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.
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.”