I celebrated this nation’s 4th by watching something English. I saw Alan Bennett’s Tony award-winning play, The History Boys. It was a most satisfying evening.

The play was about a group of English grammar school boys on the verge of graduation as they were guided by their teachers who, though all bearing the same goal of preparing them for getting into either Oxford or Cambridge, delivered them through radically different means. Principally, Hector, played by the exceptionally larger-than-life Richard Griffiths, embodied the old-school soul of education rooted in liberal arts — a seemingly random dialogue of ideas exchanged in an atmosphere of free pursuit rooted in genuine intellectual hunger and spiritual longing. On the other end, Irwin, played by the dashing Stephen Campbell Moore, posited himself in the new school camp of scientific specialization — a focused debate on a specific thought pounded by the precision of one’s asking and filtering into knowing what only one needs to for a definite goal. Of course, there were other authority figures in the school such as the inept Headmaster (played by the funnily fidgety Clive Merrison) and the pragmatic female teacher, Mrs. Lintott (played by the divine Frances de la Tour.) But the substantial conflict was drawn between Hector and Irwin which was made even more delectable when they began to share the same object of desire, Dakin, the class hottie. It is drama set in a grammar school (or high school, in our world), after all, so sexual awakening and tension is as much a subject as intellectual pursuit (and the value that lay equally in the what-is as it is in the how-to.)

The play is a rich and complex tapestry of themes woven with lush words, haunting singing and inspired acting. But, ultimately, I believe it is the title that easily captured the sum of the issue. The battle is drawn in how one defines history for the boys. Irwin views it through a scope of detachment – an object of analysis, a subject of doubt, a field wherein the Holocaust is discussed without a hint of lamentation and where the only absolute is not truth but proportion. Hector sees it as a medium in itself – the message never ends in a conclusion but always in interrelation; history is not a moment in time but is in itself its own passage which poetically translates into his last lines, “pass it on, pass it on.” There is no victor in a classroom; only more of the vanquished who feels the need to know more and learn more.

I have always been a fan of my liberal arts education through high school and into college. Almost a decade since, I wonder how far it has gotten me. I spend long hours working in the office during the week and try to cram as much partying as I can when I am away from it during the weekends. This vicious workweek cycle is becoming more and more a biting grind and the boozed-up and banged-over weekends end up being more and more hollow as the years go by. I used to fawn over Robert Browning but now I salivate over clearing a deal before the banks close. I used to enjoy a quiet Saturday evening but now I am never satisfied until I have overstimulated myself 10 times over in those few hours. The mundane has replaced the poetic; the material is now what is divine. This is my history as I write it. How much more of it can I bear to pass on?

Hector, in between his bouts of fondling kids in his bike on his way home and haggling with the Headmaster about his scandalous French class while in, waxes on the wonders of compound adjectives and the subjunctive tense. I found the latter particularly striking given the themes. This grammatical form that deals with what might happen from what is intended weighed on me so heavily upon reflection. What did the past 28 years I’ve lived lead me to? Is what I do now what I intended for myself at the start? What will happen now given the kind of life I’ve led?

If there is one thing I know about history, it is that no one is ever condemned to a specific one. If there is one thing I learned from tonight’s play, it is that I am always free to choose to define myself as I build up who I am from where I’ve been. I may never know if I am living what I had intended for myself. I may never even want to know the answer now nor will I or can I find the time to ponder it. What I know is that I don’t know what is happening nor will I know what will happen. What matters is that I continue asking the questions. What matters most is that I allow others into this process that is basically historic and ultimately mysterious.

I saw the play with Tim, this guy I’ve been seeing for over 3 months now (which is a relatively long time given my recent dating history.) But that part of my history is another story altogether.

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