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 it has on the rest of the boys. The mention and discussion of the holocaust during Irwin and Hector’s shared lesson seems to force them to lay their allegiance for either of the teachers, and indeed, we can see its polarising effects, splitting them in debate. Historical allusions in the scene, as previously mentioned, help with presenting to us the different characterisation of each of the so-called ‘History Boys.” But these historical allusions do more than this. Bennett seems to use these historical allusions in each scene, sensitive to their different connotations. In their discussion of the holocaust, we are left in a state of discomfort, as Bennett seems to almost force us, along with the rest of the characters, to choose our allegiances, all the while reminding us of the underpinnings of suffering and shared grief that comes with a genocide on as massive a level as the Holocaust. And in this, historical allusions again help us further engage with the play. Bennett provokes in us an emotional response not just to the pain of Hector losing his students after years of ‘literary padding’, but also through the unprecedented loss of human life that we see in the holocaust. We can also see this to a lesser extent in Irwin’s previous discussion with the rest of the class of the first world war – a discussion that perhaps may not have an emotional impact equal to that of the discussion on the Holocaust, but relevant nonetheless in its usage of historical allusions. Here, their usage illustrates how the boys have yet to go over to Irwin’s point of view about history. Its malleability is still shocking and ultimately unacceptable, a reaction that is made more powerful, but ultimately more effective by Irwin’s iconoclastic treatment of World War One and its subsequent effects. Irwin disputes completely the tragedy that comes with World War One, a violation of the shared grief associated with the Great War, which seems to almost paint him as the antagonist. It is hard to call him the antagonist though, especially when seeing all the other characters. We may look at Dakin, narcissistic and scornful of Posner’s advances, and paint him the villain. We may also look at Hector, and point out his paedophilia as a mark of his villainy, but both these interpretations would be hard to accept, and this too is true for Irwin. In this case, the light which these historical allusions paint him do not mark him as the villain of the book, but rather, they help show a fuller picture of Irwin, especially when considering his later helplessness at Dakin’s advances.
What seems most interesting though with Bennett’s treatment of historical allusions is how he uses them to draw parallels between real life and history, perhaps most explicitly shown in Dakin’s advance towards Irwin. This also seems to show one of the largest themes explored in the history boys, how history occurs. When asking Irwin about ‘how does stuff happen’, they reflect on the nature of history, a discussion that emerges throughout the play. When Irwin and Dakin discuss what happened to Poland in the context of whether it made a move or reacted, Bennett gives us the sense that they are not simply talking about the German invasion of Poland. Dakin says that when Hitler made a move on Poland it gave in, while Irwin interjects at the exact same time that it defended itself. They now seem to be talking about Dakin’s constant pursuit of Irwin, and Irwins refusal to concede. We see this more clearly illustrated when Irwin says that ‘they [Poland] knew something was up’. In this scene, we are also presented with allusions to Churchill becoming Prime Minister and General Montgomery taking charge over the Eight Army. In Dakin’s essay, he talks about how on the day that Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, Halifax was better favoured than Churchill, but had chosen to go to the dentist, and so Churchill became Prime Minister. The second allusion referred to how it was General Gott who was originally supposed to command the Eight Army, but was spotted by a stray German plane, placing Montgomery ultimately in charge, and ultimately responsible for Alamein. These seem horrendously important, as they act as the backdrop for real life to occur, and in this, Bennett seems to espouse his own view of history. Bennett seems to say that history does not function based on moves made by countries or individuals, nor does it function based on their reactions. They pivot on the sheer randomness of things, the behest of a universe with neither intention nor plan. To look at the plot of the History Boys is to see these historical allusions, placed in real life. Had Hector not died, perhaps more of the boys would have taken to heart all he taught; had Irwin not gone on with Hector on his bike, perhaps Hector never would have died; had Irwin not become disabled, perhaps he and Dakin would have fulfilled what they talked about. It is one instance after another of uncontrollable circumstances, shaping the occurrences in life, and in history, an idea made plain by the ubiquity of these historical allusions. Indeed, Mrs. Lintot herself, an individual acting almost as an observing outsider reflects on Hector’s initial dismissal that a lesson on it ‘would teach the boys more about history and the utter randomness of things than..., well, than I’ve ever managed to do so far.’
Historical allusions, more than anything though, form an integral part of all the characters in the play. They seem to move towards their futures, bringing all the small things learned from school in some way or another, but all the while having history as a foundational and integral part of their personalities, and indeed, their lives. Perhaps it is Rudge, ultimately the most honest and the most practical of all the characters in the play, who said it best: “History is just one fucking thing after another.”