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On This Unworthy Scaffold, Make Imaginary Puissance

katlittrell's picture

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?...
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there
    - Henry V, Prologue.

In Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, he discusses the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief concerning sets and props: a stage can be a battlefield or the grounds of Rielvaux Abbey because the characters describe it and the audience imagines it. In a film, this suspension of disbelief is unthinkable. Sets can not merely be described, they must be seen; horses can not be mentioned, they must be shown. While a play can be wildly imaginative or sparse, a film must convince the audience of its reality. The nature of live theatre means that the audience contributes to the exercise of creating the fictional space where the play’s action takes place; they become active participants in the experience - sometimes even involved in a dialogue with the actors when the fourth wall is broken. The action of a film takes place in the electronic box of a cinema screen or television set, the actors rendered as images rather than being immediately, physically there. The character of film makes it a much more removed medium which requires less audience engagement. When we look at theatre, we still have essentially the same three genres left to us by Shakespeare: tragedy, comedy, and history. The word drama, when applied to theatre, means essentially any play that is not a comedy. Film has infinitely more genres: romance, noir, horror, thriller. The film genre of drama is more specifically a film which deals with dramatic or melodramatic issues. In The History Boys, it is this removed experience of the audience when watching the film version which transmutes it from the genre of theatre drama to film comedy.

The History Boys premiered on May 18th, 2004 at the National Theatre in London and was adapted in 2006 into radio play and film versions. From its inception, The History Boys was a work constantly in revision. In an interview, Alan Bennett, the playwright and screenwriter, and Nicholas Hytner, the original director of the play and the director of the film, discuss the rehearsal development process:

First of all we cut it quite a lot... Before we actually started rehearsal, we had a read-through of the play in rough draft so that I could see how it did or didn't work, and then I could go back and do another draft.

With the playwright and director so closely in communication, the play underwent many additions and cuts from the very beginning of the developmental process through to the writing of the screenplay. This revision process was also a chance to correct mistakes. In the play text, there is a scene where one of the boys sings It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys, which was released in 1987. The Oxbridge exams the boys take stopped being held in the way shown in the play, with the boys undergoing an extra semester extra semester, in the early 80s, resulting in the play’s setting being sometime roughly in the late 70s to early 80s. The film is solidly set in 1983. While in a play the audience does not have the facility to pause, rewinds and research the play’s anachronisms, film audiences are not so forgiving. One only has to look at the The History Boys’ Internet Movie Database page in order to see a list of slight errors and anachronisms which have, despite the play’s revisions, been discovered.

In its play format, The History Boys encourages audience participation through the character of Scripps, who frequently breaks the fourth wall in his role as the journalist of the play. He observes the actions of the other characters in much the same way as the audience does, sitting silently and watching the action and occasionally relaying his observations. In a scene where Posner goes to Irwin and explains that he thinks he may be gay, Scripps sits onstage, apart from the scene and has only one line: “Posner did not say it, but since he seldom took his eyes off Dakin, he knew that Irwin looked at him occasionally too and he wanted him to say so. Basically, he just wanted company” (Bennett, play script, 45). Scripps is not a part of the action, and like the audience, sees the conversation between Irwin and Posner. The audience becomes a participant in this scene because they observe with Scripps. The film cuts almost all of the lines where characters break the fourth wall as breaking the fourth wall does not work so well on film as in a theatre: theatre audiences expect characters to interact with them, whereas characters speaking directly to the camera reads as awkward and artificial. (An example of a film adaptation of a play where the fourth wall doesn’t translate to the medium of film is The Sum of Us (1994). Rather than adapting the text of the play, The Sum of Us is a direct translation to film from the stage. Because it doesn’t acknowledge the differences between a theater audience and a film audience, the film doesn’t engage its audience as it would in a theater.) Film audiences expect to be positioned as observers rather than participants.  This move away from breaking the fourth wall also shifts the focus onto the character of Dakin, who is the most readily observable boy. Flashy and overly confident, Dakin almost never breaks the fourth wall in the play. He is only observed by Scripps and everyone else. Without this audience link to Scripps to guide our interpretation, we are removed from our role as participants in the same position as Scripps to observers outside the action of the play. As a result, the film reads as a comedy rather than a drama because we can only see the sometimes ridiculous surface actions of the characters and are not allowed to hear explanations for these actions, and so do not feel their pathos.

