THE HISTORY BOYS

After a year I finally bought myself a £10 matinee ticket and went to see this Alan Bennet play at the National.

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.

30 Comments

  1. A, Boyd

    January 27, 2006 at 7:20 am

    Thanks for your review of the play. It is comming to Broadway in late April; and I wasn’t sure if I should go see it. I’m also glad that you’ve liked Brokeback Mountain. I saw it the last weekend of September of last year and at the moment I had no idea what it was all about. I must of wept for days remembering the tragic story. I guess at 31, I still fantasize about true love and happinness.
    your loyal fan:
    ALEJANDRO BOYD

  2. Liz

    January 27, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    Great review of The History Boys (and thanks for the promotion of my website! 😉

  3. Valerie

    January 27, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    The caring about what people think is a maturity thing. It
    really does start around thirty-five. By the time you hit
    fifty you say Who gives a ****, I’m gonna do what I like
    and say what I like. Of course I still give a care to the
    feelings of others but if it what I think and believe its
    going out there.
    Of course Jesus doesn’t have any body hair, its a Europeans
    vision of a Middle Eastern man. Wait maybe I’m mistaken and
    not all Middle Eastern men have body hair. Then again maybe
    this is really a portait of Jesus on the verge of puberty.
    Who knows? The Shadow of Death is that a portent of the
    future, so Jesus could really only be fifteen in the
    portrait.
    Maybe he’s just dancing at the Turkish Baths. Blasphemy.
    Well enough of this,have to get back to work. Have a good
    day.

  4. Lost Boy

    January 28, 2006 at 1:46 am

    I’m dying to see ‘The History Boys’.
    I loved your description of crushes, and I agree wholeheartedly.
    They seem to never end when you’re young, yet as you get older, they evaporate by
    the time you’re secret admiree has gone two tube stops.

  5. lauren

    January 29, 2006 at 3:50 am

    Hooray for you Alistair!! Alan Bennett is truly brilliant. I’ve read countless of his books and have enjoyed everyone! Thanks for the insight to the play as well!
    most sincerely, Lauren

  6. Duane

    January 31, 2006 at 1:36 am

    You are (in reaction to your words), “… one [unique] strand in a very rich theatrical swatch…,” yourself; striking forcibly with a charge (on many levels), that has crackled for me via portals of telly and internet. What crackling you must convey in person!, or across the proscenium arch.

    When I leave work in a few minutes, stepping out, also “…into the crisp, January night…,” my intoxication will too dissipate. Thinking historically (half-century and counting), … I’ll have flashbacks to that intoxication. Immature, but “I’m eighteen, and I like it!”

  7. John Knapp

    January 31, 2006 at 5:06 am

    Dear Alistair,
    I read over your review of the play, your crafting of words is quite interesting. More so, your [out]words of your postings and visibility of your work on BBC shows are very strong political moves, especially so for we viewers in the United States. Probably the best part about your voice and presence is that you are centered and comfortable with who you are as opposed to most American productions where the queer individual follows more historical links of being the comedian and object to be ridiculed. In the interest of busy lives I’ll close.
    Best of luck in your endeavors!
    Cheers,
    John

  8. Valerie

    February 3, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    Friday Here. Although the weekend there has already begun.
    can’t wait to see what it brings. Let the adventure begin.

  9. salman

    February 4, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    dear ali

    its lovely to see that you have been going strength to strength .
    the last time i saw you on cash inthe atic it was wonderful . you have the most sexy legs and a very beautiful face . thanks for being such a great guy . well you are the guy of my dreams . seeing you makes me feel alive … thanks ..

  10. Marc

    February 6, 2006 at 3:35 am

    Antimacassar… that’s my word for today.

  11. Marc

    February 6, 2006 at 5:33 am

    I was fascinated by your observation that Jesus has no body hair in the depiction. Your self identification of that observation made me cringe a little as at the age of 15 I was one of those who not only had chest hair but the beginnings of the jungle that now covers me. I was pleased to see the picture of you later in the blog showing your beardlet and chest hair and I now wonder what you think about your hairiness and the general hairiness of human males.

    I have been a fan for some time and am pleased to interact with you over the internet; you have one invitation to come to the mountains of Montana; make that two.

  12. Georgia

    February 6, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    Hi Alistair
    I saw the history boys about a year ago.. thanx for your review! It was a very intellectually charged play which was poignant and funny.
    Glad you enjoyed it!

