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Comedy

Can the History Boys Be Classed As a Tragicomedy?

The play is comic and shows clear features of comedies throughout, such as slapstick humour and farce. This is combined with ‘serious elements’ (often used for humour) such as Hector fiddling the boys, which fits in with the genre of tragicomedy. The debate rises where the serious elements seem not to fit into a comedy, such as the protagonist dying, potentially preventing a happy ending. Some argue there are too many elements that do not fit into the genre of comedies, for ‘The History Boys’ to even be classed a tragicomedy.
Serious elements are used for humour in the play, which fits into the definition of a comedy with serious ‘overtones’. The obvious example for this is Hector fiddling with the boys. When Dakin asks Scripps ‘What happened with Hector? On the bike? ’ he replies with comic dialogue, saying ‘I think he thought he’d got me going. In fact it was Tudor Economics Documents, Volume Two’ (pg21). This line always gets a laugh from the audience, and the humour fits into the genre of comedies.
As the boys do not take the paedophilia seriously (the audience is aware Scripps is not affected, as he cracks a joke and acts normal), the audience do not either. This distancing effect of comedy allows the ‘serious elements’ to be viewed in a comic, light-hearted way, which fits in to the definition of a tragicomedy. Another example is when Hector hits the boys for using ‘foul, festering, grubby-minded’ language. This is slapstick humour, commonly found in comedies, originating out of a serious ‘element’ of a teacher hitting their students.

However, some would argue the play couldn’t be classed as a comedy at all, as it does not have a happy ending, which is vital for comedies. The protagonist, Hector, ‘came off’ his motorbike in a crash. Scripps makes what happened to Hector clear when he says ‘someone dies at school and you remember it all your life’(pg 106). Normally in a tragicomedy the ending will have a sense of catharsis, but there is arguably not one in the play, as it ends on what seems to be his funeral, where (according to stage directions) there are ‘photographs of Hector as a young man’(pg106).
The reflection on Hector’s life is melancholy and the tragic effect of Hector’s death negatively affects the boys, as Scripps ‘remember(s)’ it all his life. Despite this, it is possible to argue the ending is cathartic and does fit in to a genre of comedy and tragicomedy. In response to Hector’s death, the audience could see it as an optimistic release for Hector from a life of discontent: his marriage is passionate- his wife married him for ‘lukewarm attentions’ (pg92), his career is over as ‘boys have become work’(pg95), his future is ‘buying a van, filling it with books and taking it round country markets’(pg94).
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Also, there is the ‘splenid news’ of all the boys getting into Oxbridge- even Rudge (the ‘dumb’ character, often a feature of comedies). This is particularly cathartic, as it structurally mirrors how Dakin explains to Hector (and consequently the audience) that they are ‘all going in for Oxford and Cambridge’ in the third scene. This was the purpose of the boys being at the school for this period, and was commonplace in society at the time, when there was (and still is) huge competition to get into Oxbridge (the top two universities of Britain*).
For the audience to watch them work for it and achieve their aspirations, a sense of catharsis is created, resulting in a happy ending, especially as the boys are mainly successful in their future lives, becoming ‘solicitors’ and ‘chartered accountants’(pg107). As the ending is happy, it can fit into the genre of tragicomedy. Some would argue that the character of Posner prevents the play being a comedy. He is outcast and isolated throughout. Posner perfectly demonstrates his problems in a list, saying ‘I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield.
I’m fucked. ’ He is even viewed as an outcast by Hector, who dismisses him, saying ‘never mind’ when Posner volunteers for a lift when Hector asks if he ‘can give someone a lift’(pg17). Normally in a comedy, an outcast will find redemption and improve his/her life, resulting in a happy ending. This is not the case. Posner drops out of university and is the only boy who leads a terrible life. This is shown in a structural shift where Mrs. Lintott describes the boys’ future. Posner ‘lives alone… has periodic breakdowns’ and only has friends ‘on the Internet’(Pg108).
This tragedy is heightened by the fact that Posner was the cleverest boys- ironic for the audience, as they would be aware of this wasted potential. Bennett also based Posner on himself, as when he was a teenager he was under-developed, which made his ‘school days unhappy’. Posner seems to represent the stereotypical outcast. A character like this, some argue, is so tragic it (along with a couple of other factors, such as the ending debatably not being happy) prevents the play from being a comedy and therefore a tragicomedy.
This argument can be countered by the view that serious messages are often at the heart of tragicomedies. As Ustinov said, ‘comedy is simply a funny way of being serious’. This dates back to Shakespearean time, where the dangers of irrational love are portrayed in a humorous forest scene in A Midsummers Night Dream. Bennett could be raising the serious issue of teaching methods, as Posner was the only one that failed, but the ‘only one who truly took everything to heart’(Pg108) from Hector.
This suggests Irwin’s methods are better, which rings true in Bennett’s personal life, who claimed he used Irwin’s methods to get in to Oxford. Furthermore, Posner contributes to the genre of comedy by creating humour. Verbal humour is used when he lists his problems and concludes that he is ‘fucked’, one of play’s famous lines. There are other serious messages throughout the play that also create humour, such as Hector’s message of ‘pass the parcel’ with literature.
For example, Hector making the boys recite poems and being appalled by Irwin’s suggestion to use quotations he had taught to be ‘trotted out to make a point’(Pg48) is a form of absurd behaviour, common in comedies. A teacher’s job is to help make students make points and do well in exams- Hector does not see this. These ‘serious elements’ have important messages, but also create humour, which fits in to the genre of tragicomedy. Erma Bombeck once said “there is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt”.

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