What The History Boys is about, exactly, is open to some interpretation. A theater enthusiast might simply offer that, during its Broadway run this year, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won six, including Best Play. Someone from the American Family Association might say it’s all about man-on-boy exploitation — though ”ephebophilia” would be more precise — pure and simple.
The story, penned by gay, British playwright Alan Bennett, follows eight middle-class boys on the cusp of adulthood in the mid ’80s whose test scores indicate they may have the stuff to make it into Cambridge or Oxford. We watch as two teachers work to groom them. One teacher, Hector, is concerned with the boys’ enrichment. The other, Irwin, is charged with coaching them for college-entrance interviews. This sets a debate regarding the differences between rote knowledge and earned wisdom, between being clever and being earnest.
To this mix, add the boys’ budding sexuality, Hector’s taste for their ripeness, and Irwin’s closeted gay libido, which one student Lothario hopes to stroke.
The same cast that took on these characters and others, first at London’s National Theatre, then around the world, are back for the movie version. Audiences who have not seen the play will nonetheless recognize stage elements in the celluloid version. That considered, it would seem the motivation for making such a successful play into a movie that maintains so many of the play’s constructs, would be simply to increase its accessibility. But will mainstream American audiences, fresh from the Mark Foley scandal, bite?
Samuel Barnett, the young British actor who plays Posner, the sole openly gay character in The History Boys, says he doesn’t think it’s a problem. During the height of the Foley scandal, he says, ”We had coach-loads of tourists.” (The show concluded its Broadway run on Oct. 1, 2006.) Though Barnett declines to discuss his own sexual orientation as a rule, his talent is no secret. He did not take home a Tony, but he was the only ”Boy” nominated for one.
Beyond accessibility, another good reason to take this story to the screen is the soundtrack. The Rhino release includes some wonderful ’80s music, including a great mix of The Smiths’s ”This Charming Man,” and new music from Rufus Wainwright.
The History Boys opens Friday, Dec. 8, at area theaters.