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“Bennett’s main intention in The History Boys is to make the audience laugh” How far do you agree with this statement? by Keeran Rajan Essay

In this essay, I will be analysing the various themes in the play ‘The History Boys’ and analysing the specific focus Alan Bennett places on trying to make the audience laugh, through the theme of comedy.

Firstly, I agree with the statement in question that Bennett’s primary focus in the play ‘The History Boys’ is to try and make the audience laugh. I will use the example of the French lesson to support my statement; the French lesson demonstrates multiple techniques aimed for the purpose of making the audience laugh, one of these techniques is stage business in this scene. Timms plays the role of a prostitute and alters his mannerisms to mirror those of a feminine woman which is humorous because Bennett casts a character that is very unsuitable in multiple ways such as he is overweight and an adolescent boy, this situation clearly demonstrates Alan Bennett’s intent to make the audience laugh as the role of Timms is almost oxymoronic. Dakin plays a client who is trying to acquire the services of Timms character’s services; a role he takes very seriously as does Timms with his role, this adds to the comical nature of the scene because of the irony of taking seriously a scene where the characters are clearly fooling around. From the French scene we can already see that Bennett has tried to incorporate numerous techniques to make the audience laugh such as in regard to stage business, slapstick comedy has been incorporated by trying to create exaggerated comedy from unrealistic situations.

As the French scene progresses we see Bennett create further comedy by making the headmaster walk in on the funny situation which has already arisen prior to the addition of the headmaster to the scene. ‘Vei-uille. Enough of this…silliness’ we see the headmaster struggle and demonstrate a poorer grasp of the French language than the group of students in the room, the dash shows the headmaster stutter which underlines the struggle the headmaster has with the French language, this once again shows Bennett using significant effort to make the audience laugh; by being coerced into a humiliating situation as an authoritative figure he is made to look foolish
by the students, which is again ironic as teachers are supposed to be more intellectual than their students in every aspect.

Another example of Bennett proving his main objective, to make the audience laugh is through the portrayal of two completely conflicting characters in Irwin and Hector thus creating a clever juxtaposition between the two of them. This is humorous as they are two teachers charged with the same task are completely contrasting people, the list of personality traits include : Hector is an older gentleman whereas Irwin is youthful, Irwin is also a physically healthy and fit man as opposed to Hector whom is clearly overweight and although both characters have a homosexual tendency, Hector demonstrates a greater degree of acceptance of these feelings but Irwin is much more cautious in his approach to his sexual preferences and lifestyle. Caricature is also a pivotal way in which Alan Bennett tries to make the audience laugh; Alan Bennett provides caricature of numerous characters by exaggerating certain characteristics of characters in the play. Hector is in my opinion, embodies the most exaggerated performance, as he is a teacher who also is a paedophile who has a peculiar infatuation with specific students. The headmaster provides another example of caricature as his appearance is stereotypical but his mannerisms portray him as a robotic orientated character. Caricature portrayal of characters once again demonstrates that Bennett’s main intention was to make the audience laugh.

However, I disagree that Alan Bennett’s main intention is to make the audience laugh, as I believe Alan Bennett’s play can be seen as a tragedy. As the play reaches a climactic ending, the play ends on a sour note; which could mean to some that Bennett’s primary focus he hoped to achieve with the play was to create a tragedy through numerous tragic incidents concluding the play, which include Hector’s death, Irwin being subjected to a wheelchair both the result from the same motorbike crash and further negative emotion is cast onto the play through finishing the play on a sad note on the account of Lockwood’s death after it is stated that he died as a result of friendly fire at the age of twenty-eight while serving in the York and Lancaster regiment.

Alan Bennett also places a lot of emphasis and effort on the theme of education, it can be argued more so than he does in trying to make the audience laugh because he creates juxtaposition between Irwin and Hector in one more way which was not aforementioned in the list I previously stated, through Irwin representing pragmatism and Hector representing idealism. Alan Bennett tries to make his audience question whether education and the process of learning is precious or are you only interested solely because it helps you achieve your goals.

In regards to Hector’s mind set of idealism, this makes him focused on enriching students with a passion for books, literature and art, firstly his views are peculiar which ties into other aspects of his life, his unique mind set can be demonstrated through the quote ‘why does he lock the door’ this can be analysed to show that Hector in his methods is symbolically locking out social normality and by doing this Hector explains how he wants the boys to think and further develops his character to the audience.

‘The open road, the dusty highway’ is one of the many quotes where we see Hector reference books and this compounds his views on education at this particular time we see Hector make reference to a children’s book about a Mr Toad following an exciting open road’.

Irwin’s pragmatic view is one that simply focuses on getting ahead at any cost which is what creates juxtaposition with Hector’s educational views. ‘History nowadays is not a matter of conviction it’s a performance, its entertainment. And if it isn’t make it so’. Alan Bennett uses Irwin’s pragmatic, utilitarian mind set to explain the happiness which originates from learning is being replaced by just the need for constant progression on an individual’s educational path.

So we can see Alan Bennett places a large degree of effort into the theme of education and it can be argued more so than he does on the theme of comedy and trying to make the audience laugh.

Also, I disagree that Bennett’s main intention in the play was to make the audience laugh because an argument can be main that Bennett’s primary focus throughout the play was lust. This is primarily because of a homosexual love triangle that plays out between the three characters of Posner, Irwin and Dakin, furthermore Hector has a constant desire for physical contact with his students. ‘I love Dakin’ this demonstrates Posner’s well known lust for Dakin, but Dakin is an arrogant adolescent who is exploiting his charm to seek numerous romantic adventures.

Irwin who is clearly attracted to Dakin also does not act upon his attraction which is most likely due to him being in a position of trust at the school as his teacher, but both Irwin and Posner have romantic feelings for Dakin. ‘The heart of a man has long been sore’ Hector here conveys his emotion in his conversation with his headmaster where it is stated he had ‘his hand on a boys genitals at 50 miles per hour’ and by saying his heart is sore, the importance of referencing the heart is important as it is the organ that is generally perceived to be affiliated with love and through this quote he expresses his feelings of lust to the student in question.

Lastly, I believe that Bennett’s main goal was to not make the audience laugh but to create a portrayal of himself in the play because due to historical context, the character of Posner is likened to Alan Bennett himself. In the introduction of the play, Bennett explains his goal was also to gain acceptance into Oxbridge, just like the students and we can see Bennett claims the character of Posner is based on him ‘I had fallen for one of my colleagues with a passion as hopeless and unrequited as Posner’s is for Dakin’ Bennett explains that he had fallen for a classroom colleague and that it encouraged him to gain a scholarship as he thought it would impress him, just as Posner did.

So in conclusion, I believe that there are many key focuses of ‘The History Boys’ but I believe that Bennett’s main focus was not to make his audience laugh, I believe his main focus was to portray difference in educational views and make a representation of education in the 1950’s and the juxtaposition between Hector and Irwin.

Word Count

1,496

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