The History Boys

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The History Boys Act 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Act two opens with Irwin, about five years after the end of act one, sitting in a wheelchair and talking to a camera. He is doing a television piece on King Henry VIII, who dissolved Catholic monasteries during his reign in the 1500s. Irwin narrates a shot of the latrine at one of these monasteries. He laments that, for many tourists, “the monastic life only comes alive when contemplating its toilet arrangements.” Then the Director comes out to tell him that he sounds a bit too “schoolmasterly.” They begin the narration again. Irwin describes the many other aspects monastic life that a visitor might conceivably enjoy learning about, but concludes, “God is dead. Shit lives.” He says that scraps of fabric, once used as toilet paper, now inhabit the abbey museum.
At the beginning of the second act, we see that Irwin’s emphasis on performance has led him to become an academic entertainer. This is probably a lucrative career, and one that gives Irwin social accolades—but the downside is that he has to make his analysis less deep (less “schoolmasterly”) than he might otherwise want to do. Irwin’s speech about the toilet touches on the same theme. In order to make history accessible and TV-friendly, he has to focus on the sensational or provocative elements of it.
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Irwin goes on to say that these “rags are hallowed…by time.” They have become “sanitised by the years and sanctified, too.” He ends the segment by saying that the “cults” of today are no more rational than the ones that came before. He stumbles a bit as he finishes, and apologizes to the Director, who says this is unusual for Irwin, and suggests that they take a break. Irwin wheels himself back to a Man who has been watching, and asks if all this sounds familiar. He says that it is “meretricious, of course, but that’s nothing new.” The Man asks what meretricious means, and Irwin says that it means “eye-catching, showy; false.”
We have already encountered the idea that age alone is not enough to make something important. Hector expressed this idea about Oxbridge, and Irwin here suggests that many people who study history also focus on old things just because they’re old. At this point, Irwin seems to have become disillusioned by his own educational philosophy: he tells the Man (Posner, as we will see later) that it is “showy” and “false.”
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The Man says that Irwin was a “good teacher,” and Irwin replies that meretricious people are often effective teachers, especially on TV. He says that his disability also makes him come off as more sincere. Then he says to the Man, “I hope they’re paying you well,” and asks who gave him the idea. The Man says that he has a “counsellor,” or a psychiatrist, who thought that this project would help him. Irwin asks, “What happened at Oxford?” and the Man says that he actually went to Cambridge, but “it didn’t work out.” He says he spent all his energy trying to get in, and “I thought I’d got somewhere, then I found I had to go on.”
Irwin has always been skilled at self-presentation—he used that skill to help the boys navigate their exams. Here, he even understands that his disability can serve to make him look more “sincere.” This social intelligence is important to get through life, even if it’s a bit shallow. It’s suggested that the Man is a former student, and that he has grown to understand Hector’s philosophy about Oxford and Cambridge as he got older. In this scene, Hector’s way of looking at the world seems to have staying power, while Irwin has begun to distrust his own philosophy, even though it helped him get ahead in life.
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Replying to Irwin’s question about the money, the Man says that his counsellor told him payment would be “therapeutic.” Irwin says he’s surprised anyone is interested in the story, and we gather that the Man is writing some sort of journalistic piece. He says that because Irwin is a celebrity, the story doesn’t have to be a big one. Irwin asks if the Man wrote the piece, and the man says “yes,” then clarifies that he had help from someone at the paper. He says that Irwin looks good in the story. Irwin asks how Hector comes off. The man doesn’t reply.
The Man seems to be using social acceptance and success (in the form of money) to deal with internal turmoil (he has a therapist). However, he has just said that Oxford and Cambridge failed to make him happy—this journalism strategy might be doomed, too. Irwin, as usual, is concerned with appearances. He wants to come off well in the piece, but he also wants to know how Hector looks.
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Then the Man says that the piece doesn’t mention anything about Irwin and Dakin. Irwin says that nothing happened with Dakin, and the Man says he doesn’t believe that. Irwin says “it’s not true,” and the Man says, “you used to say that wasn’t important.” He says that Irwin “liked” Dakin, and asks if he wants to talk about it. Irwin repeats that nothing happened. The man asks if Dakin liked Irwin—he says, “I need to know.” Irwin asks why. Then Irwin asks if the Man is recording this conversation, and the Man doesn’t reply. Irwin realizes (or assumes) that he is, and asks, “how did you come to this?”
The Man here shows how shallow Irwin’s beliefs about truth can seem. Of course, it’s very important to Irwin whether or not he truly had sex with Dakin—but he often argues that truth isn’t at issue in history. We also begin to sense in this moment that Dakin and Irwin’s relationship is personally important to the Man (giving more hints to his identity as Posner). Even after many years, the Man feels a personal stake in the sexual relationship of two other men.
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The Man says that it won’t go to print without a comment from Irwin, and that it’s a chance to tell his side of the story, to avoid looking like Hector. Irwin says, “I wasn’t like Hector. Now fuck off.” He wheels back towards the Director, and the Man calls after him, asking if he can sign a book. Irwin takes it, and asks whom to make it out to. The Man says it’s for him, David. Irwin says that he only knows the Man as Posner. He says that he’s going to inscribe the book “To Posner,” and that he means it to be “unfriendly.” Posner briefly protests, but then he is hurried away by a Make-up Assistant.
Irwin here overcomes his desire to maintain his image. He knows that he didn’t grope the boys like Hector did, and he doesn’t need a newspaper article to say so. This suggests a growing understanding that there is some kind of personal truth that isn’t dependent on other people’s perceptions of you. It’s also finally revealed that the Man is Posner—who is still dwelling on the past social dynamics of the school. He seems to have remained an outsider, and is still unhappy, despite his intellectual aptitude.
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Irwin goes back to the lighted area to film his narration. He says that nowadays, people care more about things than they do about people, and that this is why they find Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries shocking. It meant the destruction and loss of things. He says that people don’t focus on a loss of community or on the loss of a spiritual practice. This is ironic, Irwin says, because the monasteries were meant to be a place to escape things. He ends with the counterintuitive conclusion that the dissolution of the monasteries thus brought them to their purpose and their “apotheosis” by allowing an escape from worldly objects. The Director says that sounds good, though “apotheosis” might still be too erudite. Irwin responds that this is “BBC Two,” which is a place for British television’s more highbrow shows.
