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The History Boys - A Grade Example Essay - English Literature Ella 1 - How does Bennett create humour in the play?

Updated on April 12, 2012

How does Bennett create humour in the play? You should explore one or two episodes in detail. In your answer you should consider:

  • Bennett’s language choices
  • Dramatic techniques.

Comedy is used throughout the History Boys by Bennett via several main techniques such as parody, contrasting characters and their clever juxtapositions within the plot, intelligent metaphors, bathos and many more. Within Hector’s French lesson, the juxtaposition of Hector’s character immediately contrasts that of the headmasters greatly as soon as he walks in. Hector’s eccentricity and liberal character contrasted with Felix’s strict adherence to rules, regulations and formality with Hector interrupting Felix’s dialogue “Mr Hector, I hope I’m not. . .” (using the verb “hope” to show a formal register) with the informal gesture that is what Bennett describes as “an admonitory finger.” The use of the adjective “admonitory” there comically reverses the power balance between the two characters, with Hector playfully showing that he has authority in his lessons, much to the dismay of the headmaster who feels both humiliated and challenged enough to try to speak French. The submission of the headmaster expressed by doing so is a comical element in itself because he Headmaster finds difficulty in speaking French, having to hesitate and show non- fluency features in “Pourqoui cet garcon . . . Dakin , isn’t it? . . .est sans ses trousers?” having to code switch back to English with the simple concrete noun “trousers” for lack of knowledge and the use of ellipsis to show low confidence or knowledge in the subject. This arouses not pathos in the audience but rather an idea that the headmaster is a subject of mockery because of his unlikable character. This unlikable character is emphasised later in the episode with the Headmaster using the negative adjective “silliness” to describe the exercise that had proceeded and then taking back what he had said, saying “not silliness” showing that he is insincere with what he says to the boys in order to encourage them with their studies, which is apparent to be for the selfish purpose of getting his school higher in the league tables. The coercion of the Headmaster into speaking French and the willingness of the boys to play along with the exercise also shows how in the school, the boys and Hector are willing to cheekily challenge and mock authority figures with their intelligence, all knowing French to a better degree than the Headmaster. The repetition of each other and the over use of the semantic field of family when the boys are trying to lie about what their French lesson’s exercise was really about “Ma mere Ma mere!”, “il appelle sa mere” and “”Mon pere!” “Il appele son pere!”, ties in with the idea that the Headmaster is a point of mockery, showing that the boys are willing to trick him in order to save Hector from being scolded, also encouraging the idea that the boys and Hector form a kind of comical team against the other school authorities. The use of “ma tante!” creates bathos for the pretend character with the noun “tante” showing a desperation for ideas to keep the lie going. The following interrogative “sa tante?” by the Headmaster and Timms’ reply of “la famille entiere” as if the headmaster missed something embarrassingly obvious adds to the comedy because once again the boys team up with each other to justify and ridicule Felix. The lack of hedging by Timm’s emphasising that “tante” had a clear purpose in the exercise. Irwin’s unexpected input of “Il est commotionné, peut-etre?” is another example of Bennett’s clever character juxtapositions but also of using unexpected events to contrast what was being done before it, with the stage directions of “the classroom falls silent” suggesting that the boys’ found it rude and out of place for Irwin to chip in. The idiom “fall silent” contrasting the hectic and loud situation that occurred before it, using Irwin’s awkwardness to change the tone of the scene. Hector not knowing what the word means and using the interrogative “comment?” adds to this awkardness. In another episode, Dakin creates a metaphor comparing the battle of Passchendaele to seducing Fiona. Bennett’s use of Scripps’ apparent jealously of Dakin’s sexual adventures is used as comedy with Scripps replying with a short monosyllabic sentence of “no” to Dakin’s idiom of “can I bring you up to speed with Fiona.” The use of Dakin carrying on despite Scripp’s clear answer creates a sense of Dakin being very self centered, wanting to express his clever metaphor even if others didn’t want to hear it. This creates a comical effect as Dakin then asks “are you interested in this” with Scripps replying “no. Go on” letting the audience no that Scripps was only pretending all along, and was only jealous, but nevertheless still interested in Dakin’s adventures. The use of historically accurate details of the battle of passchendale is another way Bennett creates humour in the play, using “meeting only token resistance” and “ around 23:00 hours our forces withdrew” as metaphorical euphemisms for Dakin’s activities with Fiona, contrasting the not so exciting historical details with the exciting details of his own sex life. Bathos is implemented when Dakin breaks off from his metaphor and uses the dysphemistic noun “tits” in “like particularly her tits” and the adverb “particularly” stressing the bathos created by using a dysphemism amongst military jargon such as “front-line troops” and “territory.” The use of a parallel semantic field of sex with lexis being chosen like the adverb “hotly” the noun “inch” and the verb “thrusted” amongst a lexical field of military terms adds to the contrasting effect and so humour of the metaphor. Scripps’ final comment on the matter of “I can’t take any more. Enough” adds a final touch of humour to the matter as the audience can then tell that Scripp’s is both jealous and disgusted at what he is hearing. Highlighting the fact that he is deeply religious but also a teenager, and the comical contradiction that is made between wanting to have sex and explore and not wanting to displease God by doing so. The use of a historical metaphor is also a kind of parody on the history lessons that Dakin has, showing how the boys will use anything that they can to make an intelligent joke, and do not fuss too much about respecting the knowledge Hector provides them. The use of historical details is also an example of parodying Hector’s lessons because they are being used out of normal context for explicit subjects. Bennett’s addition of Dakin finding out incriminating information about Felix emphasises the comical authority that the boys, particularly Dakin, has over their school authoritie’s. The use of the Headmasters first name “Felix” in “still, at least I’m doing better than Felix” shows disrespect and given the context, further mocking of their headmaster who is now given the extra dislikable characteristic of perverted on top of all of the others. The use of the idiom “cop a feel” further adds to this humorous mockery of Felix, reducing him to a desperate pervert instead of a respected authority figure as would normally be expected. The use of the verb “hoping” implies that Felix makes bumbling unsuccessful attempts at fulfilling his perverted sexual desires just like his bumbling unsuccessful attempts at speaking French. This adds to the bathos created of Felix, not qualifying for pathos which it would have otherwise been, if not for the sheer amount of pitiful behaviour that Felix expresses and his unlikable, contrasting character.


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