The play opens with Irwin, a former teacher, now in his forties. He sits in a wheelchair. He is speaking to several members of the British Parliament, discussing a bill that would limit jury trials and “to a significant extent abolish the presumption of innocence” for those accused of a crime. This bill seems like an assault on liberty, but Irwin advises the legislators to argue that the bill actually makes people more free—it gives them the freedom to walk around without fear of crime, knowing that criminals will be punished. Irwin says that this type of argument reminds him of school.
We begin by seeing where Irwin ends up: giving morally questionable advice to Parliament, and sitting in a wheelchair. This is an image of frustrated expectations and past drama. Irwin later says that he once dreamed of making an academic breakthrough, but in this scene, he is using academic language to make a political argument. His physical disability is also a reminder of how random, unexpected events can change a person’s life path.
We then flash back into the past, to a classroom at an all-boys school in northern England, some time in the 1980s. Hector, a history teacher, enters in a motorcycle helmet and leather motorcycling outfit. Eight sixth-formers—boys ages 17 and 18, who are in their last year of school before applying to universities—enter as well. They are Posner, Dakin, Scripps, Rudge, Lockwood, Akthar, Timms, and Crowther. They remove Hector’s motorcycling gear and show it to the audience, naming each item in French as they do so. Then Hector begins teaching.
Hector is first introduced with a heroic ritual: the boys remove his motorcycle gear as if it is armor, and Hector is a warrior (the name Hector even references the famous warrior from Homer’s Iliad). As his motorcycle gear comes off, however, he is revealed to be just an older teacher. This same process happens on a larger scale over the course of the play, as the boys learn to see adults like Hector as flawed human beings. The ritual removal of clothes also has sexual undertones, which foreshadow Hector’s actions on the motorcycle.
Hector opens his class by congratulating the boys on a good performance on their A Levels (A Levels are exams taken at the end of high school in England that help determine admission to universities). Hector calls the exams “longed-for emblems of your conformity.” Now that summer is over, he says, the boys are back to continue with their real education. Rudge asks why Hector is implying that A Levels aren’t education. Hector responds that they’re just “credentials” for the boys’ CVs (resumes). His class, General Studies, is for the “bits in between” those credentials.
For Hector, education is not about the intellectual “conformity” that exams represent. A Levels are “credentials” because they are a type of knowledge that the educational system approves of. Hector, on the other hand, thinks that the boys should define their own standards. This opening scene introduces the boys as successful, intelligent students, with high hopes for their own futures.
The title “General Studies,” Hector continues, is a euphemism. (Posner looks up the word and defines it for the audience: “substitution of mild or vague or roundabout expression for a harsh or direct one.”) Hector says that, if he were in charge instead of the Headmaster, he would call them “A Waste of Time.” He then quotes scholar and poet A. E. Housman in saying, “All knowledge is precious.” Akthar correctly identifies Housman as the original speaker.
We witness some of Hector’s main teaching techniques. He has the boys find the answers for themselves (by looking words up, for example) and encourages them to memorize quotes from literature. These are not results-driven methods, and they therefore represent an “old guard” approach in British education.
Timms asks if Housman was a “nancy,” a pejorative slang word for a homosexual man. Hector tells him not to use that word, and hits him on the head with a book. Timms protests that Hector himself uses the word, and Hector says that his old age excuses this. Crowther says, jokingly, that Hector is not supposed to hit them, and that they could report him. Hector joins in on the joke, feigning despair. Dakin says that Hector should treat them with respect, now that all eight boys are up for scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge.
Homosexuality will be a theme throughout the play. Timms’ comment suggests that it is still considered a socially odd and somewhat deviant practice in British culture (or at least at the school), and Hector’s response shows that he wants the boys to move beyond knee-jerk negative reactions to homosexuality. But Hector also uses the word “nancy” himself, suggesting that he, too, has taken on some of society’s prejudices.
Hector sits down, pretending to be shocked. He says that he thought “that silliness was finished with,” and that the boys were going to aim for less prestigious institutions. He asks why they even want to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Lockwood says it’s because they’re old now—“tried and tested.” Hector shoots back that it’s actually only because other boys want to go there. He then bans any mention of Oxford and Cambridge from his lessons, hitting the boys again as he does so. He reminds them that there’s a world beyond those schools.
We see here the tension inherent within Hector’s educational philosophy: it is supposed to set the boys up for happier lives, but it may also limit them practically. Hector’s encouraging the boys to go to less prestigious universities might mean that they earn less money or fame in life, but it’s clear that Hector has different, less quantitative ideas about what success means.
Dakin notes, “you’re hitting us again, sir.” Hector says that “whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust…it is a pact. Bread eaten in secret.” This is a reference to the Bible, Proverbs 9:17. He also quotes Deuteronomy, saying that the boys should “choose life” rather than Oxford and Cambridge. At his desk, he feigns despair again. Posner says, “Look up, My Lord,” and then he and Timms launch into a scene taken from King Lear, just after Lear’s death. Then the bell rings, and Hector jumps into the Lear scene, skipping ahead a few lines to say that he must go. Timms speaks a line of narration to the audience, clarifying that the hitting didn’t hurt them. It was a joke. In fact, he says, the students “lapped it up.”
The Bible quote suggests that Hector’s classroom is a space outside of the regular educational system: class with him is an almost spiritual experience. Through the playful King Lear scene, we understand that the students are willing participants in this “pact.” Hector’s physical playfulness also has sexual undertones, but as Timms notes, the boys respond in a mostly joking and accepting manner. However, their playful protestations also show that they understand that Hector’s sexual come-ons aren’t socially acceptable.
Back in the present, the boys discuss the hitting. Rudge says that Hector hits the boys he likes (and that’s not Rudge himself). Dakin says, “happily,” that he’s “black and blue.” Scripps speaks an aside to the audience, saying that he’s the only one of the boys who believes in God. It’s gone out of style, he says, “but the big man [God] is glad.”
Scripps’s aside here is an example of the way that these commentaries to the audience can add information to the scene as it unfolds in real time. However, as in many cases, this one also jars us out of the moment—as Scripps changes the topic when he speaks. This is a way of dramatizing the fact that history both clarifies and fails to fully capture the events of life.
The scene changes to the staff room. The Headmaster asks Mrs. Lintott, the school’s history teacher, what her plans are for “these Oxbridge boys. Your historians.” She remarks that their A Level results were good, and the Headmaster agrees. Mrs. Lintott says that she expects to do “more of the same” to prepare them for their University entrance exams, but the Headmaster says that that hasn’t worked before. He wants them to get into the best schools—Oxford and Cambridge—to raise the school’s profile. “Factually tip-top as your boys always are,” he says, “something more is required.” Mrs. Lintott asks what he has in mind, and he says that it’s something like “presentation.” Mrs. Lintott scoffs at this, saying that “properly organized facts need no presentation.” But the headmaster insists that the boys need more charm and “polish.”
