Understanding The History Boys

The History Boys is a play written by Leeds-born writer, Alan Bennett, in 2004. It is inspired by his own experiences of being in a northern England grammar school and then studying history at Oxford University.

The play is set in the fictional Cutler’s Grammar School in the 1980s, although many of the references – such as the films mentioned – are more connected to the 1950s, when Bennett went to school. However, there are also some 1980s references, such as when Rudge sings a Pet Shop Boys song to Hector.

The normal process for applying to Oxbridge used to be that students would stay for an extra term to take the entrance exams. Unlike other universities, these exams were the sole consideration for entrance, rather than A-levels.

Overall plot summary

  • A group of eight intelligent male students stay on after sixth form to prepare for their Oxbridge entrance exams. They are taught general studies by Hector, a unique and passionate teacher who believes in the value of education over just passing exams.
  • The Headmaster is concerned about the school’s poor track record of getting students into Oxbridge. To solve this, he hires a young and innovative teacher, named Irwin, to give students fresh perspectives. After some initial hostility, Irwin impresses the boys with his new approach that encourages them to have original ideas.
  • The narrative takes a turn when Hector is found to have engaged in inappropriate behaviour with one of the boys. As a result, the Headmaster tells him that he must leave at the end of the academic year.
  • In the midst of this, a romantic tension develops. One of the boys, Dakin, has sexual feelings towards Irwin that seem to be reciprocated. All the boys are accepted into Oxbridge, and Dakin and Irwin agree to meet up outside of the school to pursue a relationship.
  • However, before their relationship can blossom, Hector and Irwin are involved in a serious motorcycle accident. The accident results in Hector’s death and confines Irwin to a wheelchair.
  • As time passes, the majority of the boys carve out successful careers in their respective fields. Irwin, who never entered into a relationship with Dakin, garners fame as a historian before becoming a well-known political advisor.

Structure of the play

The play is divided into two acts. Both acts begin with a moment in the future involving Irwin, before flashbacks to the main action that takes place in the 1980s.

Bennett has characters talking about future events, which makes the story feel like a reflection on the past.

Throughout the play, different characters take turns narrating, directly sharing their perspectives or explaining unfolding events with the audience.