Irwin is still using his old intellectual formula, making counterintuitive claims to sound smart. In fact, the Director thinks that he sounds a little too smart, a reminder that Irwin isn’t purely an entertainer at heart. In fact, Irwin’s point about the monasteries rings true in this scene, especially in the context of the play’s overall argument about history. Bennett has suggested that historical stories can never encompass the whole truth of an experience, and Irwin makes that point here, saying that people focus on the wrong things when they look back at the story of the monasteries.
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The scene flashes back again, to Hector’s classroom. Hector seems “somber and distracted.” Posner steps up to define apotheosis: “a perfect example of its type. Moment of highest fulfillment.” It takes Hector a moment to realize what he has said, but then he says that this is “very good.” He calls the class’s attention, and says that he has something to tell them. Akthar and Dakin cut him off, saying that they know: Hector is now going to share his lesson times with Irwin. Hector begins to say that that wasn’t what he was going to tell them, but Timms, Lockwood, Crowther, and Akthar are busy quipping with each other about how different Hector’s lessons are from Irwin’s. Hector says that he’s not in the mood for this. Dakin jokes, “what mood is that sir? The subjunctive?”
This scene transition makes the point that Hector’s classes teach people more, at least in some ways, than Irwin’s historical broadcasts do. Posner is expected to know and define the word “apotheosis,” which is too difficult for the TV audience. This scene also reminds us of Mrs. Lintott’s point that students don’t tend to see teachers as people—the boys focus on their own jokes rather than on the important talk that Hector wants to have with them. They are looking with hope towards their own lives and futures, and they don’t necessarily notice that the teachers might have their own hopes, dreams, and troubles.
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Hector tells them all to get back to reading. Akthar and Lockwood complain that that’s no fun. Hector, becoming more worked up, asks if they think his classes are just fun. Posner tries to say that they’re more than just fun, and Akthar asks if Posner singing will cheer Hector up. Then Hector loses his temper. He tells them to “shut up,” calling them “mindless fools.” He asks, “what made me piss my life away in this god-forsaken place? There’s nothing left of me.” He dismisses the class and puts his head on his desk. At first the boys think that he’s joking, but when they realize he’s serious, they don’t know what to do. Scripps is closest to Hector, and he motions to Dakin that Hector is crying. Neither boy moves to comfort him. Eventually, Posner comes up and pats him on the back. Scripps, narrating to the audience, says that he should have been the one to do this, or Dakin, but that they didn’t. He says that he later wrote the scene down.
Hector’s breakdown is the clearest evidence we have that he feels, at least in some ways, that his life has been a failure. His classes include fun and silliness, which he usually seems to feel serve an important purpose, but here he questions that assumption—or at least is frustrated by his own past happiness. The play as a whole never lets the audience get too comfortable with any one interpretation of events, and that’s part of Bennett’s argument about history—it’s impossible to tell a complete story that takes every nuance into account. In the previous scene, we saw that Irwin has in some ways come to think of his own educational philosophy as false and showy, and here we see that Hector doubts his, too. The play doesn’t hold either of the men up as the true path to success and happiness.
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Hector begins to recover. He says that he doesn’t know what he was crying about. Timms, trying to bring things back to normal, says that Dakin and Scripps have a scene from a film for him. Hector says that’s good, as there are currently twenty-three pounds up to be won if he can’t guess it. The two boys do a portion of a scene from the movie The Seventh Veil. Hector pretends not to know it at first, but then gets it on his third try. The boys pay up, and the bell rings. They all clear out, and Hector is left alone on stage, “sitting at the table.”
The image of Hector alone at the table when the boys have left reminds us of his status as a social outsider. After all the noise and silliness have cleared out of his classroom, he’s alone with his own thoughts. In this moment, the fact that we don’t hear Hector’s internal dialogue (a device Bennett often uses to portray his characters’ unique inner lives) reminds us that we can’t always know the full personal story behind any series of events.
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The scene changes. The Headmaster asks Mrs. Lintott whether Hector told her the reason for his departure. She says, “more or less.” The Headmaster is surprised. He says that he hasn’t told anyone, and adds that he hopes Hector will decide to leave on his own. Mrs. Lintott says that Hector wants to stay, and that she’s here to ask about that. The Headmaster launches into a long explanation of Hector’s shortcomings as a teacher. He says that there’s no way to concretely measure Hector’s results, and that his classes are too wide-ranging. Then he says, “so the upshot is I am glad he handled his pupils’ balls because that at least I can categorize.” It is clear that Mrs. Lintott did not know this, and the Headmaster says that he assumed she did. He asks her to be discreet with this information, and tells her that it happened on the motorcycle, and that he finds it completely unacceptable.
The Headmaster articulates a vision of the modern British education system, which is results-driven. He wants to be able to “categorize” his teachers’ impact on their students. This vision of education demands a clear set of goals and standards, and it therefore relies on the idea that there is a certain clear, correct “truth” that the teachers can impart to students—and Hector’s teaching style doesn’t conform to these ideas (but neither does Irwin’s). Hector’s sexual acts with the boys become, in this scene, another thing to “categorize.” We see again that the Headmaster’s outlook on life is not emotional, and instead is all about results.
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The Headmaster exits, and Mrs. Lintott begins narrating to the audience. She says that she has so far not been given an inner voice in the play, but rather has been a witness to the “predilections and preoccupations of men.” She says that it is condescending of the Headmaster to assume so much discretion on her part. He is treating her as a safe person to confide in because she is a woman. Irwin enters, and Mrs. Lintott says to him that the Headmaster is “a twat.”
Again, the narrative aside calls attention to the way that the story is being told—this time to point out that we have been hearing only a male perspective on these events. The Headmaster didn’t imagine that Mrs. Lintott would call him a “twat”—he thought because she’s a woman, she would be deferential and discreet.
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Mrs. Lintott asks Irwin if he thinks that Hector is a good teacher, and Irwin says he supposes that he does. Mrs. Lintott says that she does not. She thinks that he inspires some students to think, unrealistically, that they can be artists. She wonders what learning poems and songs by heart is “except as some sort of insurance against the boys’ ultimate failure.” But she says that it doesn’t matter now, and Irwin asks her what she means. She doesn’t tell him. She asks why Irwin is here at the time of Hector’s lesson, and he reminds her that they are sharing. Mrs. Lintott assumes that this was the Headmaster’s idea. She exits, calling the Headmaster a “twat” as she goes.
