THE HISTORY BOYS
Strange, I’d always rather figured Alan Bennet as a sort of grannyish writer (quite unfairly) who wrote about teapot warmers and antimacassars in the Dales. I don’t quite know where this image came from. After all he was one of those brilliant types from Beyond The Fringe back in the day. I suppose it was the way he looks and the rather disarming Yorkshire pur of him.
I was browsing in the National bookshop, thumbing through his diaries and found this comment about Holman Hunt’s famous picture of Jesus, The Shadow of Death:
” It’s not at all plain what Jesus is supposed to be doing, apart from casting the appropriate shadow; I suppose he’s meant to be stretching after a hard day’s work, but it hardly looks like that. What always used to puzzle me as a child was that apart from the hair on his head Jesus (I mean not merely this Jesus, but any Jesus) never had a stitch of hair anywhere else. Never a whisper of hair on that always angular chest; God seemed to have sent his only begotten son into the world with no hair whatsoever under his arms. This rang a bell with me , though, because I was a late developer and at 15 was longing for puberty. So Jesus’ pose here is exactly how I felt, crucified on the wall-bars during PE, displaying to my much more hirsute classmates my still unsullied armpits.”
How acidly sweet and seditiously English, I thought. Perhaps he’s not such a granny after all…
And the play was a revelation on the Bennet front. He’s quite a radical old bird – lots of judicious f-ing and blinding and more than a vial-full of political acid. I believe it’s playing on Broadway, it’s got a few more sold-out weeks at the National and there’s a feature film with the original cast coming out in October – so the clerk in the bookstore proudly informed me.
It has particular resonance with me as a gay man who went to an all boy’s school but everyone I know who’ve seen it – gay, straight, married, parent, grandparent – have loved it, so I guess it’s not too niche.
I don’t want to give away the story but it’s about a group of 17 year boys who, amongst other things, are studying to go up to pass the Oxbridge entrance exam. What’s masterful and rather radical about it is the way Bennet charmingly robs us of all our usual stereotypes about schooling. Especially in the current British climate – where the Press is having one of its cyclic fits about school teachers having affairs with underaged pupils – it’s so refreshing to see a play where all the boys are completely aware of their sexuality, completely able to manipulate the adults around them using it, and completely at ease discussing it with each other. (Whether or not that is strictly accurate is perhaps another debate…)
The sexual maturity is just one strand in a very rich theatrical swatch – but it struck me forcibly because I’m convinced a great part of live performance’s power comes from a sort of sexual charge that crackles loudly or softly across the proscenium arch.
We all can fancy film actors (pace Jake Gyllenhall) but the real presence of an attractive actor – and I use that word in its non-gender specific form – less than 30 feet away, is uniquely intoxicating.
I used to think this somehow diluted the “purity” of the art experience. Surely, fancying the pants of the hunky actor playing Petruchio in a Berlin production of the Taming of the Shrew shouldn’t colour my sober appreciation of Shakespeare’s work. Now I realise that “Shakespeare” doesn’t exist except by means of actors – hunky or not – up there, doing the do.
Similar, the power of The History Boys, undoubtably comes from my identification with the lovestruck gay student, Posener, and my immediate and bitter-sweet crush on the object of his affection in the play. Coming out of the theatre into the crisp, January night along the Thames, I was keenly aware of being smitten in love with the actor (Dominic Cooper)and/or his character(Dakin). Except – unlike my school boy crushes which laid waste to my soul and life for years at a stretch – this was healing up nicely by the time I got to Waterloo bridge.
I guess it’s an age thing partly but also a growing confidence in my own taste. From about 13 to 30, I cared so painfully for what other people thought about everything. About books and plays and films and the weather and most acutely: about me. In the last few years, I’ve been getting giddy on the freedom of liking what I want and savouring the fact that I like it, whatever the reason. It could because it reminds me of a summer holiday on Hayling Island, or it’s a peculiar delight I have in emerald moss or because my schoolboy crush crinkled his eyes like that. I’ve mentioned it before: self-validating joy.
Hurrah for that, hurrah for Mr. Bennet and hurrah for the History Boys – real and fictional.