The History Boys

The History Boys

The History Boys
By Alan Bennett
Directed by Mark Edward Smith
Starring Peter Travis and Phillip Nolan
Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando FL

There are two general approaches to education: The Montessori approach allows exploration and sets low goals but high standards, and the Catholic School approach raps your knuckles until catechism and multiplication tables are drilled into your DNA. Professor Hector (Nolan) prefers the first approach, and his students love him. They recite Alden, adore Byron, and take poetry and literature as the highest of the arts, paycheck be damned. But this isn’t enough for uptight headmaster (Tommy Keesling); he wants his students to go to Oxford and Cambridge, not to technical school in Sheffield and Bristol. To that end he brings in young Professor Irwin (Travis), Irwin drips deconstructionist tricks and schemes to get the boys noticed. This confuses some of the denser boys; they don’t see why a college should require more than skill at rugger. The professors battle, but there’s a deeper issue: Hector enjoys fondling the boys while riding them home on his scooter, and the boys aren’t really all that opposed to a friendly grope at 50 mph. When Hector’s hobby is revealed his career is on the line, but this is an English boarding school, and a little sexual misadventure is good for tempering the boy’s spirits.

Nolen is a ball of energy; I don’t think anyone in town can do as much on stage with righteous indignation in the face of obvious guilt. Travis is a bit dryer but sneakier, he injects an element of amorality into the exams the boys must pass. Stalin may have been a mass murder but if you can find something nice to say about him that will make you stand out, and once you’re in Cambridge, nobody will check back on your politics. Keesling spews venom and frustration, in a corporation he’d be the guy cheering for time and motion studies about bathroom breaks. Off on the side is a world weary Robin Olson as Mrs. Lintott, everyone burdens her with secrets yet her attempts to inject a feminist shade to exams just makes eyes roll. The boys are lively lot, some ethnic (A.J Nickell, Jeffery Todd Parrot), some abusive (Robert Johnson, Ryan Corbin Bathurst) and some surviving on good looks and a calm demeanor. Those are the ones that will survive in British business once they can wear the right tie (Adam Reilly, Matt Lipscomb). The two most interesting are Parrot as Posner, the slight Jewish boy who love to sing Christian hymns, and Mr. Johnson. As the sexually aggressive Daken, he understands sex as politics much better than Mrs. Lintott or any of the faculty and I vote him most likely to sleep his way to the top.

So should the sneaky and double faced get to the good jobs and education? Maybe, maybe not but it takes something more than skill and competence to make the climb, and little mentoring early on can do wonders. Even if you don’t use the Professor Irwin’s Book of Dirty Tricks, knowing about them can give you a leg up in identifying them in your co-workers. This is an acid and truthful look at human frailty and learning how to work the system layered with sexual politics and real people. Learn it well, young Jedi.

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