Hector uses poetry as a buffer against his own failures, and perhaps he is teaching the boys to lead a life somewhat like his. Because we know that Hector’s life is marked by difficulty and loneliness, this may not be in the students’ best interests. Mrs. Lintott’s insight here thus links the theme of hope and failure with that of one’s educational philosophy. Irwin’s teaching style seems more appropriate to those who hope to avoid failure and find success, while Hector’s is appropriate for those who think that failure and suffering are inevitable.
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The boys and Hector enter the room. Irwin asks Hector how they should start, and he says that he usually has the boys decide. They are silent when Irwin asks them for ideas, and when Hector encourages them to respond and not to “sulk,” Dakin says that they’re not sure how to act, because they act differently in Irwin’s and Hector’s classes. Timms says that they’re not sure if they should be “thoughtful” or “smart.” Hector says they should be “civil,” and hits Timms. Timms lodges a mock complaint to Irwin as a “witness,” and Irwin tells them all to “settle down.” He says that he thinks they should talk about the Holocaust. Hector asks, nonplussed, how you can teach the Holocaust. Irwin takes this as their first question—can you and should you teach a class about the Holocaust?
This shared lesson dramatizes the clash between Irwin’s and Hector’s educational philosophies. The boys’ main difficulty seems to be that they don’t know how to act when both teachers are present—they adapt their behavior depending on the class. This reminds the audience of the play’s argument that neither Irwin’s nor Hector’s way of thinking about knowledge is inherently better. They simply create different outcomes, and lead the boys to behave (and, taking the long view, to live their lives) differently.
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Akthar says that it is “a subject like any other,” and Scripps protests that it’s “not like any other at all.” Hector says that concentration camps are now destinations for school trips, and that he has always wondered where students “eat their sandwiches.” Crowther says that it happens in a “’visitors’ center. It’s like anywhere else.” Hector further wonders whether they take pictures there, and says that there would be no appropriate expression in a photo, much as an exam question is inappropriate. He says that any answer will “demean the suffering involved.” Irwin says that “tone” or “tact” is the issue, and Hector calls it instead “decorum.”
This section extends the play’s arguments about our limited understanding of history. Hector’s view is that in telling a story about the Holocaust, or viewing it as a tourist attraction, we fail to fully recognize the human suffering involved. This recalls Irwin’s discussion about monasteries at the beginning of the act, when he argued that we can only relate to monks’ toilets, and not to their spiritual beliefs. In these cases, both teachers suggest that we are too pre-occupied with our own small, everyday concerns to be able to empathize fully with people in the past.
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Lockwood suggests that they could write that the Holocaust is so far beyond their life experience that they must remain silent on the topic. Dakin counters that this answer could apply to many different topics. Hector agrees, earnestly. Dakin then quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” Irwin says this is good, but Hector says it’s “flip” and “glib.” He calls it, groaningly, “journalism.” Dakin protests that it’s Hector who taught him this quote, and Hector says, “I didn’t teach you and Wittgenstein didn’t screw it out of his very guts in order for you to turn it into a dinky formula.” He says he thought Dakin would see that, and Dakin says that he does understand, he no longer agrees.
This exchange points to the difficulty of applying Hector’s educational philosophy in the real world. The boys must take the exam if they want to go to good universities, but in doing so, they have to ignore some of the ways that Hector has taught them to understand and empathize with people through history and literature. Hector here suggests that Dakin is not accessing to full truth of Wittgenstein’s statement, but is instead reducing it to a formula that he can use to pass an exam. To Hector, this is not what education should be about—but Dakin is now rebelling against his teacher’s views.
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Timms recalls a time in class when Hector said that one death can be more instructive than many deaths. Timms quotes Hector back to himself: “when people are dying like flies, you said, that is what they are dying like.” But Posner objects that in the Holocaust, people were “processed” and killed, and that this makes it different. Irwin says this is good, and Hector objects, saying, “Posner is not making a point. He is speaking from the heart.” Dakin says that this doesn’t matter. He turns to Irwin, and reminds him of his idea that Hitler is not a crazed lunatic, but a politician “discernibly operating within the framework of traditional German foreign policy.” Dakin asks whether, within that argument, they could say that “the death camps have to be seen in the context of this policy.” Irwin calls this line of argument “inexpedient.” Hector repeats the word incredulously.
The distinction here between making a point and speaking from the heart gets at the tension between the two educational philosophies in the play. These approaches seem to be at odds, but Posner is able to make an original and compelling argument about the Holocaust, and he does so because of his emotional connection to the subject matter. Dakin, on the other hand, uses Irwin’s formulaic approach, and comes up with an argument that even Irwin finds distasteful.
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Irwin starts to say that for one thing, the argument isn’t true. But Scripps cuts in to remind him that they’ve already discarded truth as a major factor in crafting their examination answers. It’s practically just “another point of view.” Hector asks, “why can you not simply condemn the camps outright as an unprecedented horror?” A “slight embarrassment” follows these words, and Lockwood replies that it won’t set them apart, because every student will take this line: “evil unprecedented, etc.” Hector says that “etcetera” is what the Nazis would have said, and that reading George Orwell should have taught them to treat language with more care. Lockwood revises his wording, but still suggests that the camps could be put “in proportion” in an examination answer.
Here, Irwin undercuts his own argument from previous classes when he suggests that the boys should be looking for some sort of “truth” in history. This suggests that he understands the shortcomings of his approach—or at least acknowledges them when dealing with a sensitive subject like the Holocaust. Though there is no one historical truth, it is still possible to misinterpret events by approaching them in a way that is too detached or formulaic—and Irwin’s approach always runs this risk.
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Scripps objects to the word “proportion” and Dakin calls it “context.” Posner says that putting something in context is on the road towards explaining it away, and forgetting its true gravity. Rudge speaks a French proverb meaning “to understand all is to forgive all,” and Hector is again discouraged by the shallow use of this quote (he groans). Irwin says Posner’s point is “good” and Posner counters, “It isn’t ‘good.’ I mean it, sir.” Dakin says that putting the Holocaust in context is the same as putting the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in context, but Posner says that the Holocaust is different because his relatives were killed. Irwin says “good point” and Scripps objects that Irwin sees the Holocaust as just another topic for the exam. Irwin says this isn’t true, but that as historians, it is important to find distance, even on a subject like the Holocaust.