In this scene, we meet Mrs. Lintott—the only female character who speaks in the play—and witness the way that she is marginalized within the school. She is expected to do the grunt work of providing a solid foundation in history, but when it comes time for the last important push to get students into prestigious universities, she is passed over. We also witness the way that the Headmaster looks at education as a way to achieve social status. He wants that status not only on behalf of the boys, but even more so, for the school and himself. His worldview is at odds with Hector’s, and this creates tension between them.
The Headmaster exits as Hector enters. Mrs. Lintott asks Hector if he himself tried to get into Cambridge, and Hector replies that it was actually Oxford—he wanted to go someplace “old.” Mrs. Lintott says that her school, Durham, was old. Hector says that his school, Sheffield, wasn’t, but he gained something from that: “I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I’d probably never have worked out the difference.” Mrs. Lintott says that her school had a good history program, and that she ate her first pizza there, and had other firsts, too—“but it’s the pizza that stands out.” She says that she wishes some of the boys wanted to go to Durham, but both teachers agree that they’ll all keep pushing for Oxbridge (a combination of the words Oxford and Cambridge).
Hector’s comment reveals that he was once in the same boat as his students, and believed that older universities were more desirable. He has since changed his mind, realizing that education is about more than the package it comes in, and that old things are not inherently worth celebrating. This second idea also relates to the way that we should think about history—if something is ancient, that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently worth remembering. Mrs. Lintott’s comment about pizza is actually a subtle joke about unsatisfying sexual experiences in college. This is our first hint that she has been disappointed by men, and perhaps by men who thought that they were pleasing her. We also learn that both Hector and Mrs. Lintott did not achieve the level of success that the boys are hoping for, and this suggests that they have had to compromise and adjust their expectations over the course of their lives.
The scene changes as Scripps begins to narrate. He says that one day, he thought he saw a new schoolboy outside the headmaster’s office. It turns out to be the new history teacher, Irwin, who is in his mid-twenties. The Headmaster enters and ushers Irwin into his study. He says that the boys are preparing for December examinations, but that Irwin must already know that, because he went to Cambridge. Irwin clarifies that it was Oxford. The Headmaster says that he himself went to Hull, because “this was the fifties. Change was in the air.” Irwin mentions the poet Phillip Larkin, who was the librarian at Hull. The Headmaster says that Larkin was a “pitiless” librarian, and that artists “get away with murder.”
In the meeting between the Headmaster and Irwin, we sense again that most adults in this play see university admission as a major facet of one’s identity. Irwin gains credibility from his prestigious degree, while the Headmaster seems to want to justify his less prestigious credentials with an argument about being a free spirit. This suggests that one major purpose of a good university education is social standing later in life. As was suggested before, the Headmaster doesn’t seem to care about art or education for their own sake, but only as means to an end.
Then the Headmaster comments that the boys are all smart—except for Rudge. Rudge plans to apply for admission into Christ Church college at Oxford, but the Headmaster says he doesn’t have much chance of getting in. He tells Irwin that the boys “need polish. Edge. Your job.” He says that there is an opening in the History department at the school, and that if Irwin can help the boys get scholarships, he can have the position. He offers three lessons per week. Irwin says this isn’t enough. The Headmaster says that they’ll only be able to find an hour more, given that Hector keeps a tight hold on General Studies. As he leaves, he encourages Irwin to grow a moustache to look older, and to keep better control of the classroom.
Rudge, an athlete who comes from a working class background, is underestimated throughout the play. This suggests the ways that big, societal structures like economic class affect daily life in invisible ways (Rudge isn’t around to overhear this conversation, but it will probably affect the way that Irwin sees him). We also see that Irwin’s and Hector’s teaching styles come into direct conflict in the school schedule. There isn’t room for both of them in the modern British education system.
The scene changes to Hector’s classroom. He asks the boys, in French, where they would like to work today. The scene proceeds in French. Rudge says he wants to work in a garage, but the other boys protest. Dakin suggests “une maison de passe.” Hector understands, but the other boys ask what that means. Posner translates: it’s a brothel. Hector says, still in French, that they can work in a brothel—as long as all of the clients speak in the subjunctive or conditional verb tense. The boys begin to act out the scene in French. Posner plays a chambermaid named Simone, Dakin plays a client, and Timms plays a prostitute named Claudine. Crowther, Akthar, and Lockwood play supporting roles at the brothel (Rudge doesn’t speak, and Scripps accompanies the scene on the piano). At one point, Posner takes off Dakin’s pants, saying that he’ll be more comfortable on the bed that way. The scene reaches a point where Timms and Dakin negotiate the price it will cost Dakin to touch the prostitute’s breasts, when there is a knock at the door.
This scene suggests the ways that sexual and intellectual maturation will be linked throughout the play. With this brothel scene, the boys are acting childish and silly about both sex and school—yet Hector ties this exercise to learning the subjunctive. He considers silliness a part of education, too. We also see Posner enacting some suppressed desires in this class by taking off Dakin’s pants (even if it’s all part of the act). Again in this case, Hector’s class is a space where normal social rules don’t seem to apply. This means that Posner can act on his homosexual feelings in a way that wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else.
Posner, still playing the chambermaid, says that it must be another client, and goes to open it. It is the Headmaster and Irwin. Hector, still speaking French, greets the Headmaster, who begins to respond in English that he hopes he isn’t interrupting. Hector stops him, and says that he must continue in French. The Headmaster asks, in halting French, why Dakin has his pants off. The boys are paralyzed. Hector asks them to explain what’s going on, and Dakin begins, “I am a man who…” but Hector stops him, saying that he’s not just a man—he’s a soldier. A wounded soldier. Hector says that they are pretending to be at a Belgian hospital during World War II. Dakin is wounded, and the other boys are playing medical personnel. Hector tells them to continue the scene, and they launch into a dramatic rendition of a wartime medical ward. Then Irwin cuts in to ask if Dakin might be shell-shocked. The classroom registers this as an intrusion into their normal routine.
When the Headmaster enters, Hector changes the scene from one in which boys are playing women and talking about sex to a more masculine scene— soldiers in wartime. This suggests that gender and sexuality are more fluid in Hector’s classroom than they are in the outside world, and also that one situation would be seen as “appropriate,” while the other might make the Headmaster concerned or angry. We also see that the Headmaster is in some ways not as smart as the boys are—Hector’s teaching has worked, and the students all speak better French than their Headmaster does. Irwin, on the other hand, is able to participate in the class. This foreshadows the ways that his educational philosophy will begin to challenge Hector’s.
