WAR – WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?

10 Apr

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THE HISTORY BOYS – ALAN BENNETT

           The seemingly random historical revelations that occur within Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” are nothing of the kind and are in fact waypoints intended to reveal future events. Simple asides and seemingly innocuous, disconnected historical trivia are the milestones with which the plays main protagonists are fleshed and developed. What may appear to be trivial, interesting, historical minutia or rather “gobbits” crafted to fill the play and amuse potential audiences, are crucial in developing falling action. The characters’ literary lives and futures have been pre-determined by that which has gone before, their futures encapsulated in the history that Bennett chooses to reveal. The present and future of all the characters has already been divulged and revealed through historical precedence, their subsequent fates a simple reflection of the past. Theirs is a circuitous journey of events that have already occurred, a historical “deja vu.” Just as in history, their lives are nothing more than “one [bloody] thing after another.”(p.106) There is nothing original neither in their choices nor in their achievements, as the representation of Bennett’s past preemptively foreshadows their futures. Bennett very cleverly reveals the play before the final curtain but it isn’t until the end of the play that the audience is made aware that they’ve been cheated of an original climax. Bennett previews his ending to his audience without their willing participation, allowing for a cognitive dissonance to mask that which has already been exposed. The audience is unwittingly privy to future events through the revelation of the past and so the subsequent ending shouldn’t be a surprise, although of course it is.

               By analyzing Bennett’s selective history and cultural trivia we can plumb the depths of its meaning and equate it to events within the play to achieve an understanding of parallelism; a pre-determined synchronistic mish-mash of a play within a play. (The plays in question, of course, are the drama of history itself and Bennett’s own “History Boys.”)

               The historical points are all meaningful, from the discussion of past world conflicts to the performance of 1940’s black-and-white movie scenes, none of which are thematically random and all serve a purpose. Bennett has chosen carefully and each historical caveat is a magnification of character destiny. Nothing is random, everything is etched in stone, and each vignette is reviewed through the myopic lens of historical contemplation. The play seems to evolve in front of the audience and yet there is a sense of having seen it somewhere before. This is the duality with which Bennett experiments, the assumed juxtaposition of history with contemporary issues. Time it would seem is nothing but an accumulation of past experience and a compaction of future events. A human stratum of sedimentary remembrances and occurrences that serve to create a foundation for all that ever was, is, or can be.

“The History Boys” is a play with a parallel narrative encompassing human emotion and ambition with both historical and cultural retrospective. By analyzing Bennett’s proscribed history, it’s possible to decipher and understand the prospects of his characters. In particular, historical warfare is used to determine the destinies of the play’s protagonists. By utilizing the First World War, with allusions to the monumental waste of human life, and the Boer War, where soldiers far from home were lost forever on distant horizons, he reasons the hopelessness of his own characters through historical reference.

               Bennett beguiles his audience with a projected dissonance, a pretense that the play’s obsession is with university placement and that the plot of his production is to see young men triumph where others have failed. Not for the headmaster the red brick of York and Manchester, but rather the cold stone and musty libraries of more illustrious temples of learning, namely Oxford and Cambridge. In the grand scheme of Sixth Form College statics, their personal achievements will be an escutcheon on his shield of personal, professional pride; a vanity, for the one man who has the most to gain from his boys’ achievements. Their exertions are for a disparate figure in a room where one must knock before one is permitted to enter the rarified atmosphere of the headmaster’s office. The symbolism of one man gaining from the letting of scholarly blood is picked up later in the play by the new man Irwin, the master engaged to inspire. Irwin is charged with the final push which will have the boys in Berlin, or rather Oxford, before Christmas.