The idea of stripping emotion from academia is a major feature of Irwin’s philosophy, and a major way in which it differs from Hector’s. This points to the ways that these two teachers see education functioning in life. Hector views education as a part of one’s personal life, while Irwin views it as wholly separate. This partly points to the age difference between the two teachers. For Hector, education is inseparable from life, and this is not always for the best (his marriage may have suffered for it). Irwin, on the other hand, may not yet understand that it’s usually impossible to keep one’s emotional life and career completely separate.
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The bell rings. Irwin tells Hector that he thought the lesson went well. Hector says that it was discouraging to hear the boys use his knowledge in that way. He had hoped to be “lining their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact.” But the boys have been drawn to use that literature as part of Irwin’s examination game. The worst part of it, he says, is that Irwin “wanted them to show off, to come up with the short answer, the handy quote.” He says that it’s time for him to go, and Irwin asks where, but Scripps and Dakin enter, so Hector says that he just means he has to go home. He exits.
This moment, when Hector reveals that he also wants the boys to compete on the exam, suggests that Mrs. Lintott’s idea about “insurance against ultimate failure” might be correct. Hector does want the boys to be successful, but his style of teaching does not have that as its goal. Yet Hector also fails to recognize that the class period was intellectually stimulating and challenging for the boys because it involved a clash between his teaching style and Irwin’s, both of which have some intellectual value. The play has argued that adulthood involves balancing competing values, and this class on the Holocaust suggests that the boys should, in fact, draw from both Hector’s and Irwin’s teachings if they want to have happy and successful lives.
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Dakin tells Irwin that he and Scripps were just discussing whether Irwin is disingenuous—insincere—or meretricious—falsely attractive. Dakin says that Irwin is not disingenuous. He asks whether Irwin’s idea that our perspective changes on history as time goes on also applies to literature. Irwin says that it doesn’t—art is different. Dakin says, “we still love you, even if you are a bit flash,” and Irwin exits.
Irwin’s statement that “art is different” affects our reading of the play, which, of course, falls into the art category. Even Irwin believes that literature can contain emotional truths that endure over time. Thus the play suggests that it is not always possible to know the factual truth of events, but it may be possible to communicate emotional truths through art.
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Scripps teases Dakin for flirting with Irwin. Dakin says that he wants to impress Irwin in a way that surprises even himself. Scripps says that what he doesn’t like about Irwin is the way he argues for things that he doesn’t even believe in, and Dakin says that sex is like that—just “making it up all the time. Being different, outrageous.” Then Dakin says that Hector no longer seems to like him as much. Scripps says that he’s stopped taking anyone on his motorcycle. Dakin says that’s because he’s been fired—he found out through Fiona. Scripps is surprised, but they both agree that they won’t miss the “genital massage.” Dakin asks if they are “scarred for life,” and Scripps says that he hopes it will “turn me into Proust.”
Dakin here suggests that he views sex as a performance, much in the same way that Irwin views academics. We have already seen ways in which Irwin’s philosophy is shallow, and Dakin’s sexual philosophy seems similarly shallow as well. It doesn’t take emotions into account, and Dakin also doesn’t describe Fiona as a person. The boys are also flippant about Hector’s groping, while for Hector, the groping is very serious—both as an expression of repressed desires and as the act that has destroyed his career.
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The scene changes to the Headmaster’s study. He tells Irwin that he’s gotten a letter from Posner’s parents, who are Jewish, and object to Irwin’s ideas about putting the Holocaust in “proportion.” Irwin says that they did discuss the Holocaust, and “ways of discussing it that went beyond mere lamentation.” The Headmaster doesn’t want to hear this argument. He says that Irwin must write a letter of apology to the Posner parents, and suggests again that Irwin grow a moustache. Then the scene changes. Posner tells Irwin that he suggested to his family that the Holocaust is “a historical fact like other historical facts,” and Irwin apologizes for being “too dispassionate.” Posner asks what he should do if the Holocaust comes up on the exam. Irwin says that, because he’s Jewish, Posner can get away with more on the exam than other students can. He concludes, “but…say what you think.”
The Headmaster is, as usual, only concerned with image. He doesn’t object to Irwin’s argument on intellectual or moral grounds: he is just concerned that it made some parents angry. This conversation reminds us of the need to balance social convention with intellectual exploration. Irwin makes a similar argument to Posner—that Posner’s status as a Jewish student means that he has the ability to make different arguments about the Holocaust than other students could. Irwin counsels Posner to use a mix of social finesse and intellectual ability to be successful on the exam—essentially to exploit any advantage possible.
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In a new scene, Irwin is passing back essays. Dakin boasts that he’s getting the hang of Irwin’s expectations—“it’s like a game”—but it turns out that Irwin has given him a low grade. Scripps tells Dakin that his handwriting is starting to look like Irwin’s, and that Posner’s is too. Posner responds that Dakin writes like Irwin, while he writes like Dakin. Dakin says that he talks about Irwin so much now that Fiona has to have sex with him to get him to stop talking. Scripps asks if Dakin has considered sleeping with Irwin, and Dakin says that he’s thought about it, to “bring a little sunshine into [Irwin’s] life.”
In this scene, sexual attraction leads to social conformity, as the boys end up having similar writing styles because of their desires. Posner even points out this specific connection, suggesting that he writes like Dakin because he likes Dakin, while Dakin writes like Irwin because he likes Irwin. Dakin also flaunts his sexuality, gratuitously bringing up his relationship with Fiona, and also assuming that he can make Irwin happy just by sleeping with him.
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Scripps begins to ask Dakin about having sex with Fiona, and Posner asks whether Dakin is ever worried about not having sex to look forward to anymore. Dakin says he looks forward to more sex—and he just wishes that it could be with Irwin. Dakin exits. Posner tells Scripps that he knows Irwin likes Dakin. Posner always looks at Dakin in class, so he sees Irwin doing so, to. Scripps comforts Posner that his feelings “will pass.” Posner says he’s not sure he wants them too, but they’re painful. Scripps reminds him that Hector considers pain the best education. Posner says he wishes he could get graded for it.