Soon, the Headmaster interrupts to introduce Irwin as a new professor at the school. Then, in English, he tells the boys to stop their silliness. He asks if Hector is “aware that these pupils are Oxbridge candidates.” Hector feigns surprise. The Headmaster says that Irwin will be offering them additional coaching, and begins to ask for some of Hector’s lesson time for that purpose—but Hector flatly refuses. The Headmaster says that he is “thinking of the boys,” and Hector says that he is, too. The Headmaster turns to Irwin and says, resigned to defeat, “fuck.” Then the bell goes off. As class is ending, Rudge says to Hector that it’s true that they don’t have much time to prepare for their university entrance exams.
Though Irwin has begun to assert himself, Hector still retains a kind of power over him, and even over the Headmaster himself. Hector’s vision of education still rules the day, and seemingly his students’ hearts as well. Hector says he’s acting in the boys’ best interests, but Rudge’s comment about exams reminds us that Hector may not just be thinking of the boys—his uncompromising vision of education may also be a way of adding meaning to his own life. If it is poetry and not wealth or social status that matters, then Hector’s life has been a success.
Hector asks who is going home now, but no one responds. He says that he’s sure he can give someone a lift, and asks Dakin if he’s on “pillion duty” (a pillion is the second seat on a motorcycle). Dakin says that he’s going into town. Crowther says that he’s going for a run. Akthar has computer club. Posner offers to come, but Hector says never mind. Scripps says, “resignedly,” that he’ll come. Hector accepts this, and leaves. As he follows, Scripps says, “the things I do for Jesus,” and flashes Dakin the middle finger. The boys discuss this. Posner says that he would go, but Hector never wants him to. Timms agrees. Dakin says that Posner and Timms “don’t fit the bill,” but that they should be grateful for that.
As we witness Hector asking the boys to ride with him on the motorcycle, (where, as we later learn, he will grope them), we begin to see him as a lonely and broken man. A moment ago he was banishing the Headmaster from his domain, but now, Hector has to cajole reluctant students to ride on a motorcycle with him in order to play out his sexual fantasies. We see that intellectual fulfillment doesn’t necessarily correlate with sexual fulfillment, or with personal happiness.
The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom, where he is passing back essays. He says that they are all “dull.” Dakin protests that he “got all the points,” and Irwin says that his essay isn’t wrong, but it’s still boring. Crowther says that this is the way they’ve been taught to do things, and Lockwood chimes in that “Mrs. Lintott discourages the dramatic.” Timms complains that he can’t read Irwin’s handwriting, and Irwin says that it’s the fault of his eyesight, and “we know what that’s caused by.” He’s intimating that masturbating too much is said to make you go blind. Timms pretends to be scandalized by this, asking if this is “a coded reference to the mythical dangers of self-abuse” (another term for masturbation). Irwin says that it “might even be a joke.” Timms asks if jokes will “be a feature,” because “we need to know as it affects our mind-set.”
Here, we see that Mrs. Lintott’s educational philosophy has been based on the idea of truth and correctness. Irwin, on the other hand, doesn’t value these things at all, and cares more that the boys’ essays are interesting and surprising. Lockwood implies that Mrs. Lintott would call this approach “dramatic,” suggesting that Irwin’s idea of academia is more about entertainment than it is about rigor, thoughtfulness, or truth. The boys, and the audience, aren’t yet sure how to respond to Irwin’s philosophy, and Timms voices this confusion, saying that the boys don’t know yet how they should be acting in this class.
Irwin pauses. Then he says that during the Reformation in the history of Christianity, “fourteen foreskins of Christ” were preserved, but people said that one church in Rome had the true specimen. Dakin says that Irwin shouldn’t think they’ll be shocked by this mention of foreskins. Crowther agrees: “some of us even have them.” Lockwood says that Posner doesn’t, because he’s Jewish, and that this is “not racist,” thought it is “race-related.”
Irwin here links sex and academics. He does this to be shocking, and also to show his students the type of surprising argument that he hopes they will make. Yet the boys are more comfortable with the discussion than Irwin expects them to be. This suggests that their previous free-wheeling lessons with Hector have led them to be more comfortable with sexuality, and also able to see through the shock-value arguments that Irwin wants them to make.
Irwin looks at them again, and asks if any of them have been to Rome. They haven’t. He reminds them that some of the students they’re competing against will have traveled there and other places, and that they’ll therefore be able to drop in specifics to keep their essays from being boring. This will please the examiners, who are used to reading the same thing over and over. In that context, Irwin says, “The fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine.” Irwin says that they should hate these other students, because they have such an advantage. Crowther asks why they’re even bothering, and Irwin says that it’s probably because they, or their parents, or their headmasters want it. Judging by the quality of these essays, however, Irwin suggests that they should go to a lesser school and “be happy.” Then he says, after a long pause, that there is “another way.” Timms asks if they should cheat. Irwin says, “possibly,” and then the bell rings. As he leaves, Irwin tells Dakin that there isn’t time for joking around.
Here, Irwin reminds the boys that their class status makes them less likely to get into Oxford and Cambridge. This is another reason why he doesn’t believe in Mrs. Lintott’s philosophy that well-presented facts are enough for the entrance exam. The game of admissions is not straightforward—class makes it unequal, and so the boys have to use strategy and cunning to get ahead. This view takes into account the way that social dynamics work in the real world. Hector’s vision of education, on the other hand, is focused on a personal relationship with history and literature, and is more idealistic. Irwin’s amoral strategies, then, are more useful in helping the boys achieve things in an unfair social system.
After the class, Timms calls Irwin a “wanker.” Dakin says that all teachers have to “show you they’re still in the game” by talking about things like foreskins. Scripps tells him to lighten up, as Irwin is “only five minutes older than we are.” Then Dakin asks what happened with Hector on the motorcycle. Scripps says it was the same as usual, but that he managed to slip his bag between them. Scripps says he believes Hector thought that he had given Scripps an erection, when “in fact it was my Tudor Economics Documents, Volume Two.” Posner approaches, and they stop talking.
Hector frames his own classes as preparation for the boys’ old age. This gives the students the idea that Irwin’s teaching methods might be more about youthful energy than sage wisdom,—but the boys also remind us about Hector’s groping, and we remember that Hector, too, has lapses in wisdom. The play continues to offer mixed signals about which teacher’s vision of education is superior.
Posner cuts in with some narration to the audience. He says that because he was “late growing up,” he doesn’t get to be a part of these conversations, and that they think he doesn’t understand. In fact, he says he knows more about “them and their bodies” than they would expect. Scripps then adds his own narration. He says that “Dakin’s navel…was small and hard like an unripe blackberry,” while Posner’s is softer, more like an orange. Scripps says that Posner envies Dakin’s navel “and all the rest of him.” At this point, Scripps says, Posner has not yet identified this envy as love. It is causing him “misery.” Back in the present, Posner walks away, and Scripps, Dakin, and the other boys keep talking.
