The History Boys

The History Boys Summary and Analysis of Act Two: Scenes 5 – 8

Summary of Act Two, Scenes 5 – 8:

[Act Two: Scene 5 (pg. 75), Scene 6 (pg. 77), Scene 7 (pg. 79), Scene 8 (pg. 82)]

Irwin and Hector recap the lesson they have just co-taught. Hector is irate after witnessing Irwin's teaching methods firsthand. Irwin, by contrast, thinks that the lesson went well. When Dakin and Scripps enter the classroom, a defeated Hector leaves the two of them alone with Irwin.

Dakin, Irwin, and Hector discuss different teaching philosophies. Dakin then flirts with Irwin while Scripps looks on. When Irwin finally leaves, Dakin tells Scripps how he feels about Irwin. Also, it turns out that Fiona has informed the boys about the nature of Hector's departure. Meanwhile, the Headmaster is drilling Irwin about a letter of complaint he has received from Posner's parents about the manner in which Irwin speaks about the Holocaust. The Posners are angry with Irwin's insinuation that The Holocaust can be viewed as a policy decision. Irwin tries to defend his methods, but the Headmaster commands him to write a letter of apology.

Later, Irwin asks Posner if he tells his parents everything that goes on in school. Posner says that he didn't mean to upset anyone but his dad often gets curious about what his son is learning. Finally, Irwin accepts responsibility for the complaint and agrees to apologize.

Back in the classroom, Dakin and Scripps are talking about Dakin’s feelings for Irwin. Scripps notices that Dakin is starting to take on a number of Irwin’s characteristics. Dakin admits that he is having sex with Fiona, but apparently his constant talk about Irwin has started to annoy her. Eventually, Dakin shares with Scripps that he likes Irwin, while Posner agonizes over his unrequited feelings for Dakin.

In the next scene, Hector, Irwin, and Mrs. Lintott stage a mock examination board so that the boys can practice for their interviews. During this process, Mrs. Lintott shares what she thinks about the role of women in history and points out that women have been systematically excluded from political decision-making.

Mrs. Lintott says that history is rife with inept men who need women to clean up after them. The boys behave awkwardly during and after her speech; they are taken aback by her uncharacteristic monologue. When it is Rudge’s turn to be examined, he resists all of his teachers' advice, preferring instead to be his authentic self. Irwin closes out this lesson by reminding the boys that they will be up against candidates who are better educated.

Analysis of Act Two, Scenes 5 – 8:

Not much happens in these scenes by way of plot, but this section of the play is crucial to the development of these characters in light of the conflicts that arise in Act I. Hector finally begins to understand that he is fighting a losing battle. Dakin gets bolder in his pursuit of Irwin; and Irwin’s unorthodox lessons lead to unintended negative consequences. Each of these characters experiences an important turning point.

As Hector speaks to Irwin about their first joint lesson, he laments the fact that the boys did not respond to Irwin's questions as they do to Hector's. Instead of competing to recite the most appropriate quote and generally trying to outdo one another, the boys are now only concerned about how to best excel on their Oxbridge entrance examinations. Hector expresses his disappointment when he says, “I thought I was lining their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact. Instead back come my words like a Speak Your Weight Machine” (75). He thinks that Irwin and the Headmaster have turned the boys into robots only capable of parroting responses that will help them succeed on their Oxbridge exams.

Hector’s disdain towards Irwin's method of exam preparation is nothing new, but after the joint lesson, he finally realizes that the boys have succumbed to Irwin's ways of thinking; they now believe that getting into Oxbridge is their most important priority. Dakin's actions embody this shift in allegiance when he turns down going to Hector's office in favor of staying behind to talk to Irwin. When Hector says, "It's time I went," (75) he is essentially conceding to Irwin's style of teaching - even if he is not yet ready to admit it to Dakin.

Meanwhile, Dakin's romantic goals have changed, too. He has finally "conquered" Fiona, though he clearly does not feel any tenderness towards her. Their sexual encounter has not changed the way Dakin talks about Fiona; he equates their tryst with signing the Treaty of Versailles. In contrast, Dakin speaks about Irwin with respect. He cares deeply about earning Irwin's confidence and admits his feelings for his instructor to Posner.

Irwin also has a pivotal realization in this section when he is forced to face criticism for his actions. After Posner's parents complain about Irwin's perspective on the Holocaust, Irwin has no choice but to apologize. In this way, Bennett emphasizes Hector's belief that learning cannot simply be for the purposes of passing an exam. Irwin must consider the fact that his students will need to be savvy enough to navigate the world outside of Oxbridge preparation. Since the audience already knows that Irwin will leave academia in the future, the confrontation between Irwin and the Headmaster carries additional weight - Irwin will find that his methods are better suited to other arenas.