In this internet age of sexual self-discovery, high school students have generally spent years exploring sex by the time they reach their senior year.
It is, as such, difficult for the current generation of young adults to conceive of any Western civilization that, a mere 20 years ago, offered its youth only a tiny fraction of what is currently available online in sexual literature and pornography.
The History Boys, a play written by Alan Bennett that just closed on the Granville Island Stage, explores life and sexual self-discovery in just such an era.
The play, which takes place in a high school in mid-1980s Great Britain, captures the homoeroticism inherent in an all-boy setting —especially one inhabited by restless, hormonal teenagers.
The school’s beloved teacher, Hector, guides his students in their pursuit of a place in a prestigious university. His engaging, unconventional lectures drive the boys to explore culture, the arts and —behind a locked classroom door —their own sexuality.
“I think most of the sexuality that goes on in the play has more to do with the almost entirely female-less atmosphere of an all-boys school,” says Kyle Cameron, the only openly gay actor cast as a pupil.
“The relationships that evolve are often homoerotically charged,” he says.
“What’s different about Hector, I think, is that he permits those relationships to play out in his classroom, where other teachers might not,” Cameron continues. “I don’t think he brings it out in the boys; rather I think his desire is always to encourage them to be whole beings and so when these relationships come to light, he doesn’t try to stifle them.”
However, the blindly ambitious headmaster of the school eventually discovers that Hector’s relationship with the boys is often physical. Enraged, he attempts to prevent any further sexual “deviancy” by combining Hector’s lessons with those of a young, new teacher named Irwin.
Unlike Hector, Irwin’s teaching style demands objectivity over poetic introspection; he is more interested in a compelling historical narrative than he is in deciphering the abstractions of culture.
At first, the boys seem perplexed by the their teachers’ conflicting approaches being presented simultaneously and, soon, some end up taking sides.
Dakin, the heartthrob of the classroom (played by actual heartthrob Charlie Carrick), is deeply moved by Irwin’s teaching style. His goal to impress his new teacher is set shortly after meeting Irwin, and an attraction culminates between the two.
Once the apple in Hector’s eye, Dakin discovers that the attraction between himself and Irwin is mutual. He eventually dismisses Hector as a joke.
The sexual tension between Irwin and Dakin is devastatingly tangible, thanks especially to Kirk Smith’s crystal-cut portrayal of Irwin.
Director Dean Paul Gibson cites “the difference between teaching method/philosophy and its effect on students of all ages” as the principal theme in The History Boys. But the intensity with which Dakin explores his ambiguous feelings for Irwin makes it easy to forget this theme in favour of a considerably more interesting one: the sexual self-exploration conducted by young men who, in the limitations of their resources, bear little trepidation where involving adult and authority figures is concerned.
Nor are the students intimidated by Hector, who regularly indulges in acts that, in today’s restrictive society, would be considered molestation.
“I realise that Hector laying hands on the boys would be totally different if they were much younger, but these are all 17-, 18-year-olds,” Bennett has said in response to criticism he has received, accusing him of making light of sexual harassment.
“I’m afraid I don’t take that very seriously. If they’re 17 or 18, I think they are actually much wiser than Hector. Hector is the child, not them.”
Cameron, who plays vacuous rugby player Rudge, agrees with Bennett on the age issue.
“I think that even the inappropriate side of Hector’s relationship with the boys is one that he perceives as innocent. When the headmaster takes him to task for ‘fiddling’ with the boys, he tells the headmaster, ‘Nothing happened.’
“And I think this is what he truly believes. He does not see himself as a pedophile, but as an educator. A mentor. Someone who is bestowing knowledge of the world on his pupils.
“I’m not saying I think it’s right, but I think that’s what Hector believes. And because the boys are so caught up in his rhetoric and his worldview, and frankly because they love his classes so much, they are more or less content to downplay the situation in order to keep him happy.”
The tension between Irwin and Dakin is also interesting, Cameron notes.
“I think it’s an intellectual relationship first and foremost, but it gets more complicated, sexually, than most of the relationships because of the proximity in age and outlook between the two young men.
“It’s a relationship that seems transgressive, and to a certain extent is, but from a legal perspective probably isn’t. I mean, Dakin’s about 18, and Irwin’s no more than 25.
“What is transgressive about it is that it shows two people coming together and sharing commonality through deception and dishonesty.”
As for Cameron’s own character, Rudge has little interest in trying to interpret Hector’s rhetorical lessons. Ironically, given Cameron’s orientation, his character seems furthest from having any interest in sexual self-definition.
“He’s not part of the club or the games or the recitations or any of it. He’s there to get his education and that’s all. So it feels comfortable to me that Rudge isn’t part of the sexual atmosphere of the other boys. He’s not part of any of the atmosphere, really, and he’s more or less content that way.”
Despite the “values and mores that inspire some and infuriate others” —with which Gibson credits the current cultural climate and our generation for all its access to technology —today’s climate is far less free-thinking than that of the repressive 1980s, and Rudge is a typical conservative product of that decade.
It was Gibson’s goal to make audiences “examine and reflect on their own personal experience with history and education, inspiring discussion about the show and its themes,” but, principally, it serves as a reminder. It recalls a time when we were less detached from our humanity and the sexuality inherent in it —something especially critical for the internet-numbed youth of today.