Posner’s question about delaying the gratification of sex recalls his conversation with Hector at the end of act one. Posner is inclined to stay on the edges of life, not jumping fully into anything, and this will likely lead to frustration. Posner’s comments about pain also remind us that the emotional education that Hector wants to give the boys doesn’t lead to any external validation, even if it does strengthen them emotionally.
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The scene changes. Hector, Irwin, and Mrs. Lintott are sitting behind a table, giving the boys mock admissions interviews. They ask the boys about their interests, but when Crowther begins to mention acting, Irwin says that he shouldn’t emphasize that. The university professors will look down on it. Hector says, wryly, “so much for Shakespeare,” and encourages the boys to talk about what they enjoy. When Posner says he like Mozart, Irwin tells him to say something more unusual. Hector says that they should tell the truth. Irwin agrees, provided that they can “make it seem like [they’re] telling the truth.”
In this scene, Irwin teaches the boys to portray an image of truth rather than truth itself, as he believes that truth is not always the most effective way to get ahead. Hector, on the other hand, thinks that it’s more important to be yourself than it is to get into a good university. These mock interviews show that the boys will have to be particular versions of themselves if they want to get into Oxford and Cambridge—and the implication here is that worldly success leaves little room for personal expression.
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Hector asks Mrs. Lintott what she thinks. She reminds them that one of the dons interviewing them might be a woman. She says she doubts they have considered this. She catches Dakin yawning as she speaks. Timms says that this line of conversation is embarrassing to the boys, because the inequality is “not [their] fault.” Lockwood quotes Wittgenstein to back up this point: “the world is everything that is the case.” Mrs. Lintott asks if Wittgenstein was gay (“did he travel on the other bus?”) and Hector confirms that he was. She says this makes sense, as the quote Lockwood has offered actually shows a “rueful, accepting” stance toward the world, while a straight man would say, “the world is everything that can be made to seem the case.”
Mrs. Lintott points out that the men in the room have been blind to one factor that affects admissions: gender. She suggests that Irwin’s way of looking at the world — it is “everything that can be made to seem the case” — is typical of straight male privilege. Each of the teachers on the panel has a different view of reality and how the boys should best express it. In the context of history admissions interviews, this reminds us that there is no one historical truth. It all depends on perspective, and perspective includes gender.
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Mrs. Lintott says that there are no women historians on TV because they “don’t get carried away” promoting whatever new thought comes into their heads. The other reason, she says, is that history is more painful for women than it is for men, because they “never get round the conference table.” History, therefore, is made up of men’s mistakes and “incapabilities.” She says, “what is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.” They don’t need to argue this on the exam, she says, but they might allude to it briefly. The boys meet this tirade with silence. Mrs. Lintott notes that the other teachers, and some of the boys, seem to “find this undisguised expression of feeling distasteful.”
Mrs. Lintott’s story about history takes a different set of events into account. Usually, stories focus on the conference table where decisions are made, not on a person “following behind with the bucket.” Her point is similar to Irwin’s point about how the boys should tell an unconventional story about history, but Irwin has been acting from a male perspective of power and privilege—being able to shape history however he wants to. Mrs. Lintott also includes emotion in her argument, which is more in line with Hector’s style, and she adds an understanding of gender that neither man has incorporated.
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Irwin calls Rudge for a mock interview. Mrs. Lintott asks him how he defines history. He answers, after asking permission to swear, that “it’s just one fucking thing after another.” She asks him why he wants to come to Christ Church, the smaller college within Oxford University that he has chosen to apply to. Rudge says that he thought he had the best chance of acceptance there. He wants to talk about sports, but eventually says that he also likes movies. They discuss this briefly, then Rudge says bluntly that he’s “shit at this,” but maybe they’ll accept him because he’s “dull and ordinary” and pleasant to spend time with on the golf course. He “may not know much about Jean-Paul Sartre,” but he is good at golf. The bell goes off, ending Rudge’s interview. The boys file out.
Rudge here brings up class as another hidden aspect of the admissions process. Irwin has been coaching the boys to present a certain image, and that image is also of someone who isn’t “dull and ordinary”—who is, or has the potential to be, an upper-class person. Rudge says that he can’t project that image, and doesn’t want to. He also offers a different view of history: he’s arguing that it doesn’t have a story, it’s just a random collection of events. This is actually very close to the play’s overall argument about history. Rudge again proves to have more intellectual ability than most people give him credit for.
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Dakin and Irwin are left on stage. Dakin asks how Irwin did at Oxford, and he says that he got a second degree (not top honors). He says that he was at Corpus college. Dakin notes that none of the boys are applying there. He asks if Irwin thinks they’ll be happy at university, and Irwin says that Dakin will be. Dakin fills in the reason: he is “uncomplicated,” “outgoing,” and “straight.” He says he might prefer to be “complicated.” Irwin asks how Posner is doing, given that he likes Dakin. Dakin says that Posner’s affection is “boring” and that he wouldn’t do anything about it, because Posner is “too young.” The sexual charge has been building throughout this scene, and then Dakin tells Irwin, “you still look quite young.” There is a long pause.
Sexuality, like class and gender, also influences how people’s lives unfold. Dakin suggests that he has a better chance at happiness given that he is straight, but he also (rather naively) says that he sometimes wishes his life had more pain in it—a reminder of Scripps’s statement that pain is the best education. Happiness and intellectual growth seem to be at odds in this scene, but of course the reality is always more complicated. The long-anticipated affair between Dakin and Irwin now seems practically inevitable.
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Dakin asks Irwin how history happens, then fills in the answer: people “make moves.” Irwin responds that “others react to events.” They banter briefly about whether Poland was “surprised” by Hitler’s advances, then turn to Dakin’s essay, which is about “turning points” in history. Irwin suggests a few major ones, and Dakin agrees that he has written about them, but he has also written about two moments when chance or randomness came into play and led to drastic consequences. Irwin says that this essay sounds “first class.” Dakin says it’s like a game, and Irwin reminds him that thinking about history this way makes him take another look at what actually happened. Dakin calls this “subjunctive history,” and says Hector is crazy about the subjunctive, the “mood you use when something might or might not have happened.”