The only remnant in the film of the play’s focus on audience interaction is the ending. In it, the boys reveal their futures: one becomes a headmaster, one becomes a tax lawyer, and so on. This ending is jarring because it steps outside the parameters set by the rest of the film; without the context of characters regularly breaking the fourth wall, a scene where characters telling you about their future is unnerving rather than heartbreaking. Because of the switch of genre from drama to comedy, the play’s ending does not fit with the film. This inconsistency was realized to an extent as the film’s ending does not quite match up to the play. In the film, Irwin is only injured in the motorbike accident which kills Hector, rather than crippled for life and Posner becomes a school teacher rather than a friendless recluse who has regular mental breakdowns and keeps scrapbooks of the achievements of his schoolmates. Lightened though the film’s ending is, it still does not quite properly mesh with the rest of the film as the audience is not prepared for the sudden time and point-of-view shift it requires.

The play’s main conflict centers on Hector, an older English teacher who believes that “knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use” (Bennett, play script, 5) and Irwin, a supply History teacher who tells the boys that “history nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance... and if it isn’t, make it so” (Bennett, play script, 35) and values originality of thought above facts. The battle between these two warring educational disciplines drives the play and the audience decides for themselves, as the boys do, which teacher’s philosophy they should follow. Positioned as observers, our focus is instead redirected to Dakin’s lust for Irwin, and Irwin’s resistance to Dakin’s advances. While the main question of the play is the purpose of education, the question the film poses is will Irwin give in to our protagonist, an issue which highlights the story’s comedic aspects. While the plots have not been changed and, as Hytner says in his introduction to the screenplay, “the finished screenplay re-imagined some of the material of the play for the camera, but left large swathes of it untouched” (xi), the entire point and genre of the story has shifted. The film captures its audience more with the intricacies of the relationships between the characters than the larger ideological stances of these characters.

The play is almost entirely set within the confines of Cutler’s Grammar School, while Hytner takes advantage of his new medium to take the boys outside of the school and show the audience glimpses of their home life, school trips to historical sites and their interviews at Oxford and Cambridge. While this variety of setting is more natural and in some ways, necessary in a film, it is meretricious and likewise distracts from the focus of the happenings at school. In the play, the audience is confined with the boys within the classroom, participating in the boys’ lessons. Because the play’s focus is no longer on the ideological struggle between Hector and Irwin, the film breaks free from the confines of the school and the audience watches the boys’ actions. The audience no longer actively experiences the lessons because the boys leave the walls of the classroom and we do not feel part of this exterior experience. We no longer learn with the boys, we are only able to watch them learn.

In the play, there is no easily discernible protagonist; each character is on stage most of the time, and all of the boys present different perspectives from different parts of the spectrum of Irwin and Hector’s wildly different teaching styles. The film’s concern has been narrowed to Dakin, “the canniest, and the best-looking” (Bennett, play script, 50) of the boys. To this end, the other boys’ lines have been cut and in some cases, given to Dakin. The other boys become peripheral characters, only defined either by their relationship to Dakin -- Posner is in love with Dakin, Scripps is Dakin’s best friend -- or by their filling a minority role -- Akthar is Muslim, Crowther is black, Lockwood is poor. The introduction of Bibbie and Wilkes, two new characters who do not appear in the play, also distracts the audience’s focus from the struggle between Hector and Irwin. Wilkes and Bibbie act as comic relief, further pushing the film into the genre of comedy rather than drama. The scenes with Wilkes and Bibbie also serve to characterize the boys who are not connected to Dakin as a group of intelligent, cocky high schoolers with no real individual characterization.  The simplification of Lockwood, Crowther, Akhtar and Timms reduces these boys to tropes. Because they are nothing but stereotypes, the audience has no need to consider them beyond the surface. They are no longer characters, but one liners.

The film allows us to see more of Dakin’s character by showing us his interactions with Fiona, Dakin’s girlfriend. In contrast with the diminished role of the other boys, Fiona, who was a non-speaking role in the play, is given greater attention. Fiona’s role becomes more important to us as observers, because when we no longer share Scripps’ viewpoint, we must observe Dakin’s interactions with others and judge him for ourselves. In a scene cut from the film, though retained in the screenplay, it is Fiona who prompts Dakin to pursue Irwin sexually: “Why don’t you sleep with him? Have done with it” (78). Unlike the play, this provides agency to female characters and also substantially alters the audience’s interpretation of Dakin’s motives. This throws the issue of Dakin’s homosexuality into question in a way which the finished screenplay does not. While his homosexuality is questioned in the play and in the original screenplay, the intricacies of his sexuality are less well suited to the film’s genre of comedy. Logistically, the film’s run time of 109 minutes is only slightly over half of the three hours plus run time of the play, so much of the text had to be cut.

