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London's 'History Boys,' Bound for Broadway


British writer Alan Bennett's latest play, The History Boys, was a hit at London's National Theatre. Tonight the play opens on Broadway. The heady comedy prods the British education system and the meaning of history itself. Reporter Andrea Shea has more on the play and a most English of English playwrights.

ANDREA SHEA reporting:

Alan Bennett has been in Britain's public eye for decades. While he's known for his dramatic writing, Bennett first hit the stage as a comic in 1961. That's when he teamed up with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore to create Beyond the Fringe, a trailblazing satirical review. Here's Bennett playing a vicar who says some people treat life like a can of sardines.

Mr. ALAN BENNETT (Playwright): (Acting) And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers (unintelligible). I know I have. Others think they've found the key, don't they? They (unintelligible) the sardine tin of life. They reveal sardines (unintelligible) riches of life therein, and they get them out and they enjoy them. But you know, there's always a little bit in the corner...

SHEA: Bennett and his cronies paved the way for a slew of absurdist TV shows, including Monty Python's Flying Circus. Beyond the Fringe even made it to Broadway, where it was a cult success. Since then, Bennett's work hasn't found much stage time in the U.S., but back home, his books, plays, films and BBC dramas made him a cultural icon. Some even call him England's literary mascot. Bennett accepts the nickname, although...

Mr. BENNETT: It makes out that I'm rather cozier and nicer than I am. I think it's probably that I'm not threatening in any way. I think probably that's why they like me. I mean, for instance, Harold Pinter is quite a, you know, threatening presence, regardless of his writing, you know, as a person. Where I plainly am not.

SHEA: Bennett's quiet, unassuming posture in his life and work endears him to his audience, according to John Lahr. Lahr is senior drama critic for The New Yorker Magazine.

Mr. JOHN LAHR (Senior Drama Critic, The New Yorker): He writes about small voices, little incidents, overheard conversations.

SHEA: Lahr is an American living in London, where he says Bennett is news.

Mr. LAHR: He has been having a conversation with the English about Englishness for 40 years.

Mr. BENNETT: It's an argument, really. I mean my first stage play 40 years on was an argument about England, and in a sense it's because there're all sorts of things about England that I don't like, while remaining obstinately English.

SHEA: One thing Bennett doesn't like is the way class defines so much in his country. National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner says Bennett's writing hits the English where they live.

Mr. NICHOLAS HYTNER (National Theatre Director): He's observed us, caught us, sometimes skewered us, laughed with us and made us laugh, for years and years and years.

SHEA: When Hytner says us, he means England's middle to lower middle class, where both he and Bennett come from.

Mr. HYTNER: He writes constantly about people like his parents, who were so diffident that they married 8:00 in the morning so that nobody else would be at the church and that they could both go to work as soon as they got married, whose obsession was with not making an exhibition of themselves, something that we all recognize over there.

SHEA: Hytner is in New York now directing Bennett's latest play, The History Boys. In London, it broke box office records and caused what Bennett's father would've called a splather. The play triggered a debate about the purpose of education in modern English life. Set in the 1980s, the action tracks eight state-run school students, we call them public school students here, as they study for exams that will win them history scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. A status-seeking headmaster assigns two diametrically opposed teachers to groom the working class lads.

(Soundbite of The History Boys)

Unidentified Man: (Acting) I'm thinking of the boys. Clever, yes, remarkably so, well taught, indubitably, but a little ordinaire. Think (unintelligible) think Renee (unintelligible). Hector...

SHEA: Hector, a disheveled eccentric, represents one side of Bennett's argument. This teacher savors knowledge for knowledge's sake. Award-winning British stage actor Richard Griffiths plays Hector.

(Soundbite of The History Boys)

Mr. RICHARD GRIFFITHS (Actor): (As Hector) Nothing that happens here has anything to do with getting on, but remember, open quotation marks, all knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use, close quotation marks, who said, Lockwood, Crowther (unintelligible). Loveliest of trees, the cherry now, A.E. Houseman, sir.

SHEA: Hector's rival is a serious young historian named Irwin. Irwin drives his students to jazz up their boring essays by turning them on their heads.

(Soundbite of The History Boys)

Unidentified Man #1: (As Irwin) Take Stalin, generally agreed to be a monster, and rightly. So dissent, find something, anything to say in his defense, treat it like politics. Defend the indefensible. History nowadays is not a matter of conviction, it's a performance, it's entertainment, and if it isn't, make it so.

Unidentified Man #2: (Acting) I get it. It's an angle. You want us to find an angle.

SHEA: Irwin tells the boys to sprinkle their papers with eye-catching quotes and odd factoids. As it happens, Alan Bennett was a history boy himself. He admits he used a similar method when taking his scholarship exams for Oxford. It did the trick, he says, enabling the son of a butcher to enter one of England's most revered institutions.

Mr. BENNETT: I've always been slightly ashamed of it in the sense that I knew it was a bit of a fraud, and so in a sense the play's both an explanation of that and an expiation of it, really, an apology for it.

SHEA: Bennett's affection for England's past remains. The dialogue is loaded with references to Henry VIII, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and Philip Larken. But will American audiences get the references and the utter Britishness of the play? Critic John Lahr says they'll surely miss a few things, but it hardly matters because boys will be boys, on the West End or Broadway, and the human story will entertain on either side of the Atlantic. That said, Lahr admits literate English drama can be a wild card in the States.

Mr. LAHR: You have to just jump in and the American audiences either are flattered because they can understand what's going on, or they are outraged because they're forced to actually think. But you know, Alan is a good teacher in the sense that he really does, you know, instruct by pleasing.

SHEA: Lahr says Bennett's ironic wit is the sugar that swats the fly. It shows up not only in the writer's plays, but also in his books. In Untold Stories, Bennett's new collection of personal essays and diary entries, the famously private public figure reveals much more about himself than he has in the past. Bennett was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997 and says Untold Stories is a product of his brush with mortality.

Mr. BENNETT: If I'd been as diffident as I make out, I probably wouldn't have published it, but I'm probably more self-seeking than that, so I brought it out. That was fine and it's provoked so many letters from people about their own lives that you then feel, well, it's struck a lot of chords with people.

SHEA: Bennett says he spends a good portion of each day responding to those letters, by hand, just as he writes his plays. He doesn't use a computer or even an electric typewriter, preferring instead to do things the old-fashioned way. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Shea