The Instructive Message of 'History Boys'

Richard Griffiths (front, with Stephen Campbell Moore) as a teacher in touch with his charges.
Richard Griffiths (front, with Stephen Campbell Moore) as a teacher in touch with his charges. (By Alex Bailey -- Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

We may live in a society that eroticizes teenagers, but the question of sex between adults and teens is so explosive that it refuses to remain just a subplot of any narrative it appears in. The e-mails and instant messages that then-Rep. Mark Foley sent to teenage male pages should have been a very minor story, when compared with the daily carnage of Iraq or memories of Katrina or debate about issues such as stem cell research, in the unfolding of the last election. But the Foley debacle dominated the news coverage and may have helped bring down the Republican majority.

So too the minor sexual contact between a teacher and his students -- most of them 17 or 18 years old -- in Alan Bennett's play (and now movie) "The History Boys" is really just a subplot, one thread among many in a play that is primarily about education. But it's almost inevitable that this subplot will predominate in the way audiences remember and react to the work. Given the climate of fear about adolescent sexuality, the "boys" loom larger than the "history" in the reception of Bennett's Tony-winning opus.

The movie arrives on the heels of the play's U.S. premiere on Broadway last April and its six Tony Awards in June. And even closer on the heels of the Foley scandal earlier this fall, which involved congressional pages of about the same age as the boys depicted in Bennett's play. The scandal and the play both focus attention on that fraught period of late adolescence, when teenagers are sexually aware, often sexually active, but not yet fully enfranchised members of society.

The scandal and the play also force consideration of a question perhaps more troubling in American society than British society: How to deal with precocious adolescents, with adults who desire them, and with the relationships that result when these two volatile elements combine? Although when played out in homosexual terms, there is added scandal -- because of the societal stigma that still attaches to gay people -- the drama is just as fertile in heterosexual terms: Witness "Notes on a Scandal," an upcoming film starring Cate Blanchett, based on an affair between a female teacher and her eager male pupil.

"History Boys" follows eight young men of exceptional intellectual abilities, but who desperately need shaping and discipline if they are to be serious "Oxbridge" contenders. Two teachers, whose highly contrasting educational styles form the philosophical conflict of the play, undertake the work of refining the boys. Both men are homosexuals and both are perilously attracted to their students.

Hector, the orotund, poetically inclined older man who teaches with no particular program but the spirit of intellectual play and adventure, has been groping the boys under his tutelage for years. Irwin, a newcomer, younger and more brutally pragmatic about teaching, is brought in to teach them the art of intellectual pizazz, the style-over-substance tricks that will make them stand out among the competition.

Bennett stacks the deck mostly but not entirely in the favor of Hector, who is charismatic, witty and erudite. Hector's also taking liberties -- reaching back for the occasional grope while driving a boy on his motorcycle -- that the boys have come to accept as one of their teacher's eccentricities. The boys don't particularly enjoy it and they casually banter about what they consider Hector's pathetic personal life. But they also love him, and not only do they dutifully submit to the groping, in the end, they defend Hector when outside (and more puritanical) forces threaten his cozy relationship with them.

The acceptance of homosexuality within the English school tradition is legendary. Nicholas Hytner, the director of the "History Boys" film, says he attended a high school not unlike the one depicted in Bennett's play. "Even in the '70s," he says, "we would have found casual homophobia disgusting."

But it's not just the attitude toward homosexuality that distinguishes this play from anything that could be written in the United States during the age of programs such as NBC's "To Catch a Predator" or fallout from the Foley scandal. Bennett, in an interview in an English newspaper, said (of the sexual encounters between Hector and his students): "I think I've been criticized for not taking this seriously enough. I'm afraid I don't take that very seriously if they're 17 or 18. I think they are actually much wiser than Hector. Hector is the child, not them." That acceptance of a gray area about sexuality involving late adolescents is all but impossible in this country, where the sexual predator has become an absolute category, a universal figure for evil and nightly fodder for pursuit and punishment on programs such as "Law and Order: SVU." The collective response from society -- concerned that sexual abuse is being ignored -- is a vigilance so strict that there is no room for exceptions of any sort, even if the abused are all-but adults and don't feel particularly victimized.

