Returning to Donald Scripps: Comfort Characters and the Considered Life

“There is one journalist, though on a better class of paper, a
career he’s always threatening to abandon in order, as he puts it, really to
 – Mrs. Lintott

As a self-described amateur follower of pop culture, I have my share of comfort characters. Comfort characters can be wholesome or traumatized, archetypal or complex, clear-eyed or conflicted. Take your pick; there are no hard rules. Everyone has a comfort character(s) of some kind, whether from a film, game, television show, or novel. Every medium imaginable can provide a fictional individual or group of characters that makes you feel happy when sad, find clarity when confused, or even help you reflect on your own identity and struggles through identification with them. 

My own comfort characters can both be recognizable as well as obscure. I find that the melancholic journalistic archetypes of Chow Mo-wan from In the Mood for Love and 2046, Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita, or Marcello Rubini in Roman Holiday tap into our reflections on desire by showing the characters’ struggle with the dichotomies of restraint and abandon. Their Apollonian and Dionysian clashes (and sometimes union of both impulses) have made them icons of cinema. I like the explorations into the darkness of human emotion and morality in (good) Batman comics. I sometimes daydream of having enjoyed a childhood friendship group like that of “Team Avatar,” whether in The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. However, one character I particularly relate to is relatively obscure, from a British play called The History Boys by Alan Bennett, which was adapted into a movie in 2006. I watched it sometime during my MA years of 2011 or 2012, a period in which I was losing interest in academia and correspondingly gaining it in journalism. It was not Scripps’ future – which would be narrated by Mrs. Lintott as having become a reporter – that I immediately empathized with, but rather his role as a kind of wry, nonjudgmental observer among the group of boys that form the emotional and narrative core of the play/movie.

I have written about this fellow before. I find in Donald Scripps values and a personality that put him on a direct line from the most “pious” of his group (he is the only one who is outwardly and proudly Christian) to his future as a journalist – albeit, apparently, one always threatening to quit. In the play/movie’s timeline of the present, we know he loves God – “The things I do for Jesus,” he jokes to his classmates, as he prepares to block their teacher Mr. Hector from a blatant attempt to molest him – and he prays in church before they go to interviews for scholarships at Oxford.

Scripps is the one who everyone shares their secrets with, without, importantly, him reciprocating. This is his power as well as his burden. We know little about his joys and sorrows, unlike Posner’s homosexuality or Dakin’s restlessness. We do know that Scripps is a very good piano player, an instrument that is interwoven through some of the film’s narrative cores like Posner’s confession to Dakin or Mr. Hector’s memorial at school. He is, among the diverse cast of boys still seeking themselves, both confident yet restrained, an exemplar of non-toxic but non-apologetic masculinity. He quips about the travails of his friends’ love lives, but also is ultimately sympathetic to them, giving them the space to deliberate, reflect, and act.

He does more listening than most of his classmates. There is a hint to the kind of journalist he will become in the future when he takes issue with Mr. Irwin’s detached analysis of the Holocaust as a subject to be taught, angrily chastising his teacher, “Not good point, sir. True! To you the Holocaust is just another topic on which we may or may not get a question.” Biased? Perhaps. I prefer the word empathetic. 

For his age, Scripps is remarkably emotionally balanced, authentic and spontaneous but also thoughtful and considered when the mood demands it. It is remarkable that this character has remained so impressive and rich down the years, remaining as well-written and sympathetic as I remember when I first watched The History Boys a decade ago. He ties everything he has to his Christianity, and that is another thing I admire about him, that he is clear-sighted about his faith, and the way it shapes him. His personality, though fictional, is a credit to Christians. That is why, perhaps, he is ultimately a comfort character to me, because he truly embodies that which he is. If only the faithful of all traditions, in real life, could be something similar. 

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