This interview was conducted by Thomas Hescott, the staff director for the original National Theatre production.
Q: How did you start to write The History Boys? Was there a particular character or theme you wanted to explore? Were you aware of the current challenges in the education system when you started to write the play?
A: Plays begin with characters—particularly in this one, the character of Hector. I suppose the contrasting methods of Hector and Irwin do say something about the education system today but that wasn’t what I set out to write about. I wanted to put these two characters together in order to see what happened. That Irwin turned out to be (or end up as) a spin doctor rather took me by surprise, but the more history he taught, and his particular slant on history, made me see that there was a link between that sort of teaching and the sort of presentation that goes on in politics and the media.
Q: How much do you know before you put pen to paper? Do you have a clear structure in mind, or do you simply see where the writing takes you?
A: I like to know the end of the play, though with The History Boys I didn’t quite. I knew the ending of Wind in the Willows obviously, and of George III and of Lady in the Van. The writing is just (just!) a case of getting there. Sometimes what happens takes me by surprise…for example Hector’s death on the motorbike, and I don’t think I quite knew that Dakin would seduce Irwin (or nearly, anyway).
Q: You started by writing and performing satirical sketches in Beyond The Fringe. Do you think writing sketches has influenced your writing style at all?
A: I’ve always tended to write in four or five minute bursts. This maybe harks back to my origins in revue or maybe it’s just about as much as I can get through in a morning. I always speak the stuff aloud and know how it should be said, which is another reason why I like to go into rehearsals. I find it hard not to correct emphasis—which one should never do as it’s no help to the actor—but I do try to steer them in the right direction. Nick (director) is very tolerant of this, which some directors wouldn’t be.
Q: This is the second play you have written set in a school (although admittedly the school in Forty Years On is a very different kind). Is there something about the setting that interests you?
A: The school in The History Boys is more like the school I went to than Albion House in Forty Years On, which was a public school and much more of an allegorical device (as the name implies). Though my own schooling was 50 years or so ago I can see some similarities with the classes of the school in the play. Everybody wants to find similarities with Forty Years On but I don’t see any.
Q: Is there anything you find particularly special about writing for theatre (as opposed to film and television)?
A: I find writing for the theatre much the hardest, so I feel that’s why I have to do it. Films pay much more but you get proportionately mucked around. Television seems to have left me behind and I’m not sure any of the stuff I’ve written for the small screen would be thought suitable or even adequate today A few weeks ago BBC2 had its 40th birthday and mounted a commemorative evening. Ninety percent of the stuff I’ve done for TV has been for BBC2, including An Englishman Abroad, Talking Heads and my early films with Stephen Frears. I didn’t get a mention, so I suppose that means my BBC2 shelf life has run out.
Q: In The History Boys there are a number of poets and authors who clearly inspire the boys—for example the poem “Drummer Hodge” seems to touch Posner very deeply. Were there any writers that inspired you when you were at school?
A: I never did much reading until I started writing. Certainly my education at school was confined to what I needed to pass exams. I started reading plays when I was 16 or 17 but with no notion of writing any. I came to Hardy, whom I like very much, via Larkin. As it used to say in the play, Hardy is a good person to read when you’re starting to write because he’s so directly spoken and ungainly that you feel you can match him (or at least try to).
Q: The relationship between the director and the writer is often considered to be turbulent. However, it would seem that you and Director Nicholas Hytner have an extremely close relationship. Richard Eyre once commented that you “love working with Nick, and I sometimes feel like Ratty deserted by Mole for Badger.” What is the secret to a successful writer/director relationship?
A: I’m tempted to say that the secret of my relationship with Nick is gossip but that’s a bit flippant. We don’t know each other all that well and seldom see each other socially or between plays. I, in the first instance, like him because he works harder than any other director I have come across (and with pretty constant good humor); no writer, it seems to me, could help but be flattered by the attention he pays to the work. He is also very good with the text, as many director are not. He makes rehearsing fun and gets more out of his actors in consequence. He takes risks; this play, in the state he first saw it anyway, was a risk. His production ideas, in so far as I understood them (the videos and so on) seemed quite risky, but I felt he had taken a risk on me and I ought to return the compliment.
Q: You spent most of the rehearsal period of The History Boys in the rehearsal room with the actors and director. Not all writers choose to do this, however, your input to Nick and the cast was invaluable—how do you see the role of the writer in rehearsals?
A: It depends on the play. The only rehearsals I’ve attended as regularly as I’ve done with these were for The Madness of George III and for the same reason, namely that the script was still evolving, and needed tightening up and fitting to the actors and the action. I didn’t go to rehearsals for Lady in the Van nearly as much because it was a less complicated production and since it was also a play in which I was myself represented (twice) I felt if I was there too much it would inhibit the actors. Though I don’t like to think so, I’m also quite gregarious. It’s a treat for me to have come into work every morning rather than just sit at my table, to the extent that now we’re coming to the end of rehearsals I’m getting quite melancholy. Rehearsing is a serious business, but it’s also quite silly and I like being silly. I’m also grateful to the cast that they don’t mind having me around and that the boys treat me like a human being.
Q: What would you hope audiences would come away with, having watched The History Boys?
A: I’d like the audience to come away wanting to spend more time in the company of the characters in the play. I’d like them to come away having understood and forgiven Hector and even Irwin. I wish I was Dakin or even Scripps, but I fear the character closest to mine is Posner. As Nick stated the other day in rehearsals—I fear many of us are closest to Posner.