17 July 2009

The History Boys

I went to this show without much idea of what to expect. Certainly I'd heard of it, and knew it had been a hit in New York and made into a Hollywood movie, and I knew it had been consistently sold out in Chicago (since the Timeline Theatre probably holds fewer than 80 audience members, selling out is not the challenge it might be), but I hadn't been thrilled by a couple of previous Timeline productions, so when the person at the ticket desk remarked that the production would be three hours long, my heart sank.

In the event, the play's length was no hardship. It's a spectacular--even thrilling--production, with terrific performances by the entire cast. Creative staging makes for a particularly involving show; while most of the action occurs in a classroom (situated in the middle of the theater), the boys' dorm rooms are reproduced in two levels at one end of the theater (so you see them retreat there when they leave class), and an upper-level set at the other end of the theater represents the headmaster's office and other out-of-class locations.

The subject matter of the play, is perhaps well known: a young history teacher is hired to help a class of grammar school boys get admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. While the boys are bright and competent, they face stiff competition from those who have been groomed from birth for attendance at the elite universities. Their young teacher, Irwin, suggests that--rather than focus on memorized facts--they should seek to entertain their examiners, so as to stand out from the crowd, by proposing unlikely ideas (whether or not they believe in them), and backing them up. Ultimately, Irwin calls the value of truth and sincerity into question.

This brings him into direct conflict with the boys' other (and beloved) English teacher, Hector, who valorizes and romanticizes Truth, which he finds (and insists the boys find) in poetry and literature that he challenges them to learn by heart. He is fond of paradoxical pronouncements; e.g., that schools are the enemy of education. He detests what Irwin is teaching the boys.

Frankly, I found the philosophical debate pretty uninteresting. It's something of a false argument: truth wears more than one dress. Instead, what was interesting was the action of the play--the behavior of the boys and their teachers in class, and the intimate dramas that unfolded. While I might not have been lit up by the play's intellectual content, I was lit up by my belief that the characters were (intellectually, spiritually) lit up.

Some great music, too, which was utterly unexpected.

Altogether, a terrific show.

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