We learn that Posner is in love, and that this love (which defies societal norms) is making him miserable. Though he was late in maturing, however, Posner is not sexually stunted—he has a rich and active sexuality, but it’s focused on men, and so makes him feel like a social outsider. Scripps’s narration again offers a clarification that we couldn’t get by merely watching the boys interact, showing how personal commentary can reveal hidden truths that might not be seen by outsiders or observers of history.
Dakin says that he sometimes wishes Hector would “just go for it.” Scripps says that Hector does go for it, but Dakin says that he means off the motorcycle. Then Dakin says that Rudge is having sex. Rudge replies that he only has sex on Fridays, because he needs to play rugby and golf on the weekend. He then cuts in with narration to the audience, saying that no one thinks he can pass the exam, but “fuck ’em.” Dakin says that he is seeing the Headmaster’s secretary, Fiona. They haven’t had sex yet, but Dakin hopes that they will do so on the study floor one of these days.
Dakin can see that Hector is repressed and frustrated, while Dakin himself is uninhibited and confident. This contrast is partly between adulthood and youth, as the play gives a sense that adulthood is full of frustrated expectations, while youth is full of possibility. We also witness again the way that sex serves as social capital—it gives Rudge and Dakin a special status. Meanwhile, Rudge points out he’s still underestimated academically. We know that this is partly because Rudge is poorer than the other boys, showing again the way that class can invisibly affect events and interactions.
The scene shifts to the staff room. Mrs. Lintott remarks to Hector that Irwin seems “clever.” Hector agrees: “depressingly so.” Mrs. Lintott says that men are generally good at history, because they’re so good at storytelling. Her ex-husband, for example, told a lot of stories. Hector muses that Dakin is “a good-looking boy, though somehow sad.” Mrs. Lintott says, “you always think they’re sad.” She, however, thinks of Dakin as “cunt-struck.” Hector is taken aback by this. Mrs. Lintott says that she thought he would like that description, as “it’s a compound adjective,” which Hector likes. Hector brings the conversation back to Dakin, saying that he’s clever. Mrs. Lintott claims responsibility for that. Hector says, “you give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it.” Mrs. Lintott says that Hector is better than most teachers at giving his students a sense of discovery.
Here, Mrs. Lintott suggests for the first time that the way people write history has to do with their gender. Her comment suggests that Irwin’s educational philosophy is incomplete, because it doesn’t acknowledge the way that women would tell the story. She also suggests that Hector is telling himself a limited story about Dakin in the present, just as Irwin is telling a limited story about the past. Hector’s comment about how he helps the boys resist education, however, suggests that Mrs. Lintott’s view is also limited, this time by the norms of the educational system. Their conversation again brings up the theme of how hard it is to pin down one single truth.
The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom. He says that the boys’ essays have come to a “less-than-startling” conclusion that poets have a generally bad view of World War I, and that “the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First.” Timms agrees with this assessment, and the others nod, too. Irwin says that the secondary institutions will welcome this interpretation, but that it will put Oxford fellows to sleep. Scripps insists that it’s “true,” and Irwin asks what truth has to do with anything.
The fact that the boys all have the same view about World War I suggests that Irwin may be right that their ideas are “dull.” They haven’t come to diverse, interesting conclusions: they’ve all conformed to the same one. They believe that this one answer is “true,” but Irwin questions that. As we have come to see throughout the play, there usually isn’t just one definition of truth—especially if one wants to be unique or entertaining.
Irwin offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting that Britain is partially responsible for the war, and that they don’t like to remember this fact because of the huge death toll. The commemorations of the war, he says, are a way of forgetting Britain’s culpability. He suggests that the British general Douglas Haig, who is generally considered to have led too many British soldiers to their death at the battle of Passchendaele, might actually have been an effective warrior. He argues that, apart from their poems, many of the poets seem to have had mixed or even positive feelings about the war.
Irwin suggests that popular versions of history are partly a way of making ourselves feel better about the past. The British wants to remember World War I in a certain way so that they don’t have to face more complicated and difficult emotions or learn from past mistakes. On another level, the narrative asides throughout the play have been making a similar point—that the explanation that seems obvious on the surface might actually fail to capture the full truth of any given time or event.
Irwin says that poetry can “add flavor” to an essay. Dakin likens this to the foreskins, and Irwin ignores him. Irwin suggests that they look to a Kipling poem about the war instead of the Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poetry expresses horror about the war, but Kipling at first supported it, then wrote grief-stricken poetry after his son was killed in action. Irwin begins to summarize Kipling, saying, “in other words…” but Timms cuts in and says that in the case of a work of art, “there are no other words.” Lockwood agrees, and Irwin is puzzled. Then Rudge cuts in and asks what the upshot of all this is. Irwin says that Rudge shouldn’t just parrot what the teacher says. But, he also tells Rudge to write down Irwin’s own idea that the First World War was a “mistake. It was not a tragedy.”
Up until this point, Irwin’s educational philosophy seemed valid (in this scene at least)—but when he begins to trivialize literature, the sentiment in the classroom swings back to Hector’s side. Rudge wants a simple explanation of what’s happening: essentially, how he should weigh Irwin’s philosophy against Hector’s. Irwin initially says that there are no simple answers—a view that the play supports—but then he tells Rudge to write down his own supposedly controversial viewpoint, reminding us that Irwin’s way of looking at history is actually rather formulaic.
Then Irwin tells Scripps that “truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.” Dakin asks if he really believes that, or if he’s just trying to provoke them to question their assumptions. Scripps and Lockwood argue that “art wins in the end,” and then the bell rings. Scripps begins to quote a poem by Philip Larkin that discusses the way World War I stripped Britons of their innocence. Lockwood, Akthar, Posner, and Timms all chime in with lines of the poem as they get ready to leave the classroom. Irwin asks, confused, how they all know this poem. Then he exits.
Irwin re-iterates that truth is not the central issue on an exam—the examiners are actually looking to be entertained and intrigued, as if they are at a wine-tasting or a striptease. In this second metaphor, Irwin once again links sex and academics—he is being purposefully provocative, just as he wants the boys to be. The boys reject Irwin’s thoughts about World War I by quoting some lines of poetry, suggesting that literature is able to encapsulate emotions of the time that are lost in Irwin’s shallower re-telling.
Still in the classroom, Scripps and Dakin discuss Fiona. Dakin uses a metaphor of World War I to explain his sexual conquests. He says that Fiona is the “Western Front,” which was the area Germany invaded during World War I. The night before, Dakin says, he had advanced as far as “the actual place,” but ultimately “not onto it and certainly not into it.” Fiona stopped him at “23.00 hours.” He says that previously, “her tits…fell after a prolonged campaign,” and that he can now “access” them whenever he wants. Scripps tells him that’s enough, and Dakin says that at least he’s gotten farther with Fiona than the Headmaster, Felix, has. He “chases her round the desk hoping to cop a feel.” Posner, who has been lingering in the classroom, too, cuts in that the war metaphor isn’t perfect, because Fiona is in the midst of a “planned withdrawal.” Presumably, she’s eventually going to let Dakin have sex with her, so he’s not overwhelming her with force. “You’re just negotiating over the pace of the occupation,” Posner says. Scripps tells Dakin, “just let us know when you get to Berlin.”
