Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” – the importance of literature

Below is a pretty lengthy post, of an essay I wrote to discuss writing style with my Y11s in the run-up to their Christmas mocks.

“Literature is medicine, wisdom, elastoplast, everything”. How does Bennett presents the importance of the literature in the play? Write about:

  • Whether literature is important to the characters
  • How Bennett presents this in the ways that he writes

Bennett’s conflicted representation of literature is perhaps startling coming from a man who is, after all, an accomplished and acclaimed writer. Hector’s viewpoint of literature as salvation, comfort, the ultimate distinguisher of humanity, is, after all, the way that writers would, we assume, like to view themselves: creating something of value within the world. However, by the end of the play a very different perspective emerges. Literature (with a capital ‘L’, as ascribed to works of canonical quality) and ‘popular culture’ become indistinguishable as Hector teaches the “tosh” of Gracie Fields and Brief Encounter alongside Larkin, Housman and Shakespeare. For the boys, literature loses its significance, echoing the ways in which the boys grow up and lose some of their admiration for the adults in their lives. The tragedy of Posner is the crucial answer to this question: he is searching for meaning, solace and comfort, and while he has all of the quotations from Hector he has none of the guidance he needs. Although as a writer, Bennett – like many others – might like to think his work has longevity and speaks to our humanity, he is also ruefully aware that for many, echoes of the past fall short.

Hector’s passion for literature is inspirational but not enough, for the boys or the audience or, in the end, Hector himself. He regularly quotes, even without citation, requiring the actor to deliberately deliver these quotations as somehow different in tone. This stagecraft in itself suggest that quotations are somehow ‘other’, appropriated to fill a gap in explanation or meaning yet never fully incorporated into his own individual speech. From his first scene, Bennett presents Hector as communicating most effectively through other people’s words: the line “bread broken in secret” is a way of elevating the secrecy he demands from his classroom to a commandment. At the beginning of the play this seems to be a quaint, almost beautiful ideology building a relationship between student and teacher. Yet this quickly disintegrates; the French scene includes physical comedy of the brothel, but with the Headmaster’s interruption the audience is starkly, suddenly reminded that this is not acceptable behaviour in a school room. A modern audience, post-operation Yewtree, post-#Metoo, is even more likely to be critical of Hector’s behaviour in condoning, even encouraging, this way of acting.

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Hector has placed his faith in literature, telling his students “we’re making your deathbeds here, boys!” The plural implies that he also realises he is making his own. In a blasé way he brushes off Timm’s complaints of irrelevance: “I never understand it. But learn it now and you’ll understand it whenever…It will [happen to you]. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness.” His dismissive comment “whenever”, coupled with his own lack of understanding, implies that he has blindly put his faith in literature without feeling the benefits he describes. Referring to literature as an “antidote” also uses the medical term as a metaphor for the values of literature, but rather than being a vaccine, he uses “antidote” – terrible (and wonderful) things will happen to them but they will bring themselves to understanding only when they do. Yet even for Hector, literature fails at the crucial moment. not only has it not helped in his personal life (many of the poets he quotes are from homosexual writers yet he remains firmly closeted), it fails him in professional crisis. In front of the Headmaster, he turns to quotation but an audience feels the Headmaster’s frustration when he states this is “no time for poetry”, needing to discuss the serious realities of his situation.

Discussing the Holocaust, the boys turn to literature to ‘polish’ their essays, to Hector’s despair: “Wittgenstein didn’t screw it out of his very guts in order for you to turn it into a dinky little formula,” Despite the derogatory “dinky”, Hector misses the point – this is exactly what he has done. The boys have not read the complete works. When they have learned by heart, it has been short poetry or quotation, rather than a full and complex understanding of the literature itself. A modern audience might also see many of the quotations he cites as little more than the verbal equivalent of a motivational poem; brief, superficially satisfying but ultimately meaningless. What else are the boys to do but use them in Irwin’s essays? Hector’s final words are “pass it on.” He instructs the boys to learn the words of others and pass them on; Dorothy Lintott refers to the “notion” that “half-educated droves” were taught that they could be “artists”, yet Hector denies his boys even this opportunity; rather than creating something for themselves they are reliant on echoing the thoughts of another. Hector, too, spends his time masking his discomfort with his own self-identity with the words of long-dead poets.

Through the characters of Dakin and Posner, Bennett charts the decline of Hector’s influence and, concurrently, the belief the boys have in the healing powers of literature. Both come to view literature as somehow lacking in this respect. Dakin tells Scripps that “all literature is consolation…it’s written when the joy is over,” implying that literature is a way of memorialising events rather than living or enjoying them. He denies the power of literature to aid reflection or to enhance joy, seeing it only as a way to remember something now-finished. Posner, too, comes to see literature as failing to deliver what Hector promises. At the start of the play, Posner is the most linguistically involved. He looks up words in the dictionary to determine their meaning and is the main singing character, indicative of his desire to please Hector by indiscriminately learning by heart. However, his character changes and he loses faith in Hector’s promise. Asking Irwin for support, he says sadly that “literature is medicine, wisdom, elastoplast, everything”. His triadic structure begins by indicating a belief in the redemptive power of literature but an “elastoplast” suggests an open wound, covered but not healing – a temporary solution while the body heals itself. Irwin recounts to Mrs Lintott that “I wanted to tell him that although the literature might say that, Literature doesn’t.” His distinction between advice and guidance, and “Literature” in exploring the realities of homosexuality suggests that he, like Hector, does see the value of literature in emotional support. But an audience finds this moment lacking, particularly as Irwin doesn’t say this aloud. Instead, the mood is quiet, reflective – the moment has passed without Posner getting the emotional support he desperately asks for. At the end of Act 1, Posner is similarly let down by Hector. When discussing Drummer Hodge, there is a moment in the stage directions when Hector “puts out his hand”, echoing his previous comment that “the best moments in reading…[are] as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” With the poignant knowledge that Hector is losing his job and that both men struggle with their sexuality, an audience longs for the fulfilment of this promise, for Hector to offer Posner emotional comfort. Taking his hand at this moment seems to be the humane thing to do, but “the moment passes” and Dakin, the focal point of Posner’s sexual yearnings, brusquely interrupts. By the end of the play, Posner seems a tragic figure. At the opening of Act 2, he can no longer remember the words he looked up in the dictionary. Although Mrs Lintott, in her final statements, says that he “took everything to heart”, he lives alone, is miserable and “has long since stopped asking himself where it went wrong.”

During the memorial service, Bennett uses the Headmaster’s eulogy to undermine Hector’s love of literature further. He uses a semantic field of commerce – “deposit account,”, “bank of literature”, “shareholders in that wonderful world of words” – to suggest the commodification of literature, utilising it for one’s own ends rather than understanding it as a joy and pleasure in itself. Perhaps ultimately, this is Bennett’s point: that literature should have a small ‘l’. As a critically acclaimed writer he must be used to reviews and criticism exploring his messages, meanings and cultural purpose. Instead, maybe, he is arguing that literature is something to be enjoyed, giving entertainment and pleasure. It isn’t medicine or wisdom, or the way to save the world, and by placing such high expectations onto it, we ensure it cannot live up to our expectations. We should enjoy the moments of escapist pleasure it provides to us, and not ask for more.

If you’re studying The History Boys, I’ve also written a five-star revision guide that’s available here for just £3!

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