The History Boys Essay - Critical Essays

Alan Bennett

Literary Criticism and Significance

The History Boys originated at the National Theatre in England and the entire production later moved to Broadway. Both incarnations enjoyed much critical celebration, and a film version featuring the same cast and director enjoy solid critical response. The play is not only an examination of British education, but of its class and culture overall. The plays' many supporters hailed it for its richness of detail and the breadth of its reach. Despite having a sizeable cast of young male actors, the play was applauded for creating unique characters regardless of how much stage time they had. Bennett was also praised for his use of verbal wit, particularly in the character of Lintott. It was noted by several critics that he saved some of his best lines for the lone female in the play. Furthermore, the vast array of poems, literary references, and other popular culture inclusions only added to the play’s multi-layered feel.

Much of the criticism in favor of the play was inverted by those who responded less favorably to it. Bennett has been a playwright who as always struggled with the label of being “too British” for wider audiences. In truth, his achievements in his native country are more pronounced than they have been in the United States. In a different light, the songs and academic references can function exclusively rather than inclusively. In other words, audiences might feel distanced from the play simply because they are not in on the jokes Bennett’s characters make. Additionally, the cultural milieu so fully realized (and critiqued) by Bennett is less familiar to non-British audiences. Tonally, the play has been criticized for sentimentality as well as painting its picture with too broad a stroke. Those who fault Bennett for this find that ideas about history and education are stated too didactically.

What can bridge these two extreme responses to Bennett’s work is the way the play is handled in production. Many felt that the play’s weaknesses were offset by original director Nicholas Hytner’s direction. In addition to the songs performed by the boys, Hytner included numerous video clips to help enrich the sense of time and place as well as the key ideas in the play. The value of The History Boys ultimately lies in its complexity. Its filmic structure allows the play to cover more ground by constantly shifting the action. Bennett’s rich portrayal of British youth also invites future playwrights to combine comedy, drama, social criticism and sentiment.