Male Mystery in 'History Boys'

Play at the Loeb explores ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ themes and more

Secretly, society has a fascination with the enigmatic, dynamic, and unreported events of the all-boy prep school. The HRDC’s newest drama, “The History Boys,” rips this mystery wide-open with a witty, yet tense, tale of eight English schoolboys as they prepare for their college entrance exams. As “Oxbridge candidates,” they must face the reality of adulthood, while their flavorful, poetical English professor Mr. Hector fights to protect the boys’ playful youth.

Ostensibly, Hector (Ilan J. Caplan ’10) parallels the Mr. Keating of “The Dead Poet’s Society.” But while Keating only provides literature, Hector offers illicit sexual encounters. His inability to distance himself emotionally enables “The History Boys” to dig deeper into the student-teacher relationship, divulging the unspoken sexual tensions that can develop when malleable adolescents love and respect their role models a little too much.

This well-cast group of boys quickly traps the audience’s attention with their slapstick humor and catchy one-liners; however, they soon prove to be more than a bunch of goofballs. Each one bright and opinionated, they straddle the line between embracing 1980s counter-culture, and respecting the old-world tradition embedded in British society.

Fueling their taste for literature, self-expression, and the corruptible purity of art, Hector declares, “Forget Oxford! Forget Cambridge!” only minutes into the first act. He demands instead that they memorize literature and use that breadth of knowledge as a means to defy all that society expects of them. “You give them an education. I give them a way to resist it!” Hector explains to his fellow teachers.

Fascinated by Mr. Hector’s teachings is Mr. Irwin (played by Emerson junior Sean Dalal)—a young, harsh Oxford graduate hired to train the boys for their forthcoming exam. Irwin’s presence in the play also sharpens the distinction between “The History Boys” and “The Dead Poet’s Society.” Although Irwin could easily be portrayed as the stock-character of a dispassionate figure against which the boys may rebel, he actually struggles with personal issues of his own. Hired to be the manifestation of the headmaster’s (James Smith) beliefs and expectations, Irwin is both annoyed and captivated by Hector’s eccentric teachings. However, his own attempts to remain unemotional and detached from the boys fail, and he falls into the same trap as Hector—he can’t help but care for them.

Though all the boys are loveable, Stuart Dakin (Noah A. Hoch ’11) stands out as the seductive heartthrob of the show. Representing “class hunks” everywhere, Hoch certainly delivers as the one boy with whom everyone is in love. Hoch successfully maintains an essence of arrogance necessary to his character, causing the teachers, classmates, and audience to fall for him. Flirtatious and brilliant, Dakin recognizes the power he holds over everyone saying, “I never realized how easy it was to make things happen.”

Both Caplan and Dalal play off each other well, Caplan as the dramatic artist and Dalal as the straight-suited authority. While Caplan’s utterly vivacious and animated performance deserves many high regards, Dalal’s portrayal of Irwin’s inner turmoil guarded by a severe façade also warrants a great deal of praise.

The third teacher of the school is Mrs. Lintott (Alison H. Rich ’09). As the sole female in the cast, Rich certainly holds her own, hitting a homer with an impassioned monologue on women’s lack of recognition in the classroom.

Further merits go to David J. Smolinsky ’11, who plays Scripps, the aspiring-writer who narrates the play in the form of a memoir.

Yet more of Scripps’ narration would have helped ground the audience’s understanding of the basic plot, points of which were sometimes lost amidst a barrage of historical, literary, and political references delivered in over-practiced British accents. Nevertheless, this does not diminish Smolinsky’s fantastic performance both in the scenes and along the sidelines as the narrator.

Highest of all accolades should be awarded to James B. Danner ’12, whose performance as Posner—the “almost-out-of-the-closet” boy completely smitten with Dakin—is both remarkable and memorable. The seeming ease with which he portrayed Posner’s soft-spoken nature and the nuanced rendition of his growing homosexual identity set him apart from the rest of the performers.

This high-energy cast gives themselves over to the audience for two full hours as they weave humor, sincerity, and passion into a solemn exposé of the complex male-to-male interactions often imagined to exist at all-boys school. As the college entrance exam draws near, hearts are broken, grown men humiliated, and the unspoken code of conduct and silence is shattered, spewing all secrets right out onto the stage floor.

—Staff writer Noel A. Barlow can be reached at nbarlow@fas.harvard.edu.