"Art wins in the end?"
by remotegoat reviewer for remotegoat on 27/05/15

What hope have I - lousy amateur hack wielding five hundred tired words - of doing justice to this first-rate production of The Nation’s Favourite Play?
That’s right, better than Hamlet or King Lear; more popular than An Inspector Calls or The Mouse Trap. Surely a daunting proposition for any company of players but Sell a Door have produced a triumph. This is brilliant, other superlatives seem, well, superlative.
What more is there to say? Life would be so much easier if they’d made a hash of things.
But what about the play? Quite right, the play’s the thing…
In a new school year in the 1980s a group of talented history students are starting their Oxbridge term; a term of coaching and preparation for Oxford or Cambridge entrance exams.
But these boys are not as others; they are more erudite, culturally aware, worldly wise, and sexually liberal. By lifting the boys from the mundane, Bennett creates a microcosm out of time allowing the staff to embody four different approaches to education.
Miss Lintott and the Headmaster shine their spotlights on two less prominent (in the play at least) ideas. For her education is imparting fact, no more and no less. If the boy can put down the correct answers in the correct order then the schooling is a success. For him, every decision is formed around league tables. The academic fate of individuals always subordinate to the numbers.
The real conflict is between the styles of Hector and Irwin.
Hector believes in knowledge for the sake of knowing. That learning and connecting the words and ideas of the past is worthwhile in itself. This not for any practical purpose, be clear on that, unless perhaps the forming of a rounded human be considered practical. Exam results and career success are immaterial besides knowing that one is not the first the feel as one feels and suffer as one suffers: to be part of the human tapestry. This is education of the heart. Hector’s lessons are anarchic and most of all fun, he understands the boys and has their respect. He is a familiar figure and we see echoes of Hector in school fiction from Rudyard Kipling to JK Rowling.
For Irwin it’s a game and all about getting on. Intellectual sincerity and truth are subordinate to presentation. Better to argue unconventional and controversial points, however trite or superficial, than to state a genuine – but ordinary – opinion, however well-reasoned. This is education as a system.
Irwin’s approach may be less attractive than Hector’s, but its practicality is hard to deny. One cannot say he is wrong, even if one wishes it. So, The History Boys is not only about the purpose of education, it is also about the society we have built: as we see in the fate of the boys, especially the fabulous Posner; the only one to cleave to Hector’s teaching and live from the heart.
Funny, warm and thought-provoking: I say again, just brilliant.

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