Making History at the Loeb Ex

The nature of history, adolescent angst, and pedophilia—the themes of the play “The History Boys” by English playwright Alan Bennett—will always attract varying interpretations.

“One of the biggest things that frustrates me is that people summarize it as a humorous schoolboy comedy,” says Mia P. Walker ’10, director of the show’s latest incarnation opening tonight at the Loeb Ex. Walker, who is also a Crimson Arts writer, is seeking to draw out the play’s more outrageous and taboo themes—an attempt to substantiate this “schoolboy comedy” and create an engaging and moving performance.

In a play that focuses so much on the shifting and ambiguous teacher-student relationship, using a cast of just college students poses a challenge, with no visual differentiation between master and student. For Walker, however, this is part of the attraction of putting on the show.

“This is a story that needs to be told, and it needs to be done by a younger group,” she says. “I think it’s really fascinating to see what happens when you have college students playing all the characters, because then it’s just this messed up world where it doesn’t matter if you’re an adult or you’re 18 years old. You’re thinking about sex, you’re thinking about your life, and you’re thinking about how we’re all dying.”

Because it displays the universal and not always rosy interests of the characters, regardless of age and life experience, “The History Boys” is not always a comfortable viewing experience. “All the characters in the play have a dark side to them that, when it comes out, is a little jarring,” says Sean Delal, a junior at Emerson who plays the cynical new teacher Irwin.

Walker offers a similarly dark interpretation of the play’s meaning. “The major themes of the play for me are the fear of disappearing and not making history and the crazy things that people do to not disappear,” she says.

In this attempt to make history, the characters of the play go through a multitude of formative experiences. The tension between Irwin’s new methods of teaching and the more idealistic notions about education of his older counterpart, Hector, provide the backbone of the show. However, the play holds back from judging exactly which is correct, particularly as both characters are so flawed.

Ilan J. Caplan ’10, who plays Hector, sees his character as one that is respected by many in the play, but he is as dark and contradictory as the rest.

“The questions that surround him add to his darkness,” he says. “He comes out as having the right approach in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure that it’s argued that it’s a moral approach.”

This refusal to judge what is morally correct is, for Walker, another of the play’s key attractions.

“My ideal situation would be people walking out of the theatre thinking, ‘Who do I align with?’” she says. As for the attitude of the play, she says “It’s not quite idealism, it’s not quite this shock value skepticism. It’s something else that, unfortunately, society deems as taboo.”

This chaotic approach to morality will be reflected in the similarly chaotic setting of the play. For a play that has been successful in the London West End, Broadway, and as a movie, the decision to stage it in the intimate Loeb Ex may seem a little strange.

“[The theatre may seem] chaotic and crowded,” Walker says, but “the boys themselves… test the notion of what it means to sit in seats and listen to a teacher. They’re very active, so there’s no reason why this play needs to be done like classroom, teacher, and audience in a proscenium. I think it’s more of an interactive piece.”

Caplan agrees that the play deserves this kind of intimate setting. “It’s written to be played around with,” he said. “The script has a very strong experimental nature to it.”

In experimenting with “The History Boys” and forming their own distinct version of it, the cast and crew of this new production hope that thetw. For Walker, who gave up a chance to study abroad in Paris this semester in favor of directing this play, it will certainly be a very personal experience. “This is our ‘History Boys,’” she says. “If it was any other way I think Bennett would be upset.”

—Staff Writer Chris R. Kingston can be reached at kingston@fas.harvard.edu.