Wry and Kind Piety: Revisiting Donald Scripps in “The History Boys”

Just under a decade ago, I went through a The History Boys phase (both the play and film)—perhaps due to lingering memories of my high school years in an all-boy’s institution and reliving echoes of the camaraderie, bravado, and insecurities that dog such a testosterone-saturated environment. I resonated with one of the characters so much that I wrote an early article about him: Donald Scripps was his name (played by Jamie Parker in the film). In the play, he is the wry but balanced and kind-hearted observer, and notably serves as the main narrator.

Beneath his nonchalant, slightly cocky, and humorous surface is an avid churchgoer who is sustained by his Anglican faith—a proactive and personal choice that his own parents do not understand. Inexplicably chaste in contrast to his mates (and mocked by protagonist Dakin for it), he is nevertheless irreverent and vulgar. “Does the Archbishop of Canterbury know you talk like this?” Dakin asks him.

Scripps behaves morally, but is not moralistic. He holds himself to certain standards that he never explicitly demands others to have. Perhaps it is because he is Anglican, but he is tolerant of the homosexual tensions running between Dakin, Posner, and their substitute teacher Irwin. He serves as an informal and relatable confessor to the other boys, in particular the Jewish and gay Posner, who is in love with Dakin. We glimpse his empathy and temperance underneath his generous grins and witty banter with the other boys. He also has a tendency to infuse ironic observations about the world with a spiritual bent. “Love can be very irritating,” he assures Posner, when he sees Posner observing watching Dakin yearningly.

“How do you know?” Posner replies miserably.

“That’s what I always think about God. Must get so pissed off, everybody adoring him all the time.”

“Yes, only you don’t catch God poncing about in his underpants.”

On another occasion, he is privy to Dakin’s growing desire for Irwin, who proves his allure by being an intellectual equal and superior to Dakin. “You flirt,” teases Scripps after Dakin tries to one-up Irwin.

“I don’t understand it. Never wanted to please anybody the way I do him, girls not excepted,” confesses Dakin, who would otherwise keep such desires secret.

Scripps is the opposite of a pretentious and self-righteous pontificator: he is sharp and perceptive. He also seems aware of the mystery that is part-and-parcel of religious belief. When Dakin asks Scripps how he would say “thank you” to Irwin, Scripps gives a characteristically bawdy answer that doubles as a God-fearing affirmation as well as one that is sympathetic to the romantic tension between Irwin and his friend: “On my knees, probably. Same as you.”

While each character deals with problems and setbacks in their own unique way, Scripps ties his ability to handle the world solely to his Anglican practice. It was a different time when their general studies teacher, Hector, was written by Bennett to be what we would today call a sex offender. Today, we might cringe at how the boys negotiate among themselves for who has to accompany Hector on “the ride home,” during which Hector tries to grope whoever is riding behind him. A product of that time, Scripps volunteers on one occasion, chuckling: “The things I do for Jesus.” He uses a book to block Hector’s unwelcome hand during the ride.

Scripps is also mindful of his own circumstances and the conscious choices he has made in his life. His faith demands commitment and sacrifice. He is honest with himself and others, not caring to hide his envy of Dakin’s freedom. When he demands a “full report” from Dakin about the latter’s date with Irwin, Dakin rounds on him:

“Are you jealous?” asks Dakin in gleeful realization.

“N – “

“You’re jealous, aren’t you?!” presses Dakin triumphantly.

“No, not of the sex,” clarifies Scripps in exasperation. But he concedes reluctantly, “Just… of… your being up for it.” He shrugs mildly. “Me, I . . .”

By the play/movie’s end, he is revealed to have become a journalist. Journalism has always had a curious relationship to theology, resting somewhere in between the position of a priest and layperson. To be a good journalist is to be fundamentally empathetic and to love the telling of stories. Scripps loves people and life, and he stakes his own on the core story of his faith: the Christian story of Jesus. If there was ever a fictional character that came close to embodying the Buddhist ideal of nonattachment to doctrines and creeds, while also treasuring and living by them, it is Scripps.

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