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History Boys

What strategies does Alan Bennett use to create sympathy for the characters in the History Boys? To what extent is he successful? Alan Bennett is a playwright acclaimed for his controversial plays such as “Beyond the Fringe” and “The Madness of George III”. The most famous of these is “The History Boys” winner of a Tony Award for Best Play in 2006. It is set in the 1980s in a traditional secondary school in working class Sheffield. Education, in this case A levels, is the overall focus of the play however as we look deeper in to the meanings of the play, we find a great deal of sympathy is evoked from all the characters involved.

With the character of Hector Alan Bennett manages to evoke a certain sense of sympathy and without it Hector would be seen in a very different light. Bennett’s use of sympathy permits him to get away with much more risque topics, however these events may be seen as being a lot worse in today’s over protective society. The relationship that Hector has built up with the boys is to an extent that they are almost friends not pupils. This relationship resembles that of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates.

This makes the inappropriate teaching techniques which Hector employs seem almost like friendly banter. Bennett uses humour as a shield against Hectors unusual behaviour for example the use of the motorbike to carry out his strange and paedophilic acts. The example of this is the groping of the boys genitals. A lot of the bad actions in this case the “fiddling” are not dwelled upon and are quickly skimmed over. This enables the subject not to be on the forefront of the audiences mind. The actions also heard about but never seen and combined, both these factors make the subject a lot more light hearted.

Hector works well with the boys and they find his unique teaching styles effective, they find his lessons very enjoyable and different to main stream teaching. An example of this is when he is talking to Mrs Lintott and he says “You give them an education. I give the wherewithal to resist it”. This relationship raises the question “is it authentic that the boys are so casual about Hector’s fiddling”. We cannot come to a sure conclusion but we can be sure that it would be frowned upon in modern day education. The age of the boys is also a very important factor to note as they can almost be classed as adults.

His behaviour would be altogether outrageous if they were at a tender age of say ten or eleven. The boys are at the age where they can make their own decisions and can stand up for themselves. Bennett also shows little reaction between Hector and Posner which takes another sadistic edge off hiss disgusting past time. He does not approach Posner, who has homosexual tendencies towards Dakin, in the same way he approaches the other boys. Posner’s character conjures a great deal of sympathy from the audience as he is an awkward homosexual boy growing up with out any guidance.

His desperate plights for a loving companion are simply disregarded as his dream boy, Dakin, is somewhat of a ladies man in the group. Throughout the play he is ignored and even he says that he has no future, when he says “I’m a Jew… I’m small… I’m homosexual… and I live in Sheffield”. I’m f****d”. Most of the boys although being brought up in Sheffield aspire to go to Oxford. Hector feels this is achievable but Irwin can’t believe that are nowhere near clever enough to even think about going there.

The boys do show at some points, great intellect and a good example of this is doing entire scenes or classes in French. Considering that homosexuality was only made legal in 1967 we see Posner’s case being dealt with very sensitively for the times. To add insult to injury near the end of the book Dakin, who ignored Posner’s helpless pleas warms to Irwin and gets feelings for him. Posner has to fight Irwin for Dakin as he sees Irwin looking at him a number of times during his lessons. Posner starts to suspect Irwin’s lust for Dakin but nevertheless the less he still attempts to win his heart.

We see that from the start of the book Alan Bennett uses a very important device to create sympathy for Irwin. This is the fact that we listen to Irwin introduce the story in a wheelchair. This makes the audience wonder what happened to him and it also induces the audience to think about the burden this will cause in later life for him. Irwin is also breaking that fourth wall between the actors and audience. By saying the words directly to the audience and seeing him directly in a wheelchair the audience are more taken in by him and they take what he says more personally.

Bennett also makes Irwin’s personality very different to what the teachers and pupils alike are used to. They are not accustomed to change and when this inexperienced young teacher starts they are reluctant to let him into their lives. Irwin even results to swearing to try and impress the kids and the audience is made to feel sorry that he is trying so hard. He has very different teaching styles to Hector the main one being teaching with open doors. When he first arrives at the school he has great expectations and the boys much prefer their old friend Hector.

He tries to introduce the boys to his way of teaching but they don’t want to accept it. They are happy just reciting poems learnt in Hector’s lesson. They are quick to question Irwin and don’t give him a chance to truly voice his words. Irwin doesn’t believe in the boys and he conceives that they all will fail. Irwin tries so desperately to get the boys to produce more interesting work that the examiners will want to read. This is not an easy task as the boys just aren’t used to it and don’t understand what he wants.

Sympathy is also created by the reader feeling that Irwin is not being somewhat ignored and he is not being used to his full potential. His love affair with Dakin towards the end elicits sympathy as it shows that he has been hiding all these emotions all this time. Only towards the end can he really express himself as he get to know the boys better especially Dakin. Sympathy for Dakin is created as he is one of the most influential people in the group and could almost be called the leader; he also attracts a lot of attention especially from the ladies.

He manages to start a relationship with the headmaster’s sectary Fiona, who is only talked about but never seen on stage. This is perspective of the times as the 1980s were a male orientated period, with the wives staying at home to care for the children and to look after the house. Although, sometimes he can attract the wrong kind of attention most notably in the form of his wayward teacher Hector. He was one of Hectors favourites and was regularly invited on to his motorbike. This was also the case with one of his class mates and peers: Posner.

Posner from the start of the play is attracted to Dakin and tries desperately to win him over. To his misfortune these attempts failed and Dakin wasn’t at all interested. At the end we see that his passion for women was actually a front and he had deep feelings for his new teacher Irwin. The fact he wasn’t allowed to express these views makes us feel sorry for him as we see this new much more caring personality. In the play the History Boys Alan Bennett uses he characters to create sympathy that is key to keeping the play much more light hearted and interesting.

All the characters experience problems along the way, some in pursuit of their true love others just looking to be accepted. These problems all evoke a great deal of sympathy in their own right and in the end we see most of the characters have achieved something. What would be frowned upon in modern day society, with the use of sympathy, is now shown to be almost the norm. In the case of Irwin we reflect back to the start of the two parts of the play where we see him in his wheelchair. After all he’s been through the audience are posed the question “does he really deserve it? ” BY ROBERT PETERS

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