If you haven’t read much Alan Bennett, I really recommend him. He’s devilish in the best of ways, and his short novella An Uncommon Reader, is truly wonderful.
History Boys – 5/5
This is the famous, Tony-awarding winning, and filmed play by Alan Bennett. In the play, we begin in the 1980s or so with a group of public school boys being instructed in literature, especially poetry in preparation for college entrance exams. The instruction method is chaotic, and seems to be based in the idea that as much scattershot reading will prepare as many of the boys as possible as they’re likely to pick up something important for the exams. Having no idea what those exams are like, and only having the US college entrance in mind (well, and the NEWTS from Harry Potter, I suppose), I am at a loss to fully engage with the ideas present. But what seems to be occurring is some kind of classical public school education. The school’s headmaster is frustrated with the instruction because education is moving toward being data-driven, and this method does not seem to allow the kinds of data-collection he would prefer. As part of the changes he’d like to see made, he hires a “supply teacher” (and again forgive me for having no real understanding what all this means) to help tutor the boys. The supply teacher’s methodology involves drilling facts and figures, but also in giving them tricksy little ideas to thread their essays in order to make them stand out. One notable suggestion involves treating Hitler not as a genocidal monster, but straight as a politician and to weigh his actions via public efficacy.
The conflict in the play comes also from the fact that, as happens in public school, our lead teacher is considerably more bohemian than is appropriate and he is seen fondling one of the boys. In addition, a different student comes out as gay to his instructors, and the sexuality of the supply teacher comes into question. The play overall deals with these different events in the manner that you might guess, as par for the course for the kinds of school this seems to be. It’s not good, and it’s certainly not perfect, but it comes across as real.
Single Spies -3/5
These are two separate plays paired together, though apparently not written in conjunction about MI6 and their connection to the British government and the royal palace.
I was actually most interested in two conversations that happen in the plays. In “A Question of Attribution” there’s a wonderful conversation about what we know about art and how we know it, and how in many ways, it’s a guessing game ala pure speculation. Love it. But there’s also a wonderful idea of treating each piece of art as not a link upon a chain of time and being, but as an individual entry, in and of itself and worthy of its own consideration. I tend to think of literature as all being the same no matter what time period you’re considering, just different ways of looking.
In the second play, which takes place mostly in a drawing room, there’s a wonderful discussion about the abstraction of patriotism and how the idea of “love for one’s country” is not the same thing as the love for the place you live.
Forty Years On – 4/5
An earlier play by Alan Bennett that involves a play within a play at a public school during a kind of school festival. We are many years past the end of the first World War in which the head master of the school is reflecting back on his time sense. This is a kind of Goodbye Mr Chips kind of thing. But within this framing we also have the play that the students put on, in which among other scenes, they put the afterlife of Neville Chamberlain on trial for his cowardice and capitulation. Is it fair? I am not to say, but the students’ vitriol and moral clarity (earnest, but unreasonable) says otherwise.
The Madness of George III – 5/5
I watched this movie as a kid and had no idea what was going on, but man I loved the chaotic energy of it. This is the original play and what is happening here is that George III is having some kind of affliction. Is it a psychotic break as we would understand it? Maybe. Is it dementia? Maybe. Another thing I thought about is whether the madness is simply the symptoms of a physical affliction. For example, although obviously he doesn’t have Lyme disease, this is the kind of thing that could look like Lyme disease, or mercury poisoning, or something else altogether.
It doesn’t actually matter what has happened because we have to deal with the reality at hand, that the king of England is not in his right mind and people are starting to get worried.