Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The History Boys at the Studio Theatre

I didn't have the good fortune to see the London or Broadway productions of The History Boys, but friends verified the glowing reviews. The play didn't transfer well to the screen, but by using the original cast, the film gave some sense of the performances that so enthralled audiences and critics alike.

The new production at the Studio Theatre, while good, lacks the sheen of the original. Normally, Joy Zinoman does a crackerjack job with recent Broadway and London imports, and she has a particular genius for reworking material to sometimes startling results. Witness her brilliant production of The Invention of Love, which discovered untapped depths of feeling in the script, whereas the London production saw only Stoppard's customary linguistic brilliance. This time, though, the magic touch eluded Zinoman, and the resulting show, while enjoyable, has some real problems.

The most obvious kink, which other reviewers have noted, was the casting of Floyd King as Hector, the Pied Piper of a pedagogue with roving hands. King's portrayal contrasted sharply with that of Richard Griffiths, who premiered the role. Griffiths, a portly, jolly man with a distinctive voice, made us understand entirely why his charges would shrug off the occasional grope, as if that were a small price to pay for being in the presence of such delicious eccentricity. Zinoman's casting of King was a clear decision to go against type, and while contrary choices have served her well in the past, this time it backfired. Everything about King seemed crabbed, inward, and small, from his appearance to his delivery, and the result left one wondering what appeal he could possibly hold for his students. There were small annoyances too. King's pallid English accent fluctuated, disappearing by the end, and his customarily slurry enunciation, charming in comic roles, too often rendered him inaudible. An actor should be able to make himself heard in an intimate space like the Metheny Theatre, but King habitually swallowed the ends of words, making comprehension difficult.

Others in the cast fared better.  Simon Kendall was a softer, more hesitant Irwin than Stephen Campbell Moore in the London/Broadway production, giving his character the complexity that King also sought (but missed). The boys were uniformly good with some real standouts, such as Owen Scott as the comically sad Posner and Jay Sullivan as the sexually predatory Dakin. Sullivan, who looks like a youngish Robert Redford, embodied perfectly the golden boy that everyone wants.

Some of Zinoman's staging choices also failed to serve the production. The modular set, while clever and attractive, was used to excess, a common problem these days. Bennett's script evinces the sort of episodic structure that has pervaded British drama since the eighties, which can translate to upward of thirty scene changes. Rather than relying on lighting or movement to indicate a simple change, Zinoman had the "boys" constantly rearrange modular bits, moving archways and repositioning desks. The chronic changes, largely unnecessary, made an already choppy script even more disjointed. She also eliminated the back screen projection of eighties video footage, a choice that not only drained the play of its political context--and the Thatcher years are essential here--but also inadvertently revealed the flaws in Bennett's script.

On the face of it, The History Boys pays homage to a fast-fading society where knowledge is valued for itself and ethics still matter. Irwin, the young, smarty-pants history instructor (and pedagogical villain) teaches to exam results, not the intellect, preaching the virtues of glib originality to secure a place at Oxbridge. History for Irwin is little more than ductile narratives. If received opinion condemns Mussolini, then praise him; if post-war society denounces the Holocaust, then suggest its unexpected benefits. Projected video in the original show clearly associated Irwin's educational principles--if one can dignify them with such a word--with the excesses of the Thatcherism.  Without that context, Irwin seems little more than a smug prig, one of the pitfalls of the Studio Theatre production.

Against Irwin is juxtaposed the old humanist Hector, who quotes poetry and demands that his boys do the same. His lads learn for the sheer pleasure of learning, be it snippets of old movies or the French subjunctive. Hector also treats learning as a bulwark against the erosion of time, a way to fortify the spirit when all else fails.  If Irwin's efficient amorality is symptomatic of the Thatcher years, then Hector's intellectual messiness, a hodgepodge of high and low culture, brings to mind the post-war period of the fifties and sixties, when clever boys out of Oxbridge (some of whom like Bennett would go on to form Beyond the Fringe) married music hall vaudeville to Left Bank existentialism.  

Zinoman's production forsook Thatcherite politics for an emphasis on sexual desire, ironically, the most problematic aspect of Bennett's script.  While Hector, not Irwin, commands our sympathies, he is also pathetic: Auden, Hardy, and Housman, all masters of unrequited and repressed emotion, figure largely in his poetic flights for good reason. Unwilling to face his homosexuality or leave his marriage, Hector's longing finds expression in the sad little gropes visited upon the boys who ride double on his motorcycle.  While one would expect Irwin, the consummate product of the eighties, to embody post-Stonewall attitudes, he too longs silently from afar.  Only golden boy Dakin finds sexual fulfillment--and yet we recoil from his predatory pursuit of men and women alike.  

Indeed, The History Boys seems peculiarly intent on punishing those who "come out." Publicly exposed and shamed into early retirement, Hector enjoys a last-minute reprieve when the headmaster's own peccadillos--albeit of the heterosexual variety--are conveniently revealed. Circumstances thus accomplish what volition could not, forcing Hector to acknowledge his predilection for boys, not his wife.  Irwin plans to meet Dakin for what surely will prove to be a life-altering tete-a-tete.  A motorcycle accident at the penultimate moment, however, kills Hector and maims Irwin, thereby ensuring that neither man will know peace in the wake of sexual revelation. The postscript to the play proper, where we learn the eventual fate of the students, underscores the punitive message. Posner, another unfulfilled homosexual, is destined to halfway houses, psychiatric treatment, suicide attempts--and literary scribblings.

What, then, are we to make of a play that murders or cripples (literally and psychically), any male who gives voice to the love that dare not speak its name? Only Dakin prospers--as a slimy barrister. Moreover, his undifferentiated, avaricious sexuality appears--even more so than Irwin's educational policies--to figure the unbridled consumerism of the 80s. If so, then the play's outcome suggests both the triumph of capitalism over the socialist state and the victory of vulturine over repressed sexuality. Certainly, the maudlin ending secures this reading.  As the students and faculty eulogize Hector, we are expected to wax nostalgic for a mode of learning, as Bennett reminds us in 2004, now vanished--as has the unrequited version of homosexual longing he embodied. Even more disturbing is the collective price Hector, Irwin, and Posner pay for "coming out," an odd moral made all the more bald by Zinoman's decision to eliminate political context from the production.  At least in the Broadway/London premiere, the constant visual reminder of the Thatcher years shifted attention away from Bennett's dubious sexual message.

In the final analysis, The History Boys not only promotes misty-eyed remembrance of old-fashioned pedagogy but also of the days when men could not express same-sex desire. By suggesting that art and learning can only flourish in the soil of unhappiness, Bennett recycles the same muddled sentiments one finds in the worst Romantic poetry.  Only the sexual orientation has changed.

No comments: