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The lessons of `History'

Alan Bennett's `The History Boys' is a hit in Britain and abroad. A movie is coming and Broadway awaits--all with the same cast. What's driving this meditation on education.

April 09, 2006|David Gritten | Special to The Times

London — THIS month, Broadway will see a delightful "class reunion" of a remarkable stage cast that has stuck together for two years, performed in four countries, dipped into another medium and enjoyed unprecedented success. The original cast of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," unquestionably the National Theatre's most successful production in recent years, will make its bow at New York's Broadhurst Theatre on April 23, marking the culmination of an extraordinary run.

The play focuses on two influential schoolteachers with wildly contrasting philosophies of education and eight smart, witty high school boys studying for exams that will allow them to enter one of England's two leading seats of learning -- the "ancient universities" Oxford and Cambridge.

As an author and playwright, Bennett, 71, is held in huge public affection in Britain, so it was no surprise that "The History Boys" would be a hit. But few foresaw that the play would turn out to be such a phenomenon.

It even triggered a debate in Britain about the purpose of education in modern life. Is it simply a means of acquiring the right qualifications to become eligible for desirable jobs? Or is it something to savor and relish, with no need for further justification beyond the love of learning itself?

The two schoolmasters in "The History Boys" stand for these opposing attitudes. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a young, media-savvy teacher who cynically urges his pupils to write essays with eye-catching, provocative views; in this way, he insists, they will receive marks for originality from their examiners. Unsurprisingly, Irwin later becomes a controversial presenter of history documentaries on TV.

But the beloved veteran English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths) believes in culture and intellectual inquiry; he opposes Irwin and despises the school's results-driven headmaster (Clive Merrison).

"Even in rehearsals, I didn't realize it would be as popular as it proved," says the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, who directs the play. "After I read it, I said: 'It's brilliant, but it's quite esoteric.' We scheduled 70 or 80 performances." Yet it has been performed 281 times at the National, each time to a sellout audience. In recent weeks, "The History Boys" has toured triumphantly in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia before arriving on Broadway; there was no empty seat at any venue.

Last summer, after a break from performing the play at the National, Hytner and the cast came together to shoot a film, adapted by Bennett himself. They used two adjacent schools in Watford, a town some 20 miles northwest of London. The film, made on a modest budget of around $3.4 million, will be distributed by Fox Searchlight, though BBC Films contributed funds for British broadcast rights.

Clearly, the trick for the film is to replicate what makes "The History Boys" work on stage. That suggests pressure, but on one day in Watford last summer, the on-set mood was relaxed and jokey. The production had taken over one school's main hall, and on its stage the History Boys were singing a tribute to Hector: a close-harmony version of "Bye Bye Blackbird."

Seats in the hall were filled by extras playing staff, parents and pupils. Hytner padded around amiably as the camera tracked slowly, capturing the boys' faces. In a corner, wearing his trademark expression, a blend of wistful hope and dawning disappointment, Bennett wrote on a notepad. Famously shy around the media, he kept his head down and his gaze averted.

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Schooled in adapting

WHEN the scene was completed, Hytner calmly said, "Cut," and the hall dissolved into excited chatter. The eight actors (mostly in their 20s) playing the boys stood round a piano as one of them, Jamie Parker, improvised blues and jazz tunes. Extras playing younger students crowded around, peppering them with questions. Then Hytner, smiling broadly, strode through the hall like a pied piper, leading a trail of excitable boys to a monitor, where they watched a playback of the scene.

The mood was one of happy confidence among people who knew each other well; unusually for a play transferring from stage to screen, the entire cast has remained intact.

Hytner and Bennett have already been down this road. Bennett's play "The Madness of George III," directed by Hytner, also premiered at the National and became "The Madness of King George" on film in 1994. But this time, Hytner said, the adaptation process was quite different.

"We really opened up for the film of King George, but then the places where its characters lived and worked cried out to be opened up. The world of this story is the school, so the big decision we took was not to twist ourselves in knots trying to give it a false sense of scale.

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