The History Boys by Alan Bennett is one of my favourite plays. I saw it almost ten years ago in the original National Theatre production (*swank alert*), and greatly preferred it to the film (which I found disappointing, mostly because of the misportrayal of Irwin, who – despite being played by the same actor, Stephen Campbell Moore – lost all the silkily meretricious charisma that he had in the stage version).
One of the most celebrated lines from the play is said by the rugby-obsessed, laddish Rudge (played by Russell Tovey) when asked, during his mock interview, “How do you define history?”:
How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another.
This line isn’t just a throwaway joke, but a key to understanding the play. It certainly captures the sense in which the attempt (personified in Richard Griffiths’ Mr Hector) to derive meaning and purpose for life through history and language is ultimately destroyed by a mixture of human frailty and contingent, random events. Rudge, who sees history as “just one fucking thing after another”, ends up as probably the most balanced and well-integrated adult of all the boys, a successful property developer; Posner, who buys into Hector’s worldview most thoroughly, ends up tragically damaged.
However, I now think there is another line, rather less obvious, which gives an even deeper indication of what Bennett’s play is about. The Headmaster of the school is obsessed with getting his boys into Oxbridge; it is something of a running joke that the intellectual insecurity which drives this ambition results from his having ended up studying geography in, of all benighted places, Hull. When the Headmaster hires Irwin to help sharpen the boys’ interview style (“Mr Hector has an old-fashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier.”), Irwin mentions having studied at Oxford himself, leading to the following exchange:
Headmaster: I thought of going*, but this was the fifties. Change was in the air. A spirit of adventure.
Irwin: So, where did you go?
Headmaster: I was a geographer. I went to Hull.
Irwin: Oh. Larkin.
Headmaster: Everybody says that.
(* Cue uproarious laughter from, as my father-in-law pointed out on the night, the 50% of the audience who had been to Oxbridge.)
Which sets us up nicely for this remark from Mr Hector in the next scene:
I am summoned to the Presence. The Headmaster wishes to see me, whose library books, we must always remember, Larkin himself must on occasion have stamped. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
Now, when I came across that line again earlier this week, I assumed that the quotation – “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” – must be from Larkin. On googling it, however, it turns out to come from T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion. Here’s the stanza from which it comes:
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
Now, without going into too much detail, all this is so relevant to The History Boys, it hurts. How history “deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities” (applicable variously to Hector, Irwin and the Headmaster); how “what she gives, gives with such supple confusions / That the giving famishes the craving”; how she “Gives too soon / Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with” (Posner?); how “Neither fear nor courage saves us”; how “Unnatural vices / Are fathered by our heroism”; and so on.
And if we needed further evidence that Bennett intends the whole stanza to be alluded to by that single line, consider this: why does Hector, having cracked a joke about Larkin, then proceed to quote Eliot? After all, there is an extremely well-known line from Larkin that would have made much the same point on a surface level: “Never such innocence again” (from MCMXIV). I think we are forced to the conclusion that Bennett has quoted a more unexpected line precisely because he intends it to bring with it the rest of Eliot’s stanza.
Just goes to show (for those who needed it showing): there’s much more to Alan Bennett than nattering to Thora Hird about chocolate HobNobs and tea.
Oh, and the film omits the line altogether, which is an interesting reflection of how it fails to reach the depths of the original play.