If the Foley scandal hadn't become political fuel so quickly, however, one might have gleaned a very similar sense of child-adult role reversal from a close reading of the sexually charged e-mails and instant messages that became such a huge story only weeks before the election. In one infamous exchange, Foley's language and spelling are straight out of a high school playbook. His prurience has a juvenile, locker-room quality, in strange contrast to the tone of the boy's messages, which indicate someone more interested in homework and sleep than dirty talk. The boy, who mentions a girlfriend, seems mostly amused by Foley's evident sexual interest. One of the great mysteries of this exchange is why it was preserved and what the boy was thinking.

Reading those exchanges, it's hard not to think of another example of sex between a teenage boy and an adult that is currently working its way through the popular culture. In Augusten Burroughs's memoir "Running With Scissors" (also a new movie), the narrator (at age 14) has an affair with a man about twice his age. At first, he loves the man, then tires of him, then grows disgusted by him. And after a sexual encounter, the "Augusten" character tells the older man: "If you ever get out of line, I'll go straight to the police and you will be arrested for statutory rape. You'll spend the rest of your life rotting behind bars."

Adult manipulation and sexual abuse, in the case of the narrator in the Burroughs memoir, are much more clearly on the surface than in "History Boys." The child is younger and the sexual encounters are initiated in a way that painfully breaches a trust. The threat to report the man sounds like the desperate effort of a desperate kid looking for whatever weapon he can find to invert the power balance. And yet, after making the threat, the boy writes in his journal: "I have a new thing I can use on him. I would never do that of course, really go to the police. And if he ever reads this journal he will know I will never do it and then I won't have that tool anymore."

What's curious in all of these cases are the voices, albeit processed in one case through memoir and another through fiction, of characters that are most often treated as silent victims. In one case, anyone alert to sexual abuse will hear a teenager prematurely sophisticated about sexual dynamics and the cynical use of power to gain control in a relationship; the abuse of Burroughs's narrator resides in the very canniness that a 14-year-old boy has developed about desire. In Bennett's play, however, the boys' canniness about a flawed teacher's sexual desires gives them a power over him that they also refuse to use. They know their teacher is what used to be known, in so many small communities, as the dirty old man -- slightly ridiculous, and often harmless. And in their acceptance of Hector in that role, the boys seem preternaturally wise.

That may be the most controversial thing about the movie, which could reach an audience well beyond the theater world of New York and fans of Bennett's work. Bennett's boys are intellectually sophisticated and live in a rarefied (and fictional) world where their youth and brilliance make them little princelings. Their ability to negotiate, with grace and understanding, what would in almost every other context be considered sexual abuse is very much limited to the particulars of their social position, and the particulars of Bennett's play. And Bennett's play is also the work of a mature man, imagining the inner lives of high school boys. The sexual dynamics imagined in any such work -- call it the Lolita factor -- must be subjected to the following suspicion: Is this an apologia, by an adult, that mischaracterizes the sexuality of youth?

The American drama of sexual abuse, played out almost weekly in hysterical terms on "To Catch a Predator," has very little room for the larger continuum of the sexual interactions between adults and youth suggested by Bennett's play. NBC's popular but scabrous program, in which adults impersonate highly sexualized children in order to entrap other adults into sexual encounters, eliminates any actual children or youth from the equation. The voices heard in Bennett's play or Burroughs's memoir or the transcripts of the Foley case, have been eliminated. NBC uses "reality" TV to fictionalize child sexuality as much as Bennett or Nabokov or any other author. But works such as Bennett's and Burroughs's, and even the transcripts of the Foley exchanges, suggest that there is a lot more to be learned about how sex is negotiated -- especially between adults and youth who are almost adults -- than American popular culture is quite ready to acknowledge.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company