It is inevitable that in the adaptation of The History Boys from stage to screen that much of the play’s immediacy has been lost. The play is an evolutionary form of storytelling. Quite apart from the revision process which Hytner and Bennett engaged in, the medium of theatre is evolutionary because it is constantly changing; every performance is nuanced differently, influenced by the conversation with and reaction of the audience. Though the play itself evolved into a film format, film is limited by its form from growing and developing over time, and so remains static. The performances cannot change with every viewing. With the audience no longer positioned as participants in an imaginative dialogue with the characters, we become detached from the play’s larger issues and instead focus on what is most easily observable - the interpersonal relations of the characters, most prominently those of Dakin. The borders of the television set or cinema screen remove us from the action of the story and forces us into an observatory role of the boys’ journeys in love and learning, rather than being able to join them in the classroom and experience Irwin and Hector’s teaching methods ourselves.

Works Cited

Bennett, Alan. The History Boys. London: Faber & Faber, 2004. Print.

---. The History Boys. BBC Radio 3. BBC Audiobooks Ltd, 2006. Audio CD.

---. The History Boys: The Film. New York: Faber & Faber, 2006. Print.

Hytner, Nicholas. The History Boys. Beverly Hills, Calif.: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007. DVD.

Hytner, Nicholas and Alan Bennett. “The truth behind the History Boys.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 21 June 2004. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.


Anne Dalke's picture

Experimenting with history

So, Kat, the first thing I notice here is that in this paper, unlike your first two, you play no explicit role, have no explicit position. It would help me, getting in, to know something about your own relation to the play and the film: have you acted in a version of the first? You've clearly seen a version of the second-- but under what circumstances? One reason it's important for you to locate yourself in relation to the object of your study, in this project in particular, is that you make quite a few large general claims about the experience of "the audience"--for example, that "film audiences expect to be positioned as observers rather than participants." I'm wondering to what degree you are positing your own experience as a universal one, and doing so with insufficient data; for a contrasting counternarrative, for instance, see OrganizedKhaos' saying, "I don't agree that film limits people's imagination.... I get ...more of an expansion of is already real."

On the other hand (and probably maddeningly!), I'd like to nudge you to generalize more from your very detailed comparative description of the play and the film, in terms of the questions animating this course. There is a great deal here in the particulars to engage and interest "your reader" (to generalize a moment from my own experience!): the irony of anachronisms in a play about history, the role of performance in a play about history, our own role as learners in a play about learning--all that is really just delicious for me to think about.

But the larger questions that your project raises for me only begin to emerge in the final paragraph, where you claim (for instance) that "The play is an evolutionary form of storytelling.... because it is constantly changing; every performance is nuanced differently, influenced by the conversation with and reaction of the audience," while film, "limited by its form from growing and developing over time,... remains static." So: film is, in your telling, explicitly NOT the "next stage" of "thinking evolutionarily" about literature?? I had asked in class last week about the evolution of new stories in filmic form; am I to presume, from this essay, that you actually see the process as de-volutionary? How much, in other words, can you generalize from this project to larger claims about the contemporary evolution of narrative form? I'd be quite curious to know....

On another note entirely: the structure of your project is quite insistently binary; you set this up as play "against" film. But my own experience of The History Boys was as a book on tape (I live on a farm about 4 hours from Bryn Mawr, and spend a good part of each weekend driving back to my life in Virginia, then forth to my job in Pennsylvania; what makes this not only possible but intensely pleasure is books on tape. But I digress…) Last year, in a course on "Literary Kinds," one of my students, who has a visual disability, challenged the genre of graphic novels as "an exclusive club." Working through that sense of exclusion, she first experimented with varieties of reading experiences, and then generated for her final project A Radio Play of one of the graphic novels we'd read together. Doing so broke down the binary of opposition and opened up a whole new range of (evolutionary??) possibilities...

katlittrell's picture

Being Dakin

To answer one of your questions, I played Dakin in a recent (April 7-9) production of the History Boys. I saw the movie before being involved in the play and thought it was wonderful, but after my experience of being in the play where every night's performance was differently nuanced I found the movie to be extremely limited in terms of its inability to adapt to its strengths and fix its weaknesses. For example, when we performed we adlibbed during every scene change. Each night our adlibbing was different, but we retained the parts the audience responded to best.