 opens with Mrs. Lintott and Hector in the staff room, talking about Irwin. Mrs. Lintott claims that men are clever when it comes to history because they are good at telling tales. Hector observes that Dakin is attractive, but thinks that he seems sad. Mrs. Lintott disagrees with Hector’s assessment of Dakin, describing him as love-struck, not sad. The two instructors go on to compare and contrast their teaching styles. Mrs. Lintott has given the boys a traditional history education, while Hector has given them "the wherewithal to resist it" (23).
Scene 6 is set in Irwin’s classroom; he is leading the boys in a discussion about World War I. As the boys answer Irwin's questions, the young instructor gets a sense of what they have been learning from Hector and Mrs. Lintott. Once again, he finds their explanations to be dull. He emphasizes that the boys will need to impress and entertain the examiners rather than just regurgitating facts. He wants them to question the status quo, and is shocked to learn that all of the boys can recite Philip Larkin's poem, MCMXIV, from memory. After Irwin leaves, Dakin compares his struggle to have sex with Fiona to a war. This interaction flows into a scene in Hector's classroom, in which the general studies teacher explores the significance of poetry and the poetic significance of knocking (the latter lesson takes place while Irwin is knocking at the door). The poetry they are studying is traditional, and Timms bemoans its lack of significance to their daily lives.
The boys then launch into a guessing game for the last few minutes of Hector's class. Lockwood and Timms smoke cigarettes while acting out a scene from a movie, which Hector then has to identify. They choose a scene from the 1941 film Now, Voyager - a story about a woman’s struggle for independence from her domineering mother. The boys think that this selection will stump Hector, but he guesses it easily. Hector points out that the movie’s title comes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Scene 8 consists of a conversation between Mrs. Lintott and Rudge. Mrs. Lintott is curious about Irwin’s teaching style, and Rudge explains that Irwin's methods are the opposite of Mrs. Lintott’s. Rudge claims to prefer Mrs. Lintott's straightforward presentation of facts; he finds Irwin's free-form instruction to be overwhelming. Mrs. Lintott is surprised to hear that Irwin has mentioned the Carry On films as suitable viewing material for the boys. As the Carry On films are humorous and poke fun at various British institutions, Mrs. Lintott does not understand their academic significance. Rudge tells her that Irwin believes that the Carry On films will achieve a sort of artistic permanence and that George Orwell might have been a fan of them had he been alive when they came out.
Analysis of Act One, Scenes 5 – 8:
Bennett introduces the theme of sexuality in this section, even though its relevance to the plot is not fully fleshed out until Act Two. Dakin uses the metaphor of World War I to illustrate his struggle to have sex with Fiona. This metaphor recurs at several points throughout the play, and it demonstrates the boys’ limited concept of sexual relations.
In the metaphorical reimagining of Dakin and Fiona's relationship, Dakin refers to Fiona as “the Hun.” This term is offensive because it was a derogatory nickname for Germans during World War I. The British media often referred to the Germans as "Huns" in order to convey the image of Germans as barbaric; Dakin’s use of the term here underscores his lack of respect for women. The moment in which the boys are enacting a scene set in a French brothel further emphasizes their naïveté about women and romance in general.
Furthermore, Dakin frames his relationship with Fiona as a struggle; he is on offense while she is on the defense. The idea of sex as a conflict rather than a mutually beneficial experience reappears later on in the play when Dakin tries to win over Irwin. Posner points out the error in Dakin's portrayal of the situation by saying that Dakin is not conquering Fiona, but rather, she is carrying out a planned withdrawal. In this way, Posner attempts to reframe the relationship in Dakin's mind; instead of seeing Fiona as territory that he is trying to win over, Dakin should look at the situation as a negotiation in which Fiona is determining the progression of their physical relationship.
Throughout The History Boys, both the students and their teachers frequently use World War I as a way to prove or dismiss some more abstract concepts. Hector’s constant references to World War I are likely because if its significance to European literature. Irwin introduces the topic of World War I to classroom discussions in order to instruct the boys on how to write about the war in an original and imaginative way; he encourages them to look beyond the narrative that their traditional education and the British media have been adamantly enforcing.
Even Mrs. Lintott refers to World War I in this section. She makes an oblique reference to the Treaty of Versailles while she is complaining about the lack of women in political decision-making. The characters' use of World War I references to illustrate a variety of ideas reinforces the point that Irwin tries to make about the applicability of one historical event to a number of other topics. Irwin believes that history always repeats itself; we see him using the example of Henry VIII as a way of understanding certain historical events two times - fifteen years apart.