The History Boys

The History Boys Summary and Analysis of Act One: Scenes 9 – 12

Summary of Act One, Scenes 9 – 12:

[Act One: Scene 9 (pg.34), Scene 10 (pg. 41), Scene 11 (pg. 43), Scene 12 (pg. 44)]

In the classroom, the boys are questioning Irwin about his personal life. Irwin will only share the fact that he lives on the outskirts of town and, ignoring their other questions, he begins his lesson. He tells the boys that studying Henry VIII will help them to understand Stalin, Margaret Thatcher, and Hollywood, among other historically pertinent issues. In an aside, Posner tells the audience that Irwin’s unconventional approach to history will one day lead Irwin to a career as a well-known historical journalist.

Back in the classroom, Irwin asks the boys about Hector’s teaching methods. He is particularly interested to know why Hector locks the door when he teaches. The boys explain that Hector's closed-door policy is for protecting the boys from the forces of progress that lie outside. As the lesson continues, the boys explain to Irwin that Hector's lessons are fun but scattered; he is not teaching them information that will help them pass their Oxbridge exams. Irwin, always the contrarian, tries to show the boys that what Hector has taught them can be useful for their exams, but they resist his advice. They demonstrate to Irwin what they have learned in Hector's class by reciting lines from the film Brief Encounter. Irwin is both frustrated and impressed.

The next scene takes place in the staff room; Mrs. Lintott asks Irwin about his interactions with the students. Irwin tells Mrs. Lintott that Posner has confessed his homosexuality to him. Posner also asked Irwin for advice about his unrequited love for Dakin. According to Irwin, Dakin is aware of Posner’s affections, but likes girls. Irwin's conversations with Mrs. Lintott and Posner take place simultaneously; Irwin skirts the question of his own sexuality in both interactions.

Irwin then reveals Posner’s plan to win Dakin’s heart by getting into Cambridge. Scene 11 picks up with Posner speaking to Irwin again. This time he is telling Irwin what really happens in Hector’s lessons. Yet again, Irwin asks Posner why Hector locks the door to his classroom, but Posner does not answer him. Posner attempts to return to the topic of Dakin, but Irwin does not take the bait. Irwin tells Posner that his infatuation will pass and that he is too acquiescent.

The next scene consists of an interaction between Scripps and Dakin. It begins with Scripps singing a verse from the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Then, Scripps discusses his faith with Dakin. Dakin asks Scripps if he masturbates. Scripps replies that he does not because he is waiting for marriage. Scripps then compares God’s love for people to Posner’s love for Dakin because both are unrequited. The two boys go on to discuss T.S. Eliot and the painter Piero Della Francesca. Dakin speaks at length about the things he has already learned from Irwin. It is clear that Dakin is inspired by Irwin’s unorthodox teaching style.

Analysis of Act One, Scenes 9 – 12:

The dominant theme in this part of the play is secret sexual desire. Scene 9 begins with Irwin’s reluctance to reveal personal details about himself. In subsequent scenes, other characters attempt to conceal information and speak in half-truths. Irwin is consistent in his opaqueness, which is evident in his unwillingness to answer the boys' questions about his life outside of school and Mrs. Lintott's queries about his sexuality.

Meanwhile, Hector’s locked door is a metaphor for this secrecy. Several characters offer Irwin explanations as to why Hector locks his classroom door, and although there is no consensus, there is a consistent pattern in their responses. Hector allegedly locks his door to conceal certain things from the Headmaster and the other teachers - like inappropriate classroom behavior (i.e. teaching class when a student is not wearing pants). Though Hector keeps his one major secret hidden, he is more transparent than Irwin. When interacting with his boys, Hector is truthful about his opinions. His behavior is unfiltered; he hits the boys when he is angry and he curses when he is displeased.

Irwin's references to Henry VIII are (quite intentional) allusions to Bennett's underlying themes of sexuality and sexual desire; King Henry VIII was one of the most notorious womanizers in European history. ”The king's sexual appetite was legendary,” and in addition to having frequent relations with his multiple wives, he reportedly sought sexual encounters outside of his marital bed. The reference to Henry VIII is therefore an appropriate metaphor for Hector's relationship because he also engages in sexual behavior with someone other than his wife. Furthermore, the film Brief Encounter is about two married people who fall in love but cannot pursue their relationship.

As for the boys' secrets, Irwin reveals to Mrs. Lintott that Posner is attracted to Dakin. Bennett chooses to portray Posner and Irwin's conversation in the past tense while Irwin is recounting the encounter to Mrs. Lintott. This composite scene underlines the irony that even though Irwin is tight-lipped about his own sexuality, he freely discusses Posner’s. Meanwhile, Posner is frustrated by his unrequited love for Dakin, who is supposedly straight. Still, Posner idealistically hopes that getting into Cambridge will help him to win Dakin's affections. Irwin is more cynical, however, and advises Posner to let it go.

Meanwhile, Dakin has become infatuated with Irwin, which becomes clear in his conversation with Scripps. Irwin has awakened a spark in Dakin, who admits that his new instructor is the "one who [has] made [Dakin] realize that [he is] allowed to think like that." Scripps agrees and encourages his friend to "think the unthinkable" (47). In addition, Dakin is trying to impress Irwin by reading Nietzsche; he is mortified when he realizes he mispronounced the philosopher's name.