The main theme of The History Boysis the purpose of education. Throughout the play, various characters question the best method for educating the titular boys. Hector and the Headmaster embody the two most extreme sides of the debate. While the Headmaster believes that education is just the means to an end, the end being entrance to a top-tier university, Hector believes that education is the end in and of itself. Irwin and Mrs. Lintott fall more in the middle of the spectrum, though both are willing to do what is necessary to prepare the students for their examinations. Overall, Bennett presents a cynical view about the state of British education.
Bennett explores the theme of financial inequality in The History Boys by exposing the unfairness of private education. The playwright has openly said that inequities between public and private schools lead to disparities in university acceptances, which in turn effectively maintain an antiquated hierarchy in British society. The boys in the play are intelligent enough to succeed at Oxbridge (nearly all of them do), thanks to Mrs. Lintott's teachings. However, they require additional "polish" in order to bring them up to the same level as their private-schooled peers, who have been preparing for these examinations their whole lives. In this way, Bennett draws attention to the injustice of the system; wealthy students will always have the upper hand.
Hidden sexuality bubbles beneath the surface of Act I and then becomes a focal point of Act II. At least four characters have homosexual inclinations, and three of them suffer from internal strife as a result. Though attitudes in England about homosexuality in the 1980s were much more progressive than in prior decades, it was a far-from-hospitable time for people who identified as being on the LGBTQ spectrum. Bennett presents the struggle to come to terms with one's sexuality from two different viewpoints. First, we see it from the perspective of teenage boys (primarily Posner) at the dawn of their sexual desire, with all of the awkwardness that comes with adolescent yearning. The second experience is that of older men (Hector and Irwin) who have been conditioned by society to repress their natural inclinations. Hector is married to a woman and resorts to fondling his teenage students on motorcycle rides, while Irwin remains completely mum on the subject of his sexuality. Both men are therefore lonely.
Alan Bennett has said that one of the reasons he wrote The History Boys is because he does not know if there is such a thing as absolute historical truth (Telegraph), and he explores this question through the different approaches of the boys' teachers. Mrs. Lintott's job is to give the boys as much straightforward historical fact as possible, and she does so as best she can. However, simply learning these facts is not enough to achieve Oxbridge glory, as Hector, Irwin, and the Headmaster repeatedly insist. Hector tries to teach the boys how to revere knowledge in hopes that it will help them succeed after they have left the bubble of academia. Irwin trains them how to detach themselves from history and present the facts in a new and exciting way, simply for the sake of attaining a desired result. Mrs. Lintott's traditional methods fail to give the boys the "polish" they need to get ahead, while Irwin's approach is ultimately more suited to a career as a journalist. As for Hector, he dies, which, as Rudge points out, allows history to safely patronize him. Ultimately, Bennett does not present a concrete opinion about the existence of absolute truth - instead, the play concludes that despite the best-laid plans, "history is just one fucking thing after another."
Bennett highlights the gender divide in his depiction of female characters in The History Boys. The men in the play all treat the women around them as subordinates. Fiona only exists in the words of Dakin and Mrs. Lintott - she never actually makes an appearance on stage. And even then, Dakin never speaks about her human attributes; he is only interested in having sex with her. Mrs. Lintott says that Hector has a wife, but she is unnamed and never appears; Hector himself never mentions her. The boys seem to only have the capacity to see women as sex objects, as evinced by their hapless staging of a scene in a French brothel. However, Mrs. Lintott does get one chance to tell the men around her what she thinks - that history consists of men who make terrible decisions while the women are left to pick up the pieces. Indeed, this proves to be the case of the women in The History Boys. All of the men move on in one way or another, leaving the women to clean up after them. Mrs. Lintott retires, her contributions to the boys' success never truly celebrated. Fiona is never mentioned after the term ends. Hector's unnamed wife is left a widow after her husband dies in a motorcycle accident.
Most of the twists and turns in the plot of The History Boys have to do with the pursuit of truth or the revelation of a hidden truth. Dakin satisfies his infatuation with Irwin by trying to visit his professor's old haunts at Cambridge directory, only to find that Irwin has been lying about where he went to school. Hector appears to be a heterosexual married man, but then it comes out that he has been fondling his male students. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lintott and Rudge are the most reliable purveyors of truth in the play. Both of them know their places in society, whether they like it or not. Rudge refuses to allow Mrs. Lintott to gloss over his working-class background, while Mrs. Lintott points out how unfairly women are treated - both historically and in the present. These characters know that they cannot change certain truths, but they do not deny them.
There is a lot of discussion in the play about what knowledge is actually useful. Hector believes that learning poetry "insulates" the students' minds. In an interview with Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner, the play's director, Hytner says, "Hector is the teacher who has no programme, who believes, to quote Housman, 'all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use' (Telegraph). As a result, Hector's lessons span from French language to poetry to English literature to old films. Irwin, however, only wants the students to prioritize knowledge that will be tangibly useful to them. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lintott simply wants to present the boys with facts and leave it to them to use this information as they will. The play ultimately does not endorse one viewpoint over another, as this is a complicated and age-old debate, especially when it comes to education. While at times, Bennett seems to favor Hector's approach, Hector clearly gets too invested in passing on knowledge for his own good (in the form of fondling the boys). Also, Rudge points out at the end of the play, Hector is out of touch with modern-day "poets" that will actually resonate emotionally with his students (like the Pet Shop Boys). Rudge describes Gracie Fields as "[Hector's] crap," while he calls the Pet Shop Boys "our crap" (104). This shows that just because Hector does not revere their lyrics does not mean that they are invaluable to learn.
The History Boys Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The History Boys is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The main theme of the play is the purpose of education. Throughout the play, various characters question the aims of their education. The two main sides of the debate are presented by Hector and the headmaster. While the headmaster believes that...