The History Boys

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The History Boys Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett was born in Leeds, England. He attended Oxford University, and received his undergraduate degree in Medieval History. He co-wrote and performed in a comedy revue called Beyond the Fringe when he was in his mid-twenties, and this launched his theater career. Since then, Bennett has worked in theater, television, and radio. He has been an actor and a director as well as a writer. He is best known for his plays The Madness of George III and The History Boys. Bennett still lives in Britain with his partner, Rupert Thomas.
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Historical Context of The History Boys
The History Boys takes place in 1980s Britain, when Margaret Thatcher was in power. The play does not directly reference the political context of the time, but some of Thatcher’s policies affected Britain’s educational climate. She cut funding significantly for British universities. After her 1988 Education Reform Act, schools had to follow a national curriculum and submit to periodic inspections. Such measures may have contributed to the Headmaster’s insistence on quantifiable results from his teachers, thus creating a backdrop for the play.
Other Books Related to The History Boys
The History Boys was turned into a movie after it was published, and it was one of many movies produced in the early 2000s that focused on Britain in the 1980s. Others included Son of Rambow, which focuses on two British schoolboys trying to make a film together one summer, and This is England, which examines 1980s skinheads and white nationalism. Alan Bennett has written many other works, including the play The Madness of George III, which he also adapted into a movie with British director Nicholas Hynter. He has often collaborated with Hynter, including on his 2009 play The Habit of Art, which centers on the poet W.H. Auden, who is also referenced in The History Boys. Hynter took over as the Artistic Director of Britain’s National Theater in 2003, just before he staged The History Boys. He produced other new work by British playwrights at around the same time, including Elmina’s Kitchen in 2003 and On the Shore of the Wide World in 2005.
Key Facts about The History Boys
  • Full Title: The History Boys
  • When Written: 2004
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: First performed in 2004.
  • Literary Period: Contemporary drama
  • Genre: British Realistic Drama
  • Setting: Cutlers’ Grammar School, a fictional boys’ grammar school in Northern Britain, some time in the 1980s.
  • Climax: While taking Irwin home on his motorcycle, Hector has an accident. The crash cripples Irwin and kills Hector.
  • Antagonist: The Headmaster is in some ways the play’s antagonist. He is a strict and inflexible presence at the school, and comes across as anti-intellectual. He seems to care about the boys’ Oxford and Cambridge careers for the wrong reasons.
  • Point of View: Play
Extra Credit for The History Boys

Re-writing Posner for the stage. Alan Bennett changed and revised his script during the rehearsal process for The History Boys. He had originally written Posner as a boy who matures very late in life (this was based on Bennett’s own experience). In one early draft, the play’s last line was Posner saying, “It’s not all bad news. My voice is breaking.” But the play’s director, Nicholas Hynter, said that it would be too difficult to cast a teenaged actor whose voice had not yet broken. Bennett re-wrote the part to remove this detail.

Cheating death. In 1997, Alan Bennett was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He began work on an autobiographical work called Untold Stories, which he expected to publish only posthumously. But the chemotherapy worked, and Bennett’s cancer went into remission. He published Untold Stories, and in 2004, finished The History Boys.