Posner previously said that he stands at the edges of life without taking bold action, and here Irwin seems to have a similar tendency. Dakin, on the other hand, is drawn to action. This scene uses the sexual tension between Dakin and Irwin to make a point about how history unfolds. Actions have unintended consequences, and actions that aren’t taken can also be crucial. In this moment, a sexual affair between Dakin and Irwin seems probable, but hasn’t happened yet. After the fact, the story will seem set, but this scene serves to remind us that history is actually fluid and random.
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In a new scene, the boys and teachers are all taking a photograph. Posner, squatting in front, jokes that he’d “just like to graduate to a chair.” Mrs. Lintott and the Headmaster arrange the boys, and then the Headmaster asks Hector to take the photo. Mrs. Lintott objects, but the Headmaster says the photo is “for the school.” He tells them to “look like Oxbridge material,” As Hector takes the photo, he quotes a line of poetry: “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life.” The boys do a “farewell song and dance” to a Gracie Fields song, and then they all exit.
Hector’s line of poetry here calls attention to the sense of hope that this moment contains. The boys are celebrating the end of a major life chapter, but their life in the future will contain mostly small moments—not big ones like this. The photo will also be a “true” image of this moment, but it won’t express all of the complicated dynamics that we’ve come to understand throughout the play.
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Irwin and Mrs. Lintott wait for the Headmaster. They are not sure what he wants to discuss with them, but they assume that it has to do with Hector. Irwin asks if Hector’s wife knows what’s going on, and Mrs. Lintott says that Hector doesn’t think so. Mrs. Lintott herself suspects that his wife does an idea of the truth, and may even have married Hector for his “lukewarm attentions.” Mrs. Lintott muses on the randomness of Hector’s fate, “the junction of a dizzying range of alternatives any one of which could have had a different outcome.” She says that analyzing this incident with the students would teach them more about history than she has “managed to do so far.”
In Mrs. Lintott’s opinion, Hector’s wife is probably aware of her husband’s homosexual inclinations, and may even welcome them. Mrs. Lintott’s analysis gives Hector’s wife a perspective and an opinion, something that the male characters in the play have not yet done. Mrs. Lintott’s comments about the randomness of history also remind the audience that it is useless to try to look for a clear narrative to explain events. There’s no one true explanation.
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Irwin wonders aloud how the boys will do at University. Mrs. Lintott asks him if he wishes he could go back, and he says that he’s “not clever enough. Not…anything enough really.” He says that he fantasizes about making a big research breakthrough to “fling it in their faces,” and Mrs. Lintott suggests that Oxford just cares that he make a lot of money. Hector and the Headmaster emerge from the office, and the Headmaster calls Mrs. Lintott in with him. The Headmaster and Mrs. Lintott exit.
Here, we learn more about Irwin’s hopes and dreams. He wanted to make academic breakthroughs so that he could feel successful—and also achieve a kind of revenge. Mrs. Lintott reminds him that success in other realms of life might also earn him the acclaim that he wants. Irwin is young, but he already feels that he has failed, and he wants to find ways to redeem himself. His academic bravado is one of those ways.
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Hector tells Irwin that the discussion will be about his “marching orders,” and Irwin says that Dakin has already told him. Hector asks if Irwin knows why he has been asked to leave, and Irwin says yes. Hector says that he has an idea to make a mobile library and drive around on “the open road.” Then he says that he didn’t want to teach students who, in middle age, would talk grandly (and, he implies, shallowly) in middle age about their “love of words.” He tells Irwin that that’s why he includes so much “sheer calculated silliness”— to fight against that self-aggrandizement.
Irwin just expressed a desire for a grand self-image as an academic, but here Hector muses on the fact that this kind of image is shallow and ultimately false. Hector wants students to actually live better, not to simply use literature as a way to make themselves appear smarter or more successful. Now that he himself is old and facing failure, he simply wants to experience more of life by traveling.
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Irwin asks if a student has ever made Hector “unhappy,” and Hector says that he’s over that phase. He sees pain as an “inoculation” which will “provide immunity” for future situations. Irwin calls this “love,” and Hector says that no one could love him because he talks too much. Then Hector tells Irwin not to keep teaching. Irwin says that he didn’t “intend” to, and Hector says that most people end up doing it without intending to. He expected teaching young people to “renew” him and provide “vitality,” but instead it creates “a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference.” Hector cautions Irwin not to “touch him” (implying Dakin). He says it will make the boys think Irwin is a “fool,” as they now think that Hector is.
Hector and Irwin are here discussing the ways that they can deal with sexual attraction to students. Hector tells Irwin that it might be painful to ignore it, but he should—it won’t bring the happiness that he seeks. Hector also suggests that some of his “wisdom” is actually just fatigue. He doesn’t necessarily have the key to life, even if some students think that he does. Teachers can’t rely on students for fulfillment, and students can’t rely on teachers, either. Hector thus suggests that you have to find fulfillment for yourself, and that neither sex nor philosophy is a shortcut to happiness.
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Mrs. Lintott re-emerges from the office. Hector says that he assumes she knew, and the boys too. Mrs. Lintott jokes that “they had it first hand.” Hector begins to say that it was “more in benediction than gratification,” but Mrs. Lintott says that she loves Hector, but “a grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation.” Then she says that the Headmaster is hoping Irwin will take over her position when she leaves next year. The Headmaster comes out and calls Irwin in.
Hector argues that he wasn’t looking for sexual gratification, and was instead acting in the way that a priest might, trying to confer a blessing on the boys. This sounds far-fetched, and Mrs. Lintott is practical about it. She suggests that no matter how it felt to Hector, the way that other people understand his actions has greater effects.
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In a narration to the audience, Scripps, Dakin, and Posner describe their visits to Oxford and Cambridge. Scripps says that he took communion there as a “genuine act of worship” but that he also “really wanted to get in.” Looking back on his past self at that moment, he says, “fills me now with longing and pity.” Dakin says that he stayed with a pitiable host and that he looked at a list of college alums, visited Irwin’s college, Corpus, and didn’t have sex. Posner says that he “can see why they make a fuss about it,” because the college was beautiful. He says that he downplayed the Holocaust on his exam, and that the interviewers “praised what they called my sense of detachment.”