               Irwin is tasked to shrive the school of past failure, to erase the memory of those who’ve gone before by sacrificing the new youth under his charge. Bennett engages his audience in a subliminal comparison to the First World War and how it was fought for all the wrong reasons. The Great War, the war to end all wars with its Glorious Dead and universal sacrifice for King and country, or rather those who are remembered in epitaph alone. Simple stone cenotaphs with the names of lost boys carved in granite. Bennett links the boys with the volunteers of 1914. It’s the students who must go over the top and suffer the rake of enemy fire in order to satisfy the will of their betters. Lions lead by lambs, for which “Dulce et Decorum Est” isn’t just a nod to a long dead poet but also to an ageing geographer.

               It would be all too easy for the boys, as “Totty” so eloquently describes, to attend other schools where along with pizza and other firsts they could be so much happier. Durham instead of Oxford, or perhaps the allusion is to Oxford rather than the Somme? Bennett hasn’t given us a classroom of boys but rather a platoon of “pals.” Britain’s best who must go forth and carve honor for themselves in order to achieve a greater glory for their headmaster. All nonsense of course, but by instilling in his audience the idea of conflict we understand what it is the boys have to endure: the study sessions, the long hours, the extra classes and above all the pressure. By alluding to Belgian battlefields and contrasting that with a nineteen eighties classroom the reader should be left with little uncertainty. The war as history records didn’t end well, with a forgotten generation of boys doing their post-mortem best to enrich foreign fields! Some of the pupils may return, but there will be casualties, and there will be lads left hung out to dry on the barbed wire of further education.

               Bennett constructs a predictable future, one which won’t be a happy in the majority of cases. Yet the reader is left with an ambiguous optimism that the boys may still succeed when they charge the enemy trenches, or rather sit the exams and attend the university interviews of Oxbridge. The college exams are the barrage before the frontal assault, hence the attention paid to so carefully to the vignette of the First World War. Bennett could have picked any war, the second which was closer chronologically perhaps, but instead chose the cauldron of Flanders to frame the boys’ futures. The lads are doomed youth, their futures uncertain and with their happiness very much in the balance.

               This is reiterated during the beatification of Hector, aptly the greatest of the Trojan warriors, at the end of the play where in a third person setting the boys are individually addressed to measure their personal success. None of them appear to be happy or fulfilled, their earlier aspirations having crumbled into the consolations of weekend drugs, emotionless sex, and the soulless pursuit of money. There should have been more. We the reader expected more. The brave new world the pupils thought would welcome them after college never materialized and now, just as the fallen are immortalized on the stone crosses of a thousand church yards, their names are mere murmurs, faint remembrances, in the halls of Sheffield schools. They strove, sought, didn’t yield and yet, the question remains, why? Bennett told us it was going to happen, we just weren’t paying attention when he did.

               Bennett uses war throughout the play to polarize the destinies of his protagonists and to camouflage events from the reader in the hope that, beguiled by the propaganda of theatrical illusion, they’ll happily accept that the boys will, by curtain close, achieve their goals. There are however many miles to tread before the reveal but once again Bennett signposts his destinations meticulously. From a French dressing station to a kopje crest on the South African Veld, fortunes are divulged as cryptically as gypsy-read tea leaves.

               Hector, a teacher with a penchant for younger boys, is determined to keep the real world firmly shut outside the locked door of his classroom. In an impromptu exercise the boys are asked to practice their French language skills in a “maison de passé,” a brothel, where with the help of the subjunctive the lads are free to allow their imaginations to run wild. The scene is developed with an overt sexuality until unexpectedly there’s a knock at the door. In an instant the brothel transforms into a battlefield dressing station where wounded soldiers lay screaming and dying tended by an army of orderlies, doctors, and nurses. Once again Bennett plunges his audience into war.

