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Major Themes in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

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Within ‘The History Boys’, first performed in 2004, we are immersed into a 1980’s setting in the world of male sixth form pupils and their efforts to attain a placement in the prestigious Oxbridge universities. At such times, the attitudes of many major themes within the novel were part of a large hotbed of change, homosexulaity was widely unacceped, the education system undergone major structural changes, which had overcome the transition of art and culture based learning to a somewhat more curriculum centred schooling system that we see today. It is therefore fair to say that there is evidence within such works that society does change in terms of abstract concepts and attitudes to different groups of people. However, the dialogue within the play contrasts highly with the message given in terms of context- the actions of Hector still being illegal, as well as the boys’ discussion with Irwin and Hector regarding historical events which demonstrated their ability to categorise events as a similar sort of monotonous cycle of mistakes to which nobody learns from and falls into again.

An example of this cycle is during the interview scene within the play, which sees characters state their idea of what ‘History’ truly denotes as. Rudge simply describes History on page 85 as simply ‘one fucking thing after another’, suggesting through the expletive ‘fucking’ that Rudge is irritated by the lack of change in terms of history being almost a repetitive concept, from which nobody really seems to learn their lesson from past failures. In terms of phonology, the morpheme ‘f’ is quite guttural, emphasising his disregard and irritability in the situation of a mock interview, and could even be interpreted as his dislike for the constant pattern of historical events of the subject itself. Within the same chapter the less heard voice of Dorothy Lintott states how she thinks that all events in history are all in being categorised under the failures of men, in her opinion making it ‘women following behind with the bucket’. The common noun ‘bucket’ is an object associated with clearing up spills and mistakes, emphasing her ideas of men contributing nothing much other than messes for women behind to clear up. The fact that women in this example are ‘following behind’ suggests that although women are capable of fixing mistakes, they are still expected to follow under the command of males. This presents the idea that within society, the role of women has little changed despite the undeniable influences and work of women within World War One whilst men fought overseas and women were left to run production units. The fact that this is really the first time that Dorothy is heard explicitly giving her opinion to the students and the audience demonstrates how her opinion is mostly overlooked by other people, seizing the moment for herself to talk about her opinion of History when the gathering was assembled to help the boys prepare for university interviews.

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Noticeably within the play, there is also a strong recurring theme of socioeconomic inequality, demonstrated within the scene where Irwin describes the advantages of the wealthy families over the boys in terms of their education. Irwin insinuates that without taking a different stance to exams to add flare to their papers, they will be left behind in the shadows of richer families who will have send their children to visit the areas of study so they can write from experience. This is exhibited within page 87, which states ‘”Remember also, our puny efforts notwithstanding, you will be up against boys and girls who will have been taught better than you.” This suggests that the students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be favoured in terms of attaining coveted places at prestigious universities not only from having a higher quality of quality education, but also the status of being associated with a private education. Within such declaration Bennett refers to what he believes to be the inherent inequalities of the British educational system, the public and private schools that therefore give wealthier families an automatic advantage over students from public schools who may not be as financially privileged. In terms of context, Bennett hasn’t been afraid to voice such opinions regarding the educational system through the character of Irwin, who remains true to the curriculum but ceases to find the Educational System that it is part of to be just and provide each student in the UK with equal opportunities. One way that Irwin introduces such flair into the essay of his pupils is by harshly marking the work submitted, as well as teach the boys to enter the back door of a question rather than take the popular route to an answer, or “even better, go through the side door’. This alternative view demonstrates the extents undergone by pupils to compete with private school pupils, who have received an advantage due to their wealth, a flaw in society that has always existed as a rich and poor divide in terms of opportunities being more readily for those who are wealthier, or even within terms of subcategories, Old Money.

However, despite the setbacks that each character supposedly possesses due to their lack of family wealth, each character within the play are offered a placement in Oxford, an opportunity that would have been fought by private and public schools alike. Such a historic divide is therefore not as evident within the closing stages of the play, of which offers such a fair resolution in comparison to the competitive element within the rest of the play- describing private school pupils as ‘thoroughbreds for this one particular race.’ Such semantics of racing could be interpreted as the pupils racing towards success, whilst the educational board gamble upon their eventual position, an idea somewhat mirrored by the rigorous testing that pupils undergo throughout their school lives. Overall, the play conveys the message that society has undergone changes, albeit several main issues within society still remaining, such as attitudes to women. Although it cannot be denied that there will have been small amendments to attitudes, the circumstances surrounding sexim remains unchanged overall, the play would not have been relatable should parallels have not been seen between today’s society and the one Bennett described in 2004, of 1980. One way of describing history in a way that fits such motifs conveyed within the play is simply the fact that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. No two events can be exactly the same, the past cannot be repeated, but yet parallelisms can be drawn between the events that are simply ‘one fucking thing after another’. This is like the society that Alan Bennett speaks of, although changes have been made that impacts upon it, such as the National Curriculum, pupils from different origins and financial backgrounds are still receiving a somewhat less profitable education than others. This is a similarity between the newer and pre-modified society that can be deemed unchanged due to the lack of solution to oppose the problem of the rich and poor divide in schooling, although measures for this to be eradicated have been introduced, and new lengths explored.


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