Scripps’s relationship to religion in this scene reflects the tension between personal fulfillment and success that has been building throughout the play. Balancing these two demands is a big part of Scripps’s transition to the next phase of his life. Like Scripps, Posner has to balance emotional truth with playing the academic “game.” He ends up impressing the dons by acting in a way that we know doesn’t fully express how he feels. Scripps’s “longing and pity” reflect the big, youthful hopes of this moment, and also imply that they won’t all come true.
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Following this narration, “the boys erupt onto the stage.” The Headmaster says that all of them have received places at Oxford and Cambridge, with special honors for Posner and Dakin. He congratulates Irwin and Mrs. Lintott. Mrs. Lintott reminds him that Rudge didn’t get a place, and the Headmaster says this is a pity. Then Rudge enters. He tells them that the examiners already told him his fate during the interview—he got in. Irwin is surprised, and Rudge says that he “had family connections.” The Headmaster asks whether someone in his family really went to Christ Church.
Irwin’s philosophy downplayed personal truth, and it achieved its intended results: the boys have all been accepted. Both Posner and Dakin learned to play Irwin’s game, and this has led to success and the fulfillment of their immediate hopes. In this scene, we also see the teachers underestimating Rudge yet again, and assuming he could never get in to Oxbridge.
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Rudge says that his father was a servant there, and this came up during his interview. One of the older interviewers asked him about it, and then said that this was what they were looking for as “evidence of how far they had come, wheel come full circle and that.” He says that he also played the game by saying that “Stalin was a sweetie”—and that they accepted him then and there as “plainly someone who thought for himself and just what the college rugger team needed.”
Rudge’s path to admission shows the randomness of history (especially the way Rudge himself described it), and also the way that class can affect events—in this case, it has a positive effect for Rudge, though he also has to deal with being underestimated throughout his school career. It also suggests that Irwin’s methods alone may not have ensured the boys’ admission. They tried to control the results, but a lot of it still comes down to luck.
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In a new scene Dakin and Irwin are alone together. Dakin tells Irwin that he looked up his name at Corpus while visiting Oxford, and that Irwin wasn’t listed. Irwin plays this down, but Dakin persists, saying that it matters “because I imagined you there.” Irwin admits that he didn’t get into Oxford for his undergraduate degree—he only went for “a teaching diploma.” He asks whether this “makes a difference,” and Dakin shrugs. He says that they’ve established that lying works, but Irwin should learn to be a better liar. Then he casually suggests that they get a drink.
Here we see the depth of Irwin’s insecurity. He projects himself as the kind of person who went to Oxford for his undergraduate degree, when in fact he didn’t. This reminds us that Irwin’s philosophy is all about image, and not about truth. He has used a lie to make himself seem like an expert—but in fact, his lessons actually worked. Telling the truth doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome, and lying can work. But lying about who you are can also mask unhappiness without actually solving it. Irwin may appear successful, but he feels like a failure.
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Irwin says that he can’t tonight. Dakin suggests tomorrow. Irwin can’t. Dakin says that the drink is a euphemism, and that he’s actually wondering “whether there were any circumstances in which there was a chance of your sucking me off.” Irwin says that he didn’t know Dakin was “that way inclined,” and Dakin says that he isn’t, but he thought it would be a fun celebratory measure for the end of the year. As he is leaving, he turns to Irwin and says that there’s a distinct difference between the way he lives and the way he teaches. In argument, he is bold and reckless, but “when it’s something that’s actually happening, I mean now, you’re so fucking careful.”
After all their flirting, here Dakin finally asks Irwin directly for what he wants—he’s no longer playing that kind of game. This reminds the audience that there are often invisible dynamics playing out beneath events, and that what is on the surface doesn’t convey the full truth of the situation. Dakin’s comment about Irwin’s timidity also highlights the fact that Irwin’s academic philosophy is partly a way for him to deal with his feelings of insecurity in life.
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Irwin protests that Dakin has already had to endure Hector’s gropings, but Dakin says that Hector is “a joke” and that Irwin couldn’t be like him. Irwin says Hector isn’t a joke, but Dakin says “that side of him is.” Irwin says that the situation is a cliché, and Dakin says that while clichés don’t play well on exams, “in this subject there are no examiners.” He says that Irwin should give in to the fun of a cliché. Irwin agrees. He takes out his calendar and suggests next week. Dakin makes fun of his crowded schedule and his tight-laced demeanor, saying that they’ve “got a long way to go.” He suggests Irwin take his glasses off. Irwin, flirting openly now, says “taking off my glasses is the last thing I do.” Dakin leaves, saying, “we’re not in the subjunctive either. It is going to happen.”
Dakin reminds Irwin here that his philosophy of always taking an unconventional approach might be good for exams, but it isn’t the best way to live—many conventional approaches come out of true feelings and desires. Dakin’s comments about Hector also show that the boys in some ways pity their teacher. They see his loneliness as a failure, and they don’t want to end up like him. Dakin’s parting statement ultimately ends up highlighting the fact that certainty in life is impossible—this supposedly-inevitable sexual liaison does not come to pass, despite these plans and promises.
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Dakin tells Scripps that he made Irwin this offer as a way of saying thank you. Scripps jokes that this seems excessive. Then Dakin says that he talked to the Headmaster. He asked him pointedly whether there’s any difference between Hector’s gropings and the Headmaster’s own pursuit of his secretary, Fiona. The Headmaster eventually agreed to give Hector another chance. Scripps says that “everybody’s happy.” Dakin says, “I hadn’t realised how easy it is to make things happen.” Then Scripps steps in with some foreshadowing narration. He says, theatrically, that suggesting everybody was happy made everything unravel. Dakin showily gives Posner a hug of “reward.” Posner says that it was disappointing—“too fucking brief.” Dakin hugs him again. Then he puts on his motorcycle helmet, saying that he’s going to ride with Hector “for old times’ sake.”
Dakin here believes that he has found a way to control events and affect the outcome of history, but the motorcycle accident will prove him wrong. This moment of the play sets up the ultimate lesson that history is random and unpredictable, and Dakin’s attempts to make Irwin and Posner happy by fulfilling their sexual desires are similarly doomed to fail. Finally, Dakin’s reminder that the Headmaster tolerates his own gropings of Fiona and not Hector’s of the boys calls attention to a hypocrisy that has not been noted until now in the play. This reminds us again of the role of gender in how history plays out.