               Drawn into formation the antagonists stand ready to do battle. All will engage but few will survive and even fewer will succeed. The troops in the form of the boys are assembled, their captain Hector at the front. The confrontation is obvious. The solders “blesse” are at the mercy of the headmaster. Irwin is introduced and the two sides face off in a war of words, furtive eye movement and double entendre. All those present in the scene will be wounded, the symbolism of World War One once again suggesting body counts and unknown soldiers mulched into Flanders mud. The battle lines are clearly drawn with the headmaster holding supreme command. Irwin is the unknown quantity, the new man fresh from Blighty bursting with spit-and-polish who must somehow mold his indefatigables into a cohesive, driven unit capable of anything. Doomed youth isn’t yet aware of what is about to happen. Only Bennett is aware of his own master plan. The teachers will go head to head, the boys will follow orders, the headmaster will attempt to achieve total victory whilst crushing dissension in the ranks and poor “Posner” will suffer a life of post traumatic college stress from which he’ll never recover.

              The classroom, or rather the dressing station, is roll call and casualty list rolled into one. Every one present will be detrimentally affected by the continuance of the play. Whether in unrequited love, lost career, or missed opportunity, all stand to lose. The campaign which the headmaster insists must be victorious has already been lost. The dressing station far from the halcyon days of pre 1914 is a wasteland filled with straw men and damned humanity. The audience sees a classroom whilst Bennett alludes to trench warfare and a tent filled with wounded men.

               Thomas Hardy’s poem “Drummer Hodge” is used to great effect to illustrate the play’s underlying tensions regarding the boys and their masters in their Oxbridge quest. The poem tells of a dead drummer who’s been buried, albeit “uncoffined,” on the far side of the world. A lad who’ll never see home again and for whom southern stars and strange constellations will in perpetuity “West” across his grave. Of all Hardy’s poetry, why does Bennett choose this one? What possible connection could there be to a mass grave in what today is South Africa with a secondary modern in Britain? Bennett once again utilizes a martial device to illustrate his point.

               The forsaken boy buried in the Veld although named but only recollected through Hardy’s poetry, died in a forgotten war that was fought for reasons nobody can recall. Just as the boys who’re about to embark on their own journeys to distant colleges whose names only ring true thanks to common utterance, they may as well be going to the far side of the moon. Theirs is a journey of necessity, for reasons that have been made quite clear to them. “It’s the hottest ticket in town … other boys want to go …, standing room only,”(p.6) and of paramount importance, because the headmaster demands it. Although a communal effort to get them there, the last steps of the journey must be taken alone. A successful interview with college Dons will allow them to further their education, or should they fail, guarantee one way tickets back to Yorkshire. The play poses a paradox that the likelihood of provincial boys achieving intellectual status is as ridiculous as the British defeating the Boers. As Bennett recollects he too was “…up against boys who’d been better educated and at a higher price.” The boys from the school are armed only with a comprehensive education which in the 1960’s probably sounded like a good idea. Hodge had only his drum.

               Drummer boys were usually the youngest soldiers and were enlisted in regiments to act as orderlies and to acquiesce to commissioned whim. “Posner,” the youngest of the Oxbridge candidates, is directly associated with the poem. In what is a homoerotic theme that runs throughout the play “Posner” is in love with a fellow boy who in turn is loved by other masters. Just as Drummer Hodge is alone Posner, foreshadowed by a casualty of war, will end up alone. Rather than the romance of “his brain and breast growing to some southern tree” he instead will grow old and bitter living vicariously through the middling achievements of his former classmates.

               Bennett through historical conflict reveals to his audience not only the result of martial futility but also his own premature dénouement. “Posner” will be forgotten and alone with his recollections in the same manner that the memory of the Oxbridge campaign will fade with the passing of time. Although General Kitchener marched his men across Africa for increased British influence there’s nothing left in that country today except perhaps the bad taste of post colonialism that alludes to the armies ever having been there. Likewise in France, there are only ploughed acres and poppy fields where the greatest nations on earth once tried to destroy one another. The audience is gifted by the author with precognition and the outcome of the play should be self-evident. “Wish me luck as you kiss me goodbye,” is sung by the departing boys as they head south, just as “Union Jacks” were waived to the sounds of bands playing the same tune in the final years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The History Boys” maps the fortunes of Bennett’s characters through historical reference; a play that mirrors the past in all aspects and reflects on the improbability of the future.

 

 

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