As with many of Bennett’s plays, the themes he explores in The History Boys are wide-ranging. Some of the following themes have been briefly highlighted with the purpose of leading towards more in-depth discussion. However, Alan Bennett’s style of writing, which is more exploratory than reactionary, a style that asks questions, but provides the audience with few answers, means that any attempt to dissect the numerous themes of his plays is necessarily reductive.
The theme of relationships is prominent and reoccurring throughout the play. Bennett’s language choices and dramatic techniques help the reader to understand the theme more comprehensively. Bennett evokes the theme of relationships through characters such as Posner, Hector, Dakin, and Irwin. Bennett also carefully chooses scenes in which to display the idea of relationships. The focus of this essay is on how Bennett uses relationships as a core theme of his plays.
In this particular play Bennett provides a very realistic yet unusual types of relationships, hence the type that he emphases is homosexuality. While there are multiple kinds of relationships between various characters such as a student-to-student, teacher-to-student and teacher-to-teacher, Bennett purposely points towards the peculiar kind. In comparison to the relationships in real life now and to the ones presented in the play, it is evident that they are completely different.
An example would be that in the play it is shown that Hector is a homosexual and teaches at an all boy’s school and yet being a teacher does not affect him in any way, shape or form as he is reluctant so stop messing the boys, in real life now this kind of thing would not take place in the sense that a relationship between a student and a teacher can grow and they can become close to one another; there is an extent that is can carry out till, meaning that there is a line/boundary that should not be passed and it most of the time is not as the student and teacher are aware of the consequences.
The relationships between the different characters developed greatly throughout the play, in particular the relationship between Irwin and Dakin. Dakin, who is having an affair with the headmaster’s secretary Fiona begins to form a sort of crush on Irwin. He knows that Irwin fancies him but obviously can’t say anything about it, as he is a teacher. Dakin craves his attention. There is much flirting leading up to one of the final scenes where Dakin asks Irwin out for a drink to “suck him off”.
This never happens but Dakin knows that he has won when Irwin agrees. In The History Boys the character of Posner is shown to be the most sensitive one of all boys. From the beginning of the play it is made clear that there is a very tight knit group of boys in which most are still finding themselves as to which gender they prefer. In act one, it is revealed that Posner is homosexual and in love with the character of Dakin, yet there is an element to Posner of fear from Dakin of rejection.
Bennett displays that Posner’s relationships with his peer group of boys is weaker than the relationships between the other boys. An example would be when Posner in act one shares “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked. ” This shows Posner’s acknowledgement of his differences and almost an acceptance of permanently being an outsider, thus weakening his relationships with the boys and even society. The use of full stops and very short sentences stresses the point Posner is making and a feeling of hopelessness is conveyed.
The relationship between Posner and Dakin is a student-to-student kind of relationship. While they both are gay, they are very much different, as one is seen as the alpha male and the other as an outsider. Their relationship is a friendship even though Posner hopes for more. Bennett gives the audience a fairly clear perception of the characters Hector and Irwin both are teachers. On one hand Hector, the general studies teacher to the boys, who is a particularly eccentric man that has an already close and established relationship with the boys.
Whilst on the other hand, we have Irwin, a young man that has graduated from Oxford and is fairly inexperienced in the field of teaching, but has been drafted in to help the boys try and obtain their dream of getting into Oxford. Bennett has presented these men to be somewhat well matched intellectual adversaries for one another, in order to show their inevitable rivalry. Bennett shows both men to crave the boys’ approval, but for different reasons.
Hector does it so that he can feel he has established his position of ‘top dog’ among the teachers, and it seems that he may also have mild homoerotic feelings towards particular boys in the group. This is suggested through his scene in ‘a brothel’ during class, where some of the boys play prostitutes and when he makes them do ‘pillion duty’ where one of the boys are forced to ride his motorcycle with him for no particular reason, other than his own personal gain. Bennett presents Hector to be this way to almost shock the audience, as it is completely out of the confines of his call of duty to teaching.
Despite these advances, the boys don’t seem phased, even though they do acknowledge them, they still respect Hector greatly and are extremely grateful to have him as a teacher, this is most likely due to his relaxed and unorthodox yet effective style of teaching. Hector is shown to be this way by Bennett in order to show two completely ends of the teaching spectrum, when compared to Irwin’s style of teaching, which is quite formal and traditional, so that he can show the audience his opinion as to what works best in an educational environment.