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Hector enters, cheerful and wearing his motorcycle outfit. Rudge asks him whether they’re still playing the guessing game for money, because he has something. Rudge sings a verse of a popular modern song. Timms says that he can’t expect Hector to know such a “crap” song,” and Rudge says that Gracie Fields is also crap, “only that’s his crap.” Hector reminds them of his presence and says that he doesn’t know the song, but “his crap or my crap, it makes no difference.” He says that Rudge wins the money.
Rudge wins the guessing game because he knows a popular song that no one else does. Hector’s statement that both kinds of “crap” are equal also recalls the play’s argument that old things aren’t inherently worth celebrating. You have to decide for yourself what is important and what isn’t—time or external validation aren’t sufficient guides.
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The Headmaster enters and sees Dakin in the motorcycle helmet. He immediately protests, and then Irwin walks in. Scripps says, “and here history rattled over the points…” and the Headmaster tells Hector to take Irwin instead. Irwin says “why not.” Dakin hands Irwin his helmet, and tells him to hold on to his briefcase. Scripps then begins to narrate. He says that they don’t know what happened, but there are many theories about why Hector crashed his motorcycle. Some suggest that he wasn’t used to driving with two hands, and therefore went too fast, but Scripps find this too obvious, and says Irwin would disapprove. His own theory is that Irwin didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, and leaned the wrong way, unbalancing Hector. He says that this would be more appropriate.
We see in this moment that the motorcycle accident was the result of the random entrance by the Headmaster. This is Bennett’s biggest point about history: it doesn’t have one true narrative, and it unfolds through a series of random events. Scripps’s narration then shows us that there is no way to be sure what happened in this life-changing accident. He suggests that some of the simpler stories don’t take enough nuance into account, but he also acknowledges that it would be impossible to tell the full story.
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Irwin begins narrating from his wheelchair. He says that he doesn’t remember anything after his conversation with Dakin. He says that they never got their drink. Dakin, narrating, says that he “couldn’t face the wheelchair,” but that it’s good he asked. He says, “barring accidents, it would have happened.” Rudge then comes in to narrate, saying that you can’t ignore accidents. He repeats his theory: “history is just one fucking thing after another.” Scripps says that a person dying at school can affect your whole life.
Again Rudge articulates the play’s major argument about history, reminding us that Irwin’s search for a historical narrative is inadequate. Rudge, who has rejected the typical rules of the academic game at several points throughout the play, nevertheless has one of the clearest views about how history actually works.
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The whole staff, including Irwin in his wheelchair, and the students sing the song Bye Bye Blackbird while photos of a young Hector flash across a screen. The Headmaster begins a eulogy. He says that Hector “loved language. He loved words.” He helped students to gain enthusiasm about literature. Timms remembers Hector saying, or quoting, that “one person’s death will tell you more than a thousand.” Lockwood remembers the time that Hector put his head down on the desk in despair, and says, “it was the first time I realised a teacher was a human being.” Akthar says that there was an inscrutable “contract” between Hector and his students. Crowther says that, though he was “stained and shabby,” he “led you to expect the best. His death brought a lesson.”
The Headmaster’s eulogy proves that he doesn’t understand Hector’s philosophy of education at all. In this moment of suffering and sadness, however, the boys internalize Hector’s lesson about how to deal with life’s difficulties through the power of art and literature. It is impossible to avoid suffering, and so they turn to Hector’s lessons when his death disrupts their lives.
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Mrs. Lintott says that Hector didn’t have an agenda about where each boy would end up. She then gives details about where the boys do end up. Crowther and Lockwood become judges. Akthar is a headmaster. They are all “pillars of a community that no longer has much use for pillars.” Timms runs a dry-cleaning business and does drugs. Dakin is a highly paid tax lawyer. Rudge is a builder of “handy homes.” Rudge himself protests to this characterization, saying, “like them or not, Rudge Homes are at least affordable homes for first-time buyers.” Rudge says that death is “another excuse to patronise,” something he’s endured too much of. Mrs. Lintott says that she has, too. Scripps, she says, became a journalist, but is always saying he will someday “really write.”
Mrs. Lintott’s reminder that Hector didn’t care about the boys’ ultimate success points out that we, the audience, do care, at least about learning the facts. This list then offers a sense of closure, and emphasizes the ways that people must constantly seek to balance personal fulfillment with external markers of success. The list also serves as another reminder of the randomness of history. Each of the boys took different paths, ones that they couldn’t have anticipated while they were in school. Rudge then claims that even in death, people try to cling to a certain narrative about history and life. He suggests that in his own case, this narrative has to do with class.
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Irwin, Mrs. Lintott says, was a journalist, too—first at the school, and then on TV. Now Irwin is in politics, she says. Irwin clarifies that he is in “government.” Mrs. Lintott says that either way, he hasn’t gone on to an academic career. Then she turns to Posner, who she says is the “only one who truly took everything to heart.” Posner lives a reclusive life in a cottage, having “periodic breakdowns.” He reads a lot at the library, and follows his classmates’ careers. He lives a shadow life online, and has many friends, though “none in his right name or even gender.” He “has long since stopped asking himself where it went wrong.”
Posner’s fate is the culmination of the play’s theme of frustrated expectations. Posner tries to achieve personal fulfillment, and in fact, he does understand literature and Hector’s teachings in a way that the other boys do not—yet this alone isn’t enough to give him a happy life. He remains an outsider, and doesn’t balance the drive for worldly success that Irwin tried to instill in him. Irwin, on the other hand, has had a “successful” life, but not one that fulfills his dreams. These two characters thus once again illustrate the play’s argument that adulthood involves a balance of different demands. Neither Hector’s nor Irwin’s philosophy is a sure-fire path to success and happiness.
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Hector comes back into the scene. He tells Mrs. Lintott to finish, saying, “the bright day is done and we are for the dark.” Irwin says that Hector’s teaching was not suited to this time period. Scripps disagrees: “love apart, it is the only education worth having.” Hector says, “Pass the parcel, that’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on…that’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on.” The play ends.
Hector’s reappearance is then a reminder to the audience and the boys that this list of accomplishments isn’t what life is about. All of the boys are going to die, just as Hector has. Also like Hector, they too will have no control over the random events of their lives, or how their “histories” are told by others. Hector’s final statement suggests that his teaching was a way to get the boys to savor life while they can.
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