Nowadays, there are two schools of thought - or, rather, two thoughts of school - clanging together on the playing field of Broadway's dear old Broadhurst Theatre, where The History Boys has matriculated en masse from London. In the Olivier Award-winning play by that name - Alan Bennett's first in five years and, even more shocking, his first on Broadway since Habeas Corpus in 1975 - educators square off (old guard vs. avant-garde) and mind-wrestle for the souls of eight promising lads. These 17- and 18-year-olds are prepping for the rigorous written A-level exams that will carry them out of their state-run high school in the north of England in the 80's into A Good School (i.e., Oxford or Cambridge) rather than one of those "red brick" universities like Sheffield or Leeds.
Is it better to ready the boys for the test ahead (the short view) or for life (the long view)? The results-driven headmaster (Clive Merrison) subscribes to the short view and, to that ambitious end, recruits a with-it young history prof (Stephen Campbell Moore) to do a trendy touch-up on the students being turned out by the unheeded feminist-on-campus (Frances de la Tour) and the profoundly portly eccentric-in-residence (Richard Griffiths).
Hector, the Griffiths character, is the heart of the piece, arguing on the side of the angels that one should be groomed for life, not success. He recharges his charges with a scattershooting approach to culture, contending that romantic films of the 40's and Gracie Fields ditties can season the individual and make a more rounded human being.
"He has no patience with the philosophies of education," the 58-year-old actor says of his character. "He thinks that all of them miss the point. The best possible education that anybody can have is the experience of being in love, because it tears you to pieces. You learn the truth about everything - yourself, other people, loyalty, history, real hate, morality, deep love. It's all in there. Anyone who has been in love and had their heart broken has learned everything that they need to know about themselves." Griffiths has been doing Bennett plays for a quarter of a century, but he feels The History Boys is the author's magnum opus - and not just because of the role of a lifetime he has received here. "When I listen to The History Boys, I can hear Alan in every character, even the ones I know he hates. The way Milton gave the devil the best lines in 'Paradise Lost,' Alan gives the headmaster some of the best lines in the play. The headmaster says what's important about literature isn't what literature the students know. It's what they know about literature. They can talk about these books, but they don't ever have to read them as long as they can sound like they have read them. He [Hector] hates everything the headmaster stands for. The headmaster, to him, is what's wrong with the country - being dazzled by numbers and positions in The Game instead of giving the boys an education."
The best gift of The History Boys, though, is that it at last brings Richard Griffiths to the head of the class. A journeyman actor, his journey has run from Bottom to Falstaff and from marriage to Elaine Stritch in the British "Maude" TV series ("Nobody's Perfect") to life as a pig-loving accountant in "A Private Function " (scripted by Bennett). He's gone from bits in Oscar-winning flicks like "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi" to enjoying his highest profile to date - as Harry Potter's dreadful Uncle Vernon Dursley. But he was crying uncle 14 years earlier as the lusty, lavender-tinged Uncle Monty in "Withnail and I." If it's any consolation, Hector has his lusty, lavender moments - mostly when he is giving a student a ride on his motorbike.
Griffiths confesses to being something of a cyclist in real life - beaming with pride over his "Ariel 65 Supertwin!" Motorcycles were the transportation of choice for his favorite actor. "Ralph Richardson was my hero. I never liked Olivier. Ralph found everything he needed to know about the character from inside himself. That's how I like to approach it - from the inside - whereas Olivier never had a clue about internal workings because he was a terribly shallow man. Very early in his experience, he'd been made to focus on externals. Somebody in his early days at Birmingham - a medium, I believe - said to him, famously, 'You have a weakness here,' and she touched him on the bridge of the nose. And he was never quite sure in his life whether she meant in his mind or because his nose wasn't the right shape. Every time you saw the guy onstage or in movies, there was a new nose."
Of course, none of the above means he will be turning in the Best Actor Olivier Award he won for The History Boys. "In a way, it doesn't matter because I've gone beyond the monkey-on-my-back business about the awards," he says with a shrug. "It's like that Kipling poem ['If'] about the two impostors - triumph and disaster. I've been rewarded, and now I realize that, as usual, it's the same impostor that disaster was. It's a bit like that, but I'll tell you it's a nice feeling to be given the thing and it's nice to have the recognition. Suddenly, I find myself being taken a lot more seriously than I used to be, but I'm still the same guy I always was."