The effect of historical allusions in the History Boys

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The effect of historical allusions in the History Boys

In the History Boys, Alan Bennett seems to fill it, unsurprisingly, with historical allusions that do more than simply harken back to past events. These historical allusions have a profound effect on the play, aiding in further engaging us, as well as presenting us with the characteristics of its different individuals. They seem to make the play and the emotions evoked therein feel all the more effective, through a shared nostalgia. But more fundamentally, these historical allusions seem to expound on the nature of history, how it occurs, and how this seems to be mirrored in real life. Bennett seems to espouse the idea through these historical allusions, as well as through the plot of the play itself, history, much like life, happens through a series of chance occurrences, strung together by us into a pattern only at the very end.

Superficially, historical allusions in the play seem to function as part of the ‘gobbets’ that the boys carry with them every time – small morsels of cultural references purported by Hector to make them more well-rounded human beings, pursuing knowledge for its own sake. They also seem to help us immerse ourselves into the play, through the shared recollection of important events, making the play more accessible, and more relatable. In an early scene wherein the Headmaster refers to Philip Larkin as ‘The Himmler of the Accessions Desk’, the remark provokes humour within us, as well as helps us engage with the play. This can also be seen with Dakin, when he uses the analogy of the First World War and the Western Front to refer to his sexual conquests with Fiona, the secretary of the Headmaster. In this we find humour, firstly through the simple fact of its overall crudeness and the slightly heavy-handed sexual innuendos found in the scene, and secondly, through the ridiculous juxtaposition of his ultimately unfulfilling tryst, with generals strategically maneuvering their troops on a battlefield to gain ground. But as historical allusions, Bennett’s references to the first world war seem to have far more subtle effects. The usage of the first world war as the historical allusion in this scene brings connotations of the brutality of trench warfare, the countless, needless deaths, and the ineptitude of generals on both sides. In this, historical allusions seem to give nuanced meanings to the scene. Dakin’s juxtaposition of the two seems all the more ridiculous and perhaps all the more distanced from the horrors of war. On a subtler level, this also seems to give us insight into Bennett’s characterisation of Dakin. The analogy of his seduction of Fiona being a battle seems to highlight his adolescence, and indeed, this is true for the rest of the boys. The backdrop of historic battles draws a parallel to their own lives, and in this Bennett seems to encapsulate the hardship of these formative years, as we see the experiences of these boys in education, sexuality, and adolescence placed in the context of battle. Dakin is also shown to be taking on more and more Irwin’s view that history is made up of malleable facts and figures, to be used in any circumstance to argue ones point. And indeed, later on in the scene, Dakin remarks randomly that ‘I’m beginning to like him more and more’, him being Irwin. The small historical allusions interspersed throughout the play seem to help us find common threads, provoking shared recollections on important moments in history, but also, these historical allusions seem to give us greater insight into the characters that spout them. Dakin seems to be disassociated with the horrors of the war and so uses the analogy without thought; the Headmaster seems embittered and sour in his characterisation of Larkin as Himmler, inarguably a somewhat hyperbolic description when reflecting on the nature of the head of the SS.

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We also see historical allusions in the play feature, unsurprisingly, during history lessons. In this, perhaps, we are also shown the different sentiments of the characters in the play. In a discussion on the holocaust we see Hector’s almost unapologetic romanticism, appealing that the horrors of the Holocaust place it so far out of normal historical events that to attempt to discuss it would be monstrous. Bennett then presents us with the contrary view of Irwin, that the holocaust can be put into context, that it can be discussed, dissected. What is most interesting here though is the effect ...

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