January 17, 2009

Remedial Study with "The History Boys"

What’s a theater lover to do when a nasty head-cold and a frigid cold snap keep her housebound and far away from any theater? Well, there’s listening to cast albums (Spring Awakening and the original Sweeney Todd) and reading (“Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart”) and watching videos (Richard III, both Ian McKellen’s sleek art deco 1995 version and Laurence Olivier’s devilishly entertaining 1956 classic). And, of course, there’s trolling the internet.

I’ve been reading my fellow bloggers and spending more time in chatrooms than, under other circumstances, might be considered healthy. And that is how I came across a comment someone named Jesse 21 posted on the All That Chat message boards about what’s happened to the members of the original coast of The History Boys. (Click here to see what the real-life boys have been doing since they took their final curtain call together in October, 2006.)

Even if you only once had a few lines in your high school play, you know that being part of a cast can be like serving in a military unit: people develop a special bond when they’ve been in the trenches together. That was particularly true for the eight young actors who portrayed the students in Alan Bennett’s play about a group of bright boys at a mediocre British public school and the two teachers who clash over how to prepare them for their Oxbridge entrance exams.

The cast spent over two and a half years with the show—doing the London production, going on a world tour that included a Tony-winning six month run on Broadway, recording a BBC radio play, and, of course, filming the movie. Amazingly all the actors—the four adults included—stayed through nearly every incarnation of the play, as did director Nicholas Hytner and, of course, Bennett.

And I became a fellow traveler for a good deal of their journey. My favorite times in the theater are when I’m watching a production that is utterly theatrical, something that I can’t imagine being wholly replicated in any other medium. That’s what it felt like when I first saw The History Boys on Broadway. But then one day I was poking around Amazon.com, discovered an audio version of the BBC radio play and, on a lark, downloaded it. The play became a different but still satisfying experience for me. Having seen it, I could put faces to voices but I was also free to imagine the action in alternate ways than it had played out onstage—to become, in effect, a kind of director.

What, I then wondered would it be like to just read the script? So, I did. And I found a new pleasure in having the time to re-read lines and really think about them. An extra treat was Bennett’s chatty introduction explaining how moments from his own life shaped the play, how rehearsals began with lessons to teach the boys all the pop culture and high culture references that get tossed around in the show, and how the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” came to be identified with The History Boys almost as much as with its original show Pal Joey.

On a roll now, I ordered the screenplay. This time the intro was by Hytner, whom I met once and developed a big crush on because he is so articulate and passionate about theater. Bennett also chips in with a diary of the film shoot that mainly laments the additional scenes he wrote that ended up on the cutting room floor. It was fun to compare the two versions. The screenplay is more explicit than the stage script and less poetic but the basic stuff of the story is still there—it’s as though you had an excellent tailor let out a good suit after you’d gained weight: the lines become slightly less elegant but it’s still a fine piece of clothing.

Needless to say, I bought the DVD of the movie. And I watched it twice—once to see how the play had been “opened up” and then again to listen to the commentary by Bennett and Hytner. They concede that some of the humor is lost on screen. “The stage is so much more forgiving,” says Hytner. True. It’s a good film but I didn’t love it as much as I loved seeing the play. On the other hand, I do love the fact that those performances have been preserved.

You might think I’d be tired of The History Boys by now. You’d be wrong. I’m actually chafing at the bit for a revival. A brave one that doesn’t simply attempt to recreate the original production but that finds an equally talented group of actors and gives them free reign to show us new things about the characters. Because that sense of discovery is what theater is about.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Amen about the HB and thanks for the tip on downloading the audio. Feel better soon!

The Kitchen Gadget Goddess said...

Definitely feel better soon! Then, hoe on a train to South Hampton and see the production of it out there I hear it's pretty good.