This Sporting Life

Thanksgiving is English movie week at the Weiss household, mainly out of gratitude to my Bristol-born stepmother who carries on the special relationship every year by cooking a feast in honor of an event that began her country's loss of … Read More

By / November 24, 2006
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Thanksgiving is English movie week at the Weiss household, mainly out of gratitude to my Bristol-born stepmother who carries on the special relationship every year by cooking a feast in honor of an event that began her country's loss of imperial privilege. That's surely one kind of good sportsmanship, though this post is about another.

I haven't yet seen The History Boys but I was quite taken with the play. However, the critics have already missed a rather obvious feature of Bennett's brief against faddish and gimmicky academism in that this is also a story of masculine athletic competition.

Lamenting the decline of British teaching standards is as old as Lucky Jim, but rather than have us focus exclusively on the profs, Bennett gives us an equally compelling group of cocky, brash students, whose constant out-marshaling of one another serves as counterpoint to the quieter but more earnest rivalry going on in the faculty lounge. Among the boys there's the typical class hierarchy of heartthrob, fat yob and shy lad, all vying for limited Oxbridge acceptances the way their American counterparts might MVP trophies in the state championships. The struggle between Hector and Irwin is waged at least as much in the interests of idealism and utilitarianism, respectively, as it is for the sake of earning the boys' undivided affections. This theme, too, is fungible with the sports drama: The noble coach is getting a little long in the tooth but short on victories; the young, arrogant greenhorn is hired to replace him with dubious effect on team morale. Old coach is restored in the end to lead his boys to one last hurrah.

That "The History Boys" is set in a romantic adolescent aerie, where Auden, Hardy and homosexuality abound in more or less equal measure, only makes its macho games of oneupmanship and witty persiflage more hilarious. Bennett aimed for the classroom but also managed to hit the intellectual locker room.

I think this one of the reasons, apart from the natural Anglophilia of American theatregoers, that the play has performed so well in the country that produced Hoosiers and Bull Durham and The Replacements. All the analogies to Dead Poets Society and Goodbye, Mr. Chips are misleading, and not just because the Yank version of love and glory on the quadrangles traffics in wet nostalgia over arch derision, prefers the 'maverick' to the conservative teacher every time, and keeps any hint of forbidden sexuality a matter of innuendo rather than stolen motorbike gropes. What price dreaming spires when Dakin offers to blow you after school? (If you saw Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love" performed in New York, realize that Robert Sean Leonard took his Dead Poets character from latent to blatant in the figure of A.E. Housman.)

"The History Boys" has more in common with Chariots of Fire; its ensemble is in training for a kind of Olympics of pretension, where brains rather than muscles are being exercised, if not alarmingly hypertrophied, for the attainment of a badly-desired goal. The way the boys wield "gobbets" — Irwin's term for the snatches of poetry they have ready on command or at the slightest free associative prompting — is the way Jimmy Conners used to return a baseline shot between his legs at Wimbledon, or the way Tiger Woods still idles on the Augusta green by bouncing a golf ball in perfect stride on his five-iron. It's all male showing off. The plumage enters into it.

Stereotypical though it may be to say, the English do have a special skill at wowing with their rhetorical flourishes or instant recall of the printed word, which is why you'd better come modest matching dirty limericks with The Hitch. It's also why Stoppard threw down a faux volleyball court on stage for the playing of the Question Game in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Martin Amis made his alter ego Charles Highway a leaky spigot of precocious but annoying Theory in The Rachel Papers, a novel that was also about the preparation for A-Levels, with a pre-Thatcherite Literature Boy discovering the difference between "learning" and education. Here is the don tasked with reading Highway's essays:

"For example. In the Literature paper you complain that Yeats and Eliot… 'in their later phases opted for the cold certainties that can work only outside the messiness of life. They prudently repaired to the artifice of eternity, etc. etc." This then gives you a grand-sounding line on the 'faked inhumanity' of the seduction of the typist in The Waste Land — a point you owe to W. W. Clarke — which, it seems, is just a bit too messy all of a sudden. Again, in the Criticism paper you jeer at Lawrence's 'unreal sexual grandiosity', using Middleton Murry on Women in Love, also without acknowledgement. In the very next line you scold his 'overfacile equation of art and life.' He sighed. 'On Blake you seem quite happy to paraphrase the 'Fearful Symmetry' stuff about 'autonomous verbal constructs, necessarily unconnected with life, but in your Essay paper you come on all excited about the 'urgency with which Blake educates and refines our emotions, side-stepping the props and splints of artifice'. Ever tried side-stepping a splint, by the way? Or educating someone urgently, for that matter?

"Donne is okay one minute because of his 'emotional courage', the way he seems to 'stretch out his emotions in the very fabric of the verse' , and not okay the next because you detect… what IS it you detect? — ah yes, a 'meretricious exaltation of verbal play over real feeling, tailoring his emotion to suit his metrics'. Now which is it to be? I really wouldn't carp, but these remarks come from the paragraph and are about the same stanza.

"I won't go on… Literature has a kind of life of its own, you know. You can't just use it…ruthlessly, for your own ends…"

Using liberal arts for one's own ruthless ends is of course the fashion these days. The British make themselves easy targets for lampoon because in the sixties they started convening their "brains trusts" around television audiences; they really did want highbrow endeavors to become a form of popular entertainment. Niall Ferguson now writes his documentary scripts before his bestselling books. And he complains that he was unfairly made the model for Irwin.

Bennett is a fan of America, if not so much its current political orientation. He had ample reason to turn his sites on us for dramatic parody: When his terrific older play "The Madness of George III" was set for a film adaptation, the U.S. producers wanted the title changed to The Madness of King George. How would moviegoers expect to follow the story if they thought they'd missed Parts I and II? We should therefore be grateful Bennett presented a land of the cheats, home of the knaves that wasn't, for once, the one you'd expect it to be.

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