  13. J

    February 12, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    Hi Alistair,

    Just want to say that I absolutely adore you. It’s so cool that you have a blog where you post things and such, thus allowing us a peek into your very sexy mind.

    I love you!

    xox
    J

  14. Valerie

    March 2, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    Where did my entry go?

  15. Morgan

    March 4, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Hi Alistair,

    Another fan here just stumbled on the blog !!!
    Cannot believe my luck, will sure become a regular visitor.
    Have added you to my favourites, right at the top : )

    Cheers, keep up the good work and will ogle from afar when
    your on the goggle box.(maybe that should be ogle box LOL)

  16. Jennifer Lopez

    March 9, 2006 at 9:19 pm

    Hey Alistair,

    I’m a great fan, just wondering what’s your relationship
    with Jonty and Lorne? And have you heard about Lorne’s
    film?

  17. Rob F

    March 15, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    This production of the History Boys is a masterpiece – and Richard Sisson’s musical arrangements are the icing on the cake.

    But how COULD you fall for the obvious hunk when Jamie Parker’s deliciously talented Scripps is there to be ogled? 🙂

  18. Mark

    March 17, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Alistair,

    Have you forsaken us all and given up on the blogging front?
    It’s a long time since the History Boys – what’s news with you?

    Hoping that you are good and well,

    A fan x

  19. Valerie

    March 17, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Alistair must be off to Brazil for the next seminar.

  20. Stephen

    March 19, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    Lovin ur work xx

  21. Pete

    March 20, 2006 at 12:24 am

    No comments for nearly two months. Missing a good read.

  22. Johnny Lingo

    March 20, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    I have enjoyed reading the Blog and the website.

    I have recently seen Alan Bennett’s ‘The Old Country’ with Timothy West. Again it is an interesting take on the establishment. There is a gay reference which comes as no surprise. I enjoyed it very much. I am sorry I seem to have missed ‘The History Boys’ for the time being.

    I have enjoyed Alastair’s honesty and openness. There are not many high profile ( I think you are!) TV and radio presenters who are as honest about their lifestyle.

    As an outed father of three now divorced I have been grappling with the way to go about dealing with one’s sexuality in the world of work and I have come round to Alastair’s open honest approach as being the best although it is not always easy.

    I am looking forward to an update Alastair.

  23. st

    March 21, 2006 at 6:21 am

    I have been reading your website and Blog since July of 2005.
    I have to tell you how much your writing has helped me face my
    own problems and I consider you a role model to follow. I was
    directed to your Journalism section in Sept 2005 and I think
    your article on “How To Mediate” is one of your greatest articles
    that you have written.

    I have been Mediating since then and I can not begin to tell
    you what it has done for me thess last 7 months. It has given
    me courage to face reality and finally admit to myself that I
    am gay. In October my wife and I discussed our relationship and
    I told her that I was gay. She acknowledged it and told me that she
    suspected it for some time. She asked me to stay married until
    the kids leave home in 5 to 6 years then she will grant me a
    divorce and let me pursue the lifestyle I want to seek.

    I just want to Thank You for being so open and honest about
    discussing your life because it made me realize that I was not
    the only guy dealing with this issue.

    Again Thank You for giving me direction and I wish you nothing but
    success on the path you have choosen to follow

    St

  24. John

    March 31, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks, Alistair, for your insightful writings. I never cease to be impressed by how well you express feelings and observations. As much as I delight in your photos, you seem also to be able to reach right into my soul and express thoughts that may be lying there dormant. Keep up the great work! Thanks!

  25. Rey

    April 25, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    I realize I’m a bit late to the party on comments for this post, but I attended the opening of THE HISTORY BOYS on Broadway this past Sunday.

    As a gay man, unlike you, I found the depictions of gay people reprehensible and enormously self-loathing. I blogged about my reaction here: http://www.bigqueer.com/index.php?/archives/137-The-Bigotry-Boys.html

    Any thoughts?

  26. Valerie

    June 12, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    Hurrah for The History Boys – 6 Tonys last night.

  27. Gregg

    June 30, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    Just saw the play on Bway last night, and must
    agree with Rey above. The play is disgusting
    in its depictions of gay people.

    I wish there was more discussion about this
    aspect of the play. I would never have wasted
    my money supporting such trash.

  28. Viviane

    August 8, 2007 at 4:09 am

    “The play is disgusting in its depictions of gay people.”
    I saw the film.
    I was especially annoyed that all three gay men are portrayed as lonely. C’mon, couldn’t at least Poesner have a boyfriend or at the very least be dating?

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