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'History' on His Side

August 24, 2006 By:
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Samuel Barnett as Posner in "The History Boys"
Can "History" repeat itself?

Certainly has with "The History Boys": the play about an English school's skilled if scalawag of a professor whose class act is one of stressing love of knowledge over educational expedience took home a ton of tony awards in England, where it premiered; and swept Broadway's Tony Awards this past June.

Preparing his witty wards for admission tests to Oxford and Cambridge, Hector (Richard Griffiths) is a bridge to beliefs that are at odds with the grammar school he serves, where empirical education is seen as the best way to rebuild the empire.

To get a good job, get a good education, sure, but Hector hectors to get a soul, put your heart in history.

Samuel Barnett has a history with this play; a member of the original cast since its inception in Britain, he has also starred in the film and radio versions, and is one of the stalwart smart-ass student scholars who bring "History" to life on stage at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre.

A student of history? Yes, affirms Barnett, 23, whose work as the posturing Posner in Alan Bennett's play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is a highlight of an engaging ensemble of students pushed not to pass life's tests as much as those of apocryphal academia.

The fact that Posner is positioned to be the more vulnerable of the victims of a coerced education is evident in how he toes the line with such lines as: "I'm a Jew. I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield.

"I'm fu****."

Fussing about the role of education is nothing new to Barnett, whose portrayal of the desk-bound Posner won him a Drama Desk Award this past season, as well as a schoolbag of praise and plaudits.

Holocaust as Mindset?
Gold stars for the golden boy of Broadway, sure, but, when it comes to life's blackboard, he is not blind to the black epochs some others would rather see erased. Barnett himself was no stranger to the Holocaust, a topic much discussed and dissected by Bennett in the way it should be taught to these "History Boys."

The give-and-take on the topic onstage tests the appropriateness for exams extrapolating the Holocaust for modern-day messages. "How can the boys scribble down an answer, however well put," fumes Hector, "that doesn't demean the suffering involved?"

A question with unquestionable relevance for actor Barnett. "I did study the Holocaust for two years in school and did my tests on them," says the self-examining and introspective actor, whose father's family is Jewish.

The winner of two What's on Stage Awards in the United Kingdown knows what's up with history, although it took a major film to educate and encourage his ensuing Holocaust studies. Barnett was in his early teens "when 'Schindler's List' came out. I was so very intrigued by the whole thing. I couldn't believe that such murders happened on such a mass scale."

It is an element of history he still finds haunting even as it is discussed on stage. "Alan's insight into it," marvels Barnett of the writer, "has only deepened my own understanding."

Understand, he says, that "The History Boys" at first seemed as if it would have a different kind of history than it's had. "The first reading took 41/2 hours," he says of "this mass of words" of "History" BCE -- before cutting and editing by the playwright.

"And I didn't think it was particularly funny at first."

But as "History" marches on, Barnett can only look back and marvel at its teachings -- which includes the experience of bonding with the boys backstage and on that is incredible. "We're a real class," he says of the "Boys" bouncing ideas and jokes off each other. "A great group of guys, kind of a family."

Not that families are without their lecherous loved ones. "History" has generated, if not hysteria, then a hard look at the tarnished halo that is Hector's. Pedagogue as pederast? Hector's own version of "The Motorcycle Diaries" involves giving his young students rides home aboard his motorcycle as he ... "diddles" with them.

Groping drama? A more modern school for scandal?

"When you read it on paper ... we had discussions," reveals Barnett of the onstage references in which Hector fiddles while the headmaster burns on hearing of the assaults, demanding the aging teacher's "retirement."

Back in the 1980s, when the play takes place, there was more reluctance to report such goings on, says the actor, even as Bennett makes a point in the play that the boys affected are all over 18.

"Our response was that it was inappropriate," says Barnett of the actions, "but for the characters, it was almost a rite of passage."

Not that it makes it right, and not that all "Boys" will be boys: Of those chosen for the ride of their lives, Posner was not included. "Hector believes Posner is too immature and, besides, Hector is more interested in the virile boys."

Poor Posner, the "pitied"? Not because he doesn't get manhandled on the handlebars, but because "he is the ultimate outsider," says Barnett.

But then what teen is teeming with confidence? "It's a time of life, that moment when you come to realize that" life doesn't go on forever, "that people die, and you are really alone in life.

"But the trick is to make connections with others."

Barnett has made such connections, and feels lucky "to have such a great group of friends."

So, where to go for a postgraduate great role after having "History" on your side -- and résumé?

"I feel so spoiled," says the actor of his history with the play in radio, film and in the Brit and Broadway productions.

But Barnett understands that no matter what he lands in the future, he will have the luxury of always knowing that he has a master's in "History." 

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