Irwin just linked sex and history, and here Dakin does the same thing, as he compares his sexual exploits with Fiona to a conquest in World War I. Irwin’s metaphor reminded us that sex can be about teasing provocation, but Dakin’s words suggest that it is also about power. This is further emphasized by the fact that the Headmaster, who has power over Fiona as her employer, abuses that power to try to grope her at work. This metaphor reduces both history and sex to power relationships rather than emotional human relationships. Posner’s comment seems to come from a place of jealousy and sadness, as he recognizes the inevitability of Fiona’s seduction, and doesn’t want to hear more about Dakin’s love life.
Dakin then says that he’s beginning to like Irwin more, though Irwin still doesn’t like him. Posner begins to sing a song, “Bewitched,” while Scripps plays the piano. The other boys come back into the classroom from their break. The scene changes to Hector’s General studies class. Hector asks Posner to recite a poem, and Timms groans that he doesn’t understand poetry. Hector says that his job for now is just to learn it—he’ll understand it later. It’s meant to be an antidote for future unhappiness and troubles—“we’re making your deathbeds here, boys.”
Hector’s reminder that poetry is an antidote for unhappiness reveals more about his educational philosophy. He believes that education is not necessarily about mastery, success, or definable achievements. Life will be full of difficulty, and Hector thinks that education is there to give one the tools to deal with that suffering—not to try and avoid suffering altogether. Irwin’s teaching is more realistic than Hector’s in terms of immediate results, but Hector’s somewhat cynical view of life is also practical in its own way.
Someone knocks at the locked door to the classroom. Hector begins quoting from a scene in Hamlet in which he orders that the door be locked after the queen is poisoned. Someone tries to open the door, but can’t. Hector asks the boys to name knocks at the door in literature, and Akthar, Posner, and Scripps name instances from Coleridge’s poetry, a Mozart opera, and the Bible. Timms looks outside, and says that the knocker was Irwin, but that he’s gone now. Hector muses about other knocks, from death, love, and opportunity.
The locked door of Hector’s classroom represents the fact that his General Studies classes happen outside of the regular educational system. The norms and ideas of this system are powerful, and they’re always trying to intrude into Hector’s domain. Here, Irwin symbolizes that more mainstream educational philosophy. Hector uses literature as a buffer against the world, even in a literal way—he doesn’t answer the knock, but instead quotes from works of literature about knocks at the door.
Then Hector moves on to a game that they play in class. The boys challenge him to name a reference to a work of literature or art, and if he can name it, they have to put fifty pence into a tin. Timms and Lockwood begin a scene while Scripps plays the piano (they say that they have to smoke while they do it). Hector knows the reference—it’s from a famous movie—so Timms and Lockwood pay up. Then they unlock the door, and Hector and the boys exit. Only Rudge stays behind in the classroom to work.
This is one of Hector’s teaching techniques—to play silly games in order to keep the boys from being too self-serious about their education. The fact that he includes movies suggests that he is not drawn to literature because some external authority has deemed it important. He wants the boys to choose what’s important for themselves, and this includes movies and pop culture.
Mrs. Lintott enters and sees Rudge. She asks him how the class is getting along with Irwin. Rudge says it makes him miss her lessons, and she is flattered. He says that Irwin’s classes are “free-range…you’ve force-fed us the facts; now we’re in the process of running around acquiring flavor.” Mrs. Lintott asks if that’s how Irwin talks about it, and Rudge says he came up with the metaphor himself. He says he’s about to go home to watch some movies that Irwin has recommended, the Carry On films. Mrs. Lintott asks if Irwin likes these movies, and Rudge says that he probably doesn’t. Irwin has argued that they acquire some of the “permanence of art” simply by staying popular over time. Rudge calls Irwin’s lessons “cutting-edge.”
Rudge is an astute observer, despite what the others think of him. He sees that Irwin wants them to add “flavor” to their “facts,” and suggests that this is a somewhat shallow pursuit. He also understands, however, that the facts were “force-fed” in the first place, and the boys weren’t allowed to discover them on their own. His comparison of the boys to chickens being raised for food suggests the “production line” aspect of the educational system, especially as this school seems so concerned with the end result of getting into Oxford or Cambridge.
The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom. Timms asks Irwin where he lives, and he gives a vague response. Akthar and Dakin press him, wondering if he has a life outside of teaching. Irwin changes the subject back to their essays—he says they’re “dreary” again. He reminds them that if they get a question about Stalin, they shouldn’t follow the crowd and condemn him—they should find a way to defend him. Irwin declares that, “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment.” Rudge says that he gets it—Irwin wants them to find “an angle.”
We already suspect that Hector is lonely, and now the boys wonder whether Irwin is too. Adults in this play have made education their life, but the boys think this fact might make their personal lives less satisfying. Irwin also says here that history is not about discovering how you really feel—it’s about putting on a show. Unlike Hector, Irwin doesn’t see school as a place for personal exploration.
Scripps steps out to deliver narration to the audience. He says that Irwin eventually became well known as a historian who always took an unconventional point of view. Scripps says that his method was, however, “as formal in its way as the disciplines of the medieval schoolmen.” There was a formula to it.
Scripps points out that Irwin’s teaching method isn’t as “free-range” as he pretends it is. It simply involves identifying the common stance, and then taking the opposite position—but this doesn’t actually involve any original thinking.
Back in the present, Irwin says that the boys should take exam questions about things they don’t know and answer using knowledge that they do have, like answering a question about Rembrandt with knowledge about Ingres. Rudge asks if Ingres was an “old master,” and this leads Timms to quote a poem. Irwin asks if they learned that poem with Hector, and Timms evades the question. Then Irwin asks why Hector works behind a locked door during his classes. The boys pretend to be surprised to hear this.
Irwin believes that the exam is about showing off, not about historical facts, so you don’t have to actually know an answer in order to succeed. The fact that the boys pretend to be surprised about the locked door shows that they have at least partly bought into Hector’s pact—they too want to keep his classes separate from the outside world. This suggests that they find value in Hector’s anti-system mentality.
Irwin asks whether Hector has a “programme” to his teaching, and Akthar and Timms say that it’s about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Irwin says that this used to be called “wider reading.” Lockwood says that it can actually sometimes be “narrower reading,” because Hector thinks that it’s okay to know any book, as long as you know it well. Crowther adds that what Hector teaches also has to pertain to “the heart.” Lockwood agrees, and says, “it’s higher than your stuff, sir. Nobler.” Posner adds that it’s not as “useful,” because it’s not “focused.” Timms and Akthar agree that Hector is “blurred” in comparison with Irwin.
