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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

Alan Bennett’s The History Boys  opens with a framing device set several years after the primary action of the play. Irwin, confined to a wheelchair, is lecturing about politics. In the midst of it, he is reminded of school and flashes back to his days as a teacher. The scene...

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Alan Bennett’s The History Boys opens with a framing device set several years after the primary action of the play. Irwin, confined to a wheelchair, is lecturing about politics. In the midst of it, he is reminded of school and flashes back to his days as a teacher. The scene shifts to Hector’s classroom where he teaches General Studies, a title he acknowledge was adopted because of the Headmaster’s inability to quantify what his lessons entail. His classroom consists of eight boys: Crowther, Akthar, Dakin, Lockwood, Posner, Rudge, Scripps, and Timms. The boys discuss their upcoming exams and the character of Hector’s classroom is established: raucous, playful, unstructured, and filled with quotes from literature, popular culture of the past, and music. Bennett also establishes the structure of the play, in which scenes shift rapidly and characters often spontaneously narrate action to the audience.

Elsewhere, the Headmaster confides in Lintott that he has his doubts about the boys’ readiness for their exams. He then brings in Irwin for an interview. He explains that the boys need additional training in order to get them accepted to higher-ranking schools. Later, in Hector’s class, the boys act out an extended scene in French. In it, Dakin portrays a man visiting his prostitute, played by Posner. In a bit of bad timing, the Headmaster enters with Irwin just as Dakin has dropped his pants. After playing along in a somewhat befuddled matter, the Headmaster introduces Irwin as the boys’ new history coach. He asks if some of the General Studies lessons may be given to Irwin, but Hector refuses.

In Irwin’s class, the new instructor returns their papers with highly critical remarks. He notes the boys’ diligence, but rebukes them for a lack of originality and creativity. After class, the cocky, headstrong Dakin brags to the religiously-minded Scripps that he is fooling around with the Headmaster’s secretary. Posner’s crush on Dakin also emerges more prominently in this scene. As Lintott and Hector discuss their students’ prospects, Irwin’s next lesson furthers his aims of reshaping their thinking. He tells them that truth is less important than having an original perspective on history. Rudge, a thick-headed working class kid whom all believe has few prospects, fails to understand Irwin’s approach.

In Hector’s next class, the boys attempt to act out a scene with the goal of stumping Hector. In the middle of the class, someone tries to get in but Hector had one of the boys lock the door. Later, in Irwin’s class, Irwin brings up the locked door as he attempts to get the boys into the mindset of their exams. As Irwin pries for further information, the boys explain that what they learn in Hector’s class is not intended for use on their exams.

Irwin confides in Lintott that Posner came to see him about a personal issue. Posner feels like an outsider because he is Jewish, small-framed, and homosexual. Lintott points out that Posner is trying to test his boundaries and acknowledges how hard it is for teachers to maintain a distance from their students. Meanwhile, Dakin and Scripps talk about Dakin’s conversion to Irwin’s way of thinking and his desire to please Irwin.

Irwin asks Hector to let the boys use what they learn in General Studies on their exams; later, the Headmaster admonishes Irwin for making insufficient progress with the boys. Following this meeting, the Headmaster calls in Hector and confronts him about his inappropriate behavior. The Headmaster’s wife witnessed Hector fondling one of his students as he drove them, a recurring event mentioned earlier in the play. Since Hector is close to retirement, the Headmaster asks him to take it early and leave at the end of the year to avoid scandal. As the First Act ends, Posner has a heart-to-heart with Hector in which they discuss the meaning of poems. The kindred spirits are interrupted by Dakin, who offers to ride with Hector. Hector declines the offer, leaving the puzzled boys alone.

The second act begins with the framing device introduced in Act One. Irwin is in the middle of shooting a historical television program, when he is approached by the grown-up Posner. Posner is writing an article about the accident that crippled Irwin and asks for his input, but Irwin refuses. The scene then flashes back to a distracted Hector neglecting his class. In the midst of this, he breaks down wondering what the purpose of this life is. Only Posner comforts him, and the boys rally Hector by performing a film scene for him.

While the Headmaster informs Lintott of the reason for Hector’s departure, Hector and Irwin attempt to co-teach a class. An argument erupts over the appropriateness of using the Holocaust on an exam and both the boys and the teachers disagree with each other. While Irwin is chastised by the Headmaster for the Holocaust class, the boys discuss Dakin’s desire to please Irwin as well as his flirtatiousness with him.

Irwin, Lintott, and Hector intend to act as faux interviewers to help the boys prepare for their exams, but instead argue about the best approach. The boys head off to their interviews and the Headmaster appoints Irwin as Hector’s replacement. When the boys return, Dakin meets with Irwin alone and propositions him, which Irwin accepts. Dakin tells the boys he has gotten Hector’s job back by blackmailing the Headmaster. He is about to head off with Hector on his motorcycle, when the Headmaster intercepts them and sends Irwin in Dakin’s place. In the plays final moments, the characters address the audience to reveal their futures. Hector dies in an accident on a motorcycle when Irwin leans the wrong way on a turn; Bennett allows for the possibility that Irwin might have done it on purpose. The boys all go on to good colleges and high-profile careers, save for Posner who becomes a recluse. The play closes with Hector reminding the boys that knowledge is often simply about the passing of information and encourages them to do the same.

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