Arts & Entertainment

‘History Boys’ in Subjunctive

“The History Boys,” the 2006 Tony Award winner for best play being performed by the Elden Street Players through June 27 at Herndon’s Industrial Strength Theatre, is about the subjunctive mood. To be more technically correct, it is about the “pluperfect subjunctive.” 915historyboys

“The History Boys,” the 2006 Tony Award winner for best play being performed by the Elden Street Players through June 27 at Herndon’s Industrial Strength Theatre, is about the subjunctive mood. To be more technically correct, it is about the “pluperfect subjunctive.”

915historyboys

MILES BUTLER of Falls Church (seated left) and other of the “History Boys” performing this month in Herndon. (PHOTO: Jeff Boatright)

 

Not that it is an English grammar lesson. It is a life lesson grounded in the oft-ignored question of “what if?”

The challenging question, based on setting the apparent factual realities of history against the hypothetical notion of “what if” something else had happened, is not only intellectually compelling, but emotionally, as well.

For many of even the best writers, the subjunctive mood, and the nuances of unspecified potentials it issued forth, is highly problematic. “Damn the subjunctive,” wrote Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), “It brings all writers to shame!”

Just as nations and civilizations do, individuals get on with their lives, recalling their events as histories or memories, but seldom allow themselves to be confronted by the subjunctive “what if” question. We study history as a linear accumulation of matters-of-fact, we rehearse our lives in a similar mode. But tackling the deliciously if confounding notion that it all could have unfolded differently is another matter, altogether.

“The History Boys” is a complicated play that moves on multiple levels, because of its underlying theme. The Tony Award-winning Broadway play was swiftly transformed into a film, now on DVD, using many of the same actors who made it work on stage.

It’s 1987. Youngsters at an English all-boys secondary school are facing exams to determine if they will get into the best university. Something less than elites, they face an uphill battle to compete with students from other more privileged and superior schools.

Facts of history will simply not work for them, Irwin (played in the Elden Street Players production by Hans Dettmar), a new teacher brought in to spur their efforts, insists. History must be “turned on its head,” viewed from the standpoint of what didn’t happen, but could have, rather than on what did.

In the swim of this primary plot, we are presented with two characters for whom this subjunctive matter of multiple possibilities play off one another with stunning poignancy. For one, the aging professor, it is the past, or “pluperfect,” subjunctive. For the other, a young, fledgling student, it is the future subjunctive. The portrayal of their contrapuntal existences underscores playwright Alan Bennett’s insight, even though their interconnection is subtle, not overt.

The soon-retiring instructor Hector (played by Don Petersen) finds himself approaching the end of his days as a pathetic groper of the boys that he provides rides home to on his motorbike.

The young student Posner (played by George Mason High School’s Miles Butler) is eager to get his life started, taking on the issue of his homosexuality openly, defying the common wisdom of the time that it is “only a stage that will pass” by saying, “What if I don’t want it to pass?”

Hector has been a successful, life-long teacher, whose decisions in life brought him to the point of being completely repressed, sexually, and therefore vulnerable to acts of groping his students that, while perhaps harmless, could subject him to ruin if discovered.

Posner, on the other hand, is getting into his life in a way that, depending on the array of decisions that he makes in response to the array of possibilities that he faces, could wind up far more personally authentic and fulfilling.

“What if” Hector in his youth had approached his life in the manner that Posner is showing signs of doing? “What if” Posner drops his current approach, and falls into a pattern of decisions that turn him into another Hector?

The cast of D.C.-area promising young male actors add substance and energy to the production. Tickets are available at www.eldenstreetplayers.org.

 

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