The boys half-jokingly express the central differences between Hector and Irwin’s teaching styles. Lockwood’s joking comment that Hector is “nobler” has a grain of truth to it. Hector wouldn’t compare academics to a strip-tease, and his class does feel somewhat sacred (earlier on, he even uses a Bible passage to describe it). Yet this more high-minded vision of academics isn’t as immediately “useful,” and for young people trying to make their way in the world, that’s an important aspect of education too.
Akthar changes the subject, commenting that Irwin is very young. Lockwood asks whether teaching at the school is “just a hiccup between the end of university and the beginning of life,” and Dakin asks whether Irwin likes the poet Auden. He says that Hector does, and so they hear a lot about him. He was a teacher for a time, too. Dakin asks whether Auden would have been more like Irwin, or more like Hector, and Irwin says he doesn’t know. Dakin posits that he might have been more like Hector. He says that “he snogged his pupils. Auden, sir. Not Mr. Hector.” Dakin then quotes a romantic line of poetry that Auden wrote about a student.
Auden, Hector, and Irwin are all teachers, and we know that Auden and Hector were both sexually attracted to their students, meaning that school and other parts of life became intertwined for them. The boys want to know whether Irwin, too, has a life that is wrapped up in school and his career. Lockwood and Akthar suggest that this teaching job isn’t a phase of Irwin’s “real” life.” This relates to the idea that the boys have lives full of possibility outside of school, while the teachers have given up some of those hopes and remain trapped in academics.
Irwin asks them whether they could answer an exam question about Auden, and they all protest. Timms says that Hector’s stuff is “not meant for the exam,” but rather “it’s to make us more rounded human beings.” Irwin says that they must use all the knowledge they have on the test, and Akthar replies that this would be “a betrayal of trust.” Posner clarifies to Irwin that the boys are just joking. Then Lockwood quotes another line of poetry, one that Irwin doesn’t know, and Lockwood says that it’s by female poet Stevie Smith. Irwin says the line could be perfect to end an essay on post-imperial decline, and asks, “how much more stuff like that have you got up your sleeves?” The bell goes off. Lockwood says they’ve got lots more, and Posner and Scripps act out a scene from the 1945 film Brief Encounter. Irwin recognizes it, and says that the lesson has been a “waste of time.” Dakin says that this is just like Hector’s lessons. Irwin says that’s true, “but he’s not trying to get you through an exam.”
The boys show that they have at least partly bought in to Hector’s ideas about how education should make them better people. They also clearly feel the “sacred” aspect of his classes, as they naturally feel that the things he teaches them are not meant to be deployed on an exam. But Posner reminds us that the boys still care about success, and would be willing to betray Hector’s pact in order to get ahead. Before, when the boys quoted poetry in Irwin’s class, it was to fight against Irwin’s idea about World War I and to tell a more emotionally nuanced story about the past. Here, however, poetry becomes one more piece in Irwin’s examination game. His educational philosophy is gaining ground over Hector’s as the exam approaches.
The scene changes to the staff room. Mrs. Lintott asks Irwin whether he’s earned a nickname from the boys. He says he doesn’t think so. Mrs. Lintott says that “a nickname is an achievement,” and Irwin comments that Hector doesn’t have one. Mrs. Lintott says that “Hector” is it—his real name is Douglas, but the only person to call him that is “his somewhat unexpected wife.” Irwin says that Posner came into his classroom yesterday with a problem. The following scene layers the staff room conversation with the conversation in Irwin’s classroom. Posner tells Irwin that he thinks he is homosexual, and that he is in love with Dakin. Irwin tells Mrs. Lintott that he “sympathized, though not so much as to suggest I might be in the same boat.” Mrs. Lintott asks if he means the same boat with Dakin, and Irwin says, “with anybody.” Mrs. Lintott says this was a good idea. It’s hard for boys to understand that teachers are human, she says, and hard for teachers “not to try and tell them.”
This conversation touches on a few relationships that are unrequited or one-sided. One is Hector’s relationship with his “unexpected” wife (Mrs. Lintott apparently knows that Hector is attracted to men, and that he nonetheless remains married to a woman). Another is Posner’s unrequited love for Dakin. Finally, the teachers at the school have a one-sided relationship with their students, who don’t really see them as full people. The presence of all of these half-formed relationships in the play suggests that loneliness creeps up on you as you get older. Mrs. Lintott, Hector, and even Irwin have lives that are dominated by work and seem devoid of fulfilling love. Posner, though still young and hopeful, seems headed in that direction, too.
Posner asks Irwin whether this is a phase, and says, “some of the literature says it will pass.” Irwin, either in an aside or to Mrs. Lintott in the staff room, says that he wanted to tell Posner that literature (i.e. books and poetry) says otherwise. Posner says that he’s not sure whether he wants his feelings to pass, but he knows he wants to get into Cambridge. He believes this might make Dakin love him—or it might make him care less. Then he gives this assessment of his life: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m a homosexual. I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked.” Mrs. Lintott asks whether they talked about anything else, and Irwin says no. She exits.
Posner has been looking for clear answers about his sexuality, and he is drawn to the idea that success (in the form of Oxbridge) might be a magic bullet to solve all of his problems. Posner is still hopeful about his future, but Irwin and the audience know that university admissions won’t solve his heartache. Irwin even points out that in this case, Posner would do better to look to literature for solace—the course Hector has been suggesting all along. This suggests that Hector is right to think that his teaching will make the boys happier than Irwin’s emphasis on exams will.
Irwin, back in the scene with Posner, asks what the boys do in Hector’s lessons. Posner says “nothing,” and adds, “you shouldn’t ask me that, sir.” Irwin calls it a “quid pro quo”—Posner confided in him, and now he’s confiding in Posner. Posner says that he has to go. Irwin persists, asking Posner whether the boys learn poetry on their own. Posner says that Hector makes you want to learn, and Irwin asks how. Posner says that it’s “a conspiracy…against the world,” then tells Irwin that he hates this interrogation, and wants to go. Irwin asks if the conspiracy aspect is what makes Hector work behind a locked door. Posner says that it’s a way of making sure that Hector’s classes are apart from the world, “not part of the system.”
Irwin lies to Mrs. Lintott, which suggests that he is embarrassed that he pushed Posner to tell him more about Hector. Irwin’s interest indicates that he wishes he shared the same special relationship with the students that Hector does—though the audience, of course, knows that this special relationship has a sexual side that Irwin should not want to emulate. Irwin in this scene seems desperate for both status as a teacher and friendship with the boys, suggesting that his bravado in class covers up his uncertainty and insecurity.
