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Act 1: Summary of The History Boys

Before we look at Act 1, here’s a useful list of the important characters to refer back to. Use it if you need clarification or a reminder:

  • Irwin – A young teacher brought in to help the boys prepare for their Oxbridge entrance exams. He has a more cynical, results-driven approach to teaching compared to Hector.
  • Hector – An older teacher with a deep passion for literature and knowledge. He is known for his unconventional teaching methods and personal closeness to the students. He believes in a well-rounded education that goes beyond exam preparation.
  • Mrs. Lintott – A history teacher who provides a female perspective in a largely male-dominated environment. She is concerned about the representation of women in history and the current state of the school system.
  • The Headmaster – The person in charge of the school. He is primarily concerned with the school’s reputation and getting his students into prestigious universities.
  • Dakin – A confident and articulate student who is attractive and knows it. He becomes a central figure in exploring relationships and sexuality throughout the play.
  • Posner – A more introverted and sensitive student who has a crush on Dakin. He is also Jewish and deeply affected by the discussions on the Holocaust in the play.
  • Scripps – A student who is often seen as the mediator and peacekeeper of the group, trying to balance his friendship with Dakin and Posner.
  • Rudge – A student who is more straightforward and less academically inclined compared to his peers. He brings a different, more pragmatic perspective to the group.
  • Fiona – A secretary at the school who becomes a point of interest in various relationships and events within the play. She is mentioned, but not actually physically present in the play.

Scenes 1 – 4

Act 1 opens with Irwin, an ex-teacher and now government spin doctor (a position in which policies are ‘spun’ to seem more positive and beneficial to the public than they actually are). He coaches a group of MPs about selling a controversial bill to the public that would “to a significant extent abolish the presumption of innocence” in legal situations. He tells them they need to persuade the public that actually this new law would give them more freedom, rather than taking it away. The conversation reminds him of his days teaching in a school.

The action then flashes back twenty years in the past to an all-boys, northern England grammar school in the early 1980s. Hector, a teacher, enters an empty classroom wearing “motorcycle leathers.” Eight students appear on stage and help him remove this outfit – naming each item in French as they do so – revealing an eccentric jacket and bow tie underneath.

The boys are all known by their surnames:

  • Dakin
  • Posner
  • Scripps
  • Crowther
  • Timms
  • Lockwood
  • Rudge
  • Akthar

They have completed their A-levels and are staying on to complete their Oxbridge exams. Hector berates them for this, saying that they should consider other institutions instead. He also hits the students, but they see it as a sign of affection; Dakin is “black and blue” from the blows he has received, showing that he is Hector’s favourite.

In the staffroom, the Headmaster asks Mrs Lintott, the history teacher, about her plans for the Oxbridge applicants. When she suggests “more of the same”, the Headmaster dismisses this, saying he wants more innovative ideas to get more students into Oxbridge than the school normally delivers. As the Headmaster leaves, Hector comes into the room. He and Mrs. Lintott privately express their disagreement with the emphasis placed on the students getting into Oxbridge. However, they agree to do all they can to help the students.

One of the students, Scripps, narrates the next scene, explaining how Irwin – a young teacher in his mid-twenties – enters the school for a secret meeting with the Headmaster. Irwin is promised a permanent job at the school if he can get some of the boys scholarships to Oxbridge.

Scenes 5 – 6

The Headmaster and Irwin enter Hector’s classroom as the boys improvise a drama set in a brothel, and Dakin – playing a client – has his trousers off. They pretend that they are actually acting out a scene depicting a wounded soldier. When Hector finds out that some of his general studies lessons will be given to Irwin to teach history, he is very resistant to the idea.

At the end of the day, Hector asks the boys if any of them want a lift on his motorcycle. Posner accepts the offer, but Hector declines his request, choosing to take Scripps instead. Although Posner is left feeling disappointed, Dakin suggests that he should actually feel “grateful”. He is subtly implying that there is something inappropriate or unsettling about Hector’s motorcycle rides.

In the next scene, Irwin is returning essays the boys have written, describing them as competent but “dull.” He compares their standard to that of their privately educated peers, whom they will be competing against for Oxbridge places. He mentions that those students have been “groomed like thoroughbreds” for the entrance exam.

It is revealed in narration from Scripps and Posner that Posner is in love with Dakin, and Dakin is in a relationship with Fiona, the Headmaster’s secretary.

Scenes 7 – 8

In the staff room, Hector and Mrs Lintott discuss their different approaches to teaching. While Mrs Lintott focuses on providing the students with historical facts, Hector encourages them to challenge conventional thinking.

Irwin teaches a lesson in which he leads a discussion on the lead-up to World War 2. He encourages the boys to present facts in ways that are not only original but also convincing and persuasive, rather than just memorising them.

Scenes 9 – 11

As Hector is teaching the boys, someone knocks on the door of his locked classroom. Hector improvises a discussion on famous knocks on the door in literature, and then they play a game where the boys act out a scene from a film or play and Hector must guess where it is from.

Rudge shares his concerns about his own capabilities with Mrs. Lintott. However, he also acknowledges a silver lining, noting that he believes Irwin is introducing them to a fresh perspective on history. Separately, Posner privately informs the audience that Irwin will eventually become a renowned journalist and historian, recognised for his unconventional views.

Later, Irwin asks the boys about Hector’s classes. They describe the classes as enjoyable yet somewhat aimless, and indicate that they find Irwin’s lessons more beneficial for preparing for their entrance exams.

Scenes 12 – 15

During a discussion with Mrs Lintott, Irwin reveals that Posner confided in him about his homosexuality and his feelings for Dakin. However, when both Mrs Lintott and Posner ask about Irwin’s own sexuality, he avoids the question.

Scripps talks about his Christian beliefs with Dakin. In turn, Dakin talks about the profound effect that Irwin’s lessons are having on him.

Irwin and Hector discuss the best ways for the boys to approach the entrance exams. Irwin thinks that they should use the large bank of literature and film quotes learnt from Hector’s lessons, as these “might just tip the balance.” However, Hector opposes this idea, believing that this form of education, which is solely focused on passing exams, contradicts the true essence of learning.

The Headmaster asks Irwin about the boys’ progress. Although Irwin acknowledges that the boys are improving, he won’t give the guarantee of Oxbridge success that the Headmaster is looking for.

Scenes 16 – 17

The Headmaster summons Hector into his office. He tells Hector that his wife witnessed him “fiddling” with a boy on his motorcycle. As a result of this, Hector is told that he must not be alone with the boys, and he will share his lessons with Irwin. He is also told to take early retirement rather than face the disgrace of being sacked.

In his next interaction with the boys, Hector appears subdued. Dakin anticipates joining him for a motorcycle ride as usual, but is taken aback when Hector declines and departs alone.

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