Irwin asks why Posner came to him about Dakin, and not to Hector. Posner says that he wanted “advice” and not a quote from literature. Hector thinks that literature is “everything,” but Posner says, “it isn’t, though, is it, sir?” Scripps cuts in with a narrative aside to the audience. He says that what Posner didn’t say is that he had seen Irwin looking at Dakin, too. Scripps says of Posner, “basically he just wanted company.” Irwin tells Posner that the feelings will “pass.” Posner agrees. As a parting shot, Irwin tells Posner that he should stop being so agreeable, and “acquire the habit of contradiction.” Posner says “yes, sir. No, sir.” Scripps then accompanies Posner on the piano while he sings the last verse of a hymn.
The fact that Irwin is also suppressing his homosexual attraction for Dakin suggests that he, like Hector and Posner, is lonely. Yet Irwin doesn’t try to make Posner feel less alone. Instead, he tries to place himself apart from Posner. He suggests that Posner, unlike Irwin, has not learned to contradict society’s commonly held ideas—but the scene as a whole shows that Irwin’s bold academic philosophies have not helped him avoid loneliness and suffering. He probably insults Posner as an ineffective way of making himself feel better.
The scene changes. Dakin asks Scripps what he does to practice his religion, and Scripps says that he prays and goes to church, but that mostly “it’s what you don’t do.” Dakin asks if he means that he doesn’t “wank” (masturbate). Scripps doesn’t, but says that it’s not forever. Dakin teases him: “just tell me on the big day and I’ll stand well back.” Scripps says that he feels that he has to practice religion now so that it’s not something he has to return to later in life. He says that his parents hate it. He also says that there are things he still doesn’t understand about religion—like the fact that you should love God just because he loves you. He compares him to “Hector minus the motorbike” and says that “God should get real.”
Scripps, like Posner, is an outsider—he is the only one of the boys who believes in God. But Scripps is able to explore his own mind and make unconventional choices about his sexuality while still relating to others socially. He is thus an example of a well-adjusted person—one of the few in the play. He draws from Irwin’s teaching methods, as we see in his irreverent description of God, but he also benefits from Hector’s beliefs about developing yourself without concern for social convention.
Dakin says that this is a good line of argument for Cambridge interviews. Scripps says he won’t use it—it’s private. Dakin says, “fuck private.” Scripps asks Dakin to test him on T.S. Eliot, and recites an Eliot poem about a painting by the artist Piero della Francesca. Dakin comments that “the more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers…all literature is consolation.” Scripps protests that some literature is about joy, and Dakin responds that it’s only written when good things are over, and it’s “lowering.” Scripps asks if he really means it, or he’s trying out some “original thoughts” for the exam. Dakin says he isn’t, but Scripps says it’s the kind of thing that Irwin would say. Dakin says it was Irwin who opened him up to this way of thinking—“I didn’t know you were allowed to call art and literature into question.” He says that the idea comes partly from the philosopher Nietzsche. He mispronounces the name, and Scripps corrects him. Dakin is horrified, realizing that Irwin listened to him talk about Nietzsche without correcting him.
Scripps says that he doesn’t want to use his “private” thoughts on the exam, and this further suggests that he has internalized some of Hector’s teachings. His beliefs about religion are for his own growth, not for any external validation. Dakin, on the other hand, is beginning to question Hector’s teachings even as he also criticizes Irwin. His comments about literature suggest that Dakin has come to see suffering as a failure, not as a fact of life. He seems to think that if one is not a “loser,” then literature becomes unnecessary. Dakin and Scripps are thus both beginning to form their own ideas about how they should use Hector’s and Irwin’s teaching to live their lives. They are maturing intellectually and growing into adulthood.
The scene changes to an unidentified location. Irwin and Hector are mid-conversation. Irwin says that he’s gathered that the boys know a lot of information from Hector’s class, but that they seem to think that they shouldn’t use it on the university examinations. Hector says that’s not surprising, because he openly calls exams the “enemy of education” (though he adds, “which is not to say that I don’t regard education as the enemy of education, too”). Still, he says that he’ll talk to them about it. Irwin thanks him, and says that he actually sympathizes with Hector’s view of exams, but that the “gobbets” the boys have learned with Hector “might just tip the balance.”
Hector is here finally willing to compromise his principles in order to promote the boys’ success—and Irwin shows that he understands Hector’s point of view. Irwin actually feels similarly that exams aren’t true education, but he wants the boys to use whatever they can to pass them anyway. Bennett never draws a sharp line or takes a strong moralizing tone about these teachers’ two opposing viewpoints. Indeed, one of his major arguments is that we shouldn’t accept simplistic explanations of truth, especially about big questions like the purpose of education.
Hector immediately objects to this characterization, saying, “codes, spells, runes—call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.” Irwin protests that he was only thinking that the ideas might be useful, and Hector objects to this, too, saying that the poems and movie scenes belong in the realm of the heart, and are “not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.” Irwin asks why they’re learning them, then, and says that education isn’t just for old age—“the exam is next month.” But Hector reminds Irwin that after the exam, life will go on.
Even while this scene blurs the line between Hector and Irwin in some ways, Hector still feels forcefully about his point of view. It is when Irwin trivializes literature that Hector and the boys disagree with him most strongly, because this shows that his vision of education is emotionally shallow. Irwin and Hector also disagree about the purpose of education in the long or short term. Hector is thinking about the boys’ whole lives, while Irwin is thinking about “next month.” This is partly due to their different ages, as Hector understands more about how much suffering life entails, while Irwin, like the boys, still believes in the power of success to make one happy.
The scene changes again. The Headmaster asks Irwin how the boys are doing, and Irwin says he thinks they’re doing well. The Headmaster demands more certainty, and Irwin says that there’s always luck involved. The Headmaster is taken aback by this, and says that he doesn’t want to repeat the failures of previous years. Irwin comments that the boys might benefit from using more of Hector’s knowledge, and the Headmaster says that they’re not likely to do that. The Headmaster can’t see the point of knowing reams of poetry by heart, and doesn’t think that’s what the examiners will be looking for.
The Headmaster is even more extreme than Irwin is in his view that education should be useful, which serves to make us more sympathetic to Irwin as a character. Even though he’s also hedging his bets, in discussing the “randomness” of the exams Irwin clearly understands that life is shaped largely by random events. This is one of the lessons that he is trying to teach the boys in his history classes, and one that the play upholds as a valuable lesson.
Mrs. Lintott enters, and the Headmaster exits. She tells Irwin that if he remains a teacher, he’ll learn that Headmasters are often the enemy of a good school culture. She tells him that Hector’s aim is to be a memorable teacher, and that Irwin should forgive him if he oversteps. Changing the subject, she asks whether Dakin is the best student, and Irwin says he’s the “canniest.” Mrs. Lintott says he’s the best looking. She says that Dakin certainly knows more than Irwin does, at least about the school, because he’s seeing Fiona, the Headmaster’s secretary. Irwin says that he didn’t know that. Mrs. Lintott says that he should, and she suspects that Posner does.
Mrs. Lintott (like Scripps earlier) seems to suspect that Irwin might have feelings for Dakin. She has already cautioned Hector against being seduced by Dakin, and now she subtly tells Irwin the same thing. Mrs. Lintott is thus operating behind the scenes to help protect two major male characters in the play. She is astute enough to sense their attraction to their students, and her response is to try to minimize the damage that they might suffer at the school as a result. Mrs. Lintott will later argue that women operate behind the scenes of history, and here, she does just that.
Scripps begins to narrate. He says that halfway through the school term, the Headmaster calls Hector into his office. There, he asks Hector why he teaches “behind locked doors,” and Hector says it’s because he doesn’t want to be disturbed. “Teaching?” the Headmaster asks pointedly. He continues that his wife works at a charity shop in town, and that lately she has been looking out the window to see a man driving a motorcycle with a boy riding behind, and the “man…fiddling.” She wrote down the license plate number. Now, the Headmaster knows that it was Hector. The Headmaster says that he’s not going to do anything for the time being, but that Hector should plan to retire early, at the end of the term.
Immediately after Mrs. Lintott tries to caution Irwin against any sexual affair with the students, an off-stage female character also changes the course of history. This non-speaking female character is a major force in the story, further dramatizing the way that women are often left out of a narrative, even though they may have a large influence. The Headmaster’s discovery of the incident happens by coincidence, again illustrating Bennett’s argument that history does not progress linearly and predictably, but rather through a series of random, unpredictable events.
Hector doesn’t immediately answer. Then he quotes a line of A.E. Housman’s poetry: “The tree of man was never quiet.” The Headmaster says that it’s “no time for poetry,” and Hector responds, “I would have thought it was just the time.” The Headmaster asks Hector why he didn’t stop to think. Hector quotes another poem: “to think that two and two are four / And never five nor three / The heart of man has long been sore / And long ’tis like to be.”
Hector here enacts his own educational philosophy—in his hour of need and suffering, he looks to literature. Hector’s quotes are only vaguely related to the topic at hand, and his response also feels inadequate, given the seriousness of the Headmaster’s accusations. This suggests that Hector’s philosophy is not always well-suited to the practical matters in life.
The Headmaster asks if Hector’s wife knows about this, and Hector says he’s not sure, but he doesn’t think she’d be “interested.” Hector says that his wife helps out at the charity shop, too, and that he doesn’t understand how women think. The Headmaster moves on to a new topic, saying that this unfortunate circumstance leads him to ask that Hector share his lessons with Irwin for the remainder of the term. He says that he has always considered Hector’s lessons to be more about some vision of culture than about the boys’ best interests, and that sharing a lesson will also help remedy that. He reminds Hector that he would rather force an early retirement than fire him. As Hector leaves, he starts to say that “nothing happened.” The Headmaster says it wasn’t nothing. Hector begins to explain himself: “The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act. In the Renaissance…” but the Headmaster counters, “Fuck the renaissance,” and “all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school and it isn’t normal.”
Hector’s estranged marriage shows us again that his adult life is marked by failure and frustrated expectations. In this scene, the Headmaster is clearly pre-occupied with social convention and practical matters, while Hector, on the other hand, has learned to blind himself to social conventions. This means that the Headmaster sees Hector’s sexual acts as unusual and deviant, while Hector sees them in the context of self-actualization and the quest for knowledge. This incident shows that Hector’s educational and life philosophies aren’t fully adequate for confronting life’s challenges—he lacks practical social intelligence, and this leads him to act in destructive ways.
The scene changes to Hector’s classroom. Hector sits at his desk wearing his motorcycle clothes, and Posner enters. Hector asks if Dakin is coming too, and Posner says he’s busy going over old exam questions with Irwin. Hector compares this to “pornography,” and asks Posner what he’s learned to recite this week. Posner says he has learned Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge.” He recites it.
Again Hector links sex and learning, saying that Irwin’s flashy intellectualism is like pornography. The fact that Posner is coming in after hours to work on poetry illustrates the deeper way that Hector’s educational philosophy appeals to the boys. Posner sacrifices his time to come learn poetry with Hector.
The poem is about an army drummer who dies, and is buried in a foreign land. Hector and Posner discuss it. Hector points out that the dead soldier has a name and a known occupation—he is “Drummer Hodge.” In previous wars, he would have been an unknown soldier in a mass grave. Posner asks how old Hardy is. At first Hector thinks he’s asking how old the drummer is, and says that he would have been younger than Posner himself. Then Posner clarifies, and Hector says that the poet Thomas Hardy was about sixty when he wrote the poem—close to Hector’s own age.
Posner is a stand-in for Drummer Hodge in this conversation, and Hector for the poet Thomas Hardy. Posner is a boy navigating his own difficulties in life, while Hector is a skilled interpreter of literature, giving Posner some guiding principles to live by. In this scene we see some ways that Hector can effectively apply his educational philosophy to real life, as he uses poetry to relate to Posner in a more nuanced and comforting way than Irwin could. At the same time, there is some sexual tension in this scene, and the subtext of both men discussing their frustrated desires.
Hector goes on to say that Hardy had a “saddish” life. He also notes that Hardy tends to use compound adjectives by putting the prefix “un” in front of a noun or verb. In this case, Hardy describes the drummer’s body as “uncoffined.” Hector gives other examples: “Un-kissed. Un-rejoicing. Un-confessed. Un-embraced.” He says that this gives the sense of “being out of it,” and holding back. Posner says that he got that sense from the poem. Then Hector says, “the best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you.” He says that this feels like a companionship with someone you have never met, and “it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Here, Hector makes one of the play’s clearest statements about frustration and failure, as he describes a sense of holding back and being a social outsider. Posner and Hector share this feeling, largely because of their shared homosexual desires. Hector here offers Posner advice about how to deal with it: through reading. Though we have just seen the limitations of Hector’s educational philosophy in his confrontation with the Headmaster, this scene reminds us that he is right that there is much wisdom to be gained from literature. Posner, the student who most feels himself to be a social outsider, can find comfort in books.
There is a moment in which it seems that Hector might grab Posner’s hand, or place his hand on Posner’s knee. But nothing happens. Hector asks Posner to speak the last stanza again, and Posner does. Then Dakin enters wearing a helmet. Hector asks why he’s wearing that, and Dakin responds that it’s Wednesday, so he’s riding home with Hector on the motorcycle. Hector says that he won’t be doing that today. Hector exits, and Dakin and Posner remain behind, “wondering.”
Hector’s teaching style allows him to find a strong emotional connection with Posner. That connection verges on the sexual, but Hector holds back, now putting up barriers between himself and his students. This moment of restraint shows that true maturity involves a balance among competing desires: intellectual fulfillment, social connection, sexual satisfaction, and societal acceptance. It is only now that he has been caught, however, that Hector is learning the sexual aspect of that maturity.