Bennett’s first play, produced in 1968, is set “in a public school in the South Downs” (Plays One 27) and, as Bennett has written, and critics have noted from the first, “the school itself [is] a loose metaphor for England” (Plays One, “Introduction” 77). More to the previous point, however, much of the play consists of the school play that lies within the larger play. Bennett may have been ingenuous when he wrote in 1991 that “the form of Forty Years On is more complicated than I would dream of attempting now. It is a play within a play in which the time-scale of the first play gradually catches up with the time scale of the second, one cog the years 1900-1939, the other 1939-45, and both within the third wheel of the present day” (Plays One 9-10). But, in 2004, with The History Boys, Bennett recovered his daring. Here, we do not quite have a play within the play, but, richly and entertainingly, we have the inclusion of scenes enacted by the boys as well as other types of performance. The first scene of the [page 231] second act (58), set five years later than that of the main action, shows a crippled Irwin, now a popular historian, delivering, from his wheelchair, his own slick script for the cameras filming a TV documentary series that is, according to Bennett in his “A Note on the First Production,” titled Heroes or Villains? (xxix). That question mark is telling. In its pointing toward subjectivities and ambiguities of interpretation, the play is involving us thoroughly with questions about our guiding philosophies, epistemologies, and cultural foundations as they give rise to, or collide with, a current worldview, and that this questioning itself is the point.
Many other ‘performances’ are also present, intelligently dispersed throughout the play, giving it the buoyancy and humor that have delighted audiences, which is obviously a carry-over from Bennett’s early days of comic sketch and revue writing. The longest ‘performance’ within the play is the brothel scene, in French, improvised by the boys in Hector’s class. When the Headmaster and the newly-hired Irwin unexpectedly enter the room and find the handsome young student Dakin without his pants on, Hector, quick off the mark, says that Dakin is playing the part of a wounded soldier (not a customer in a bordello). Ideas of prostitution, false representation, self-deception, and inappropriateness—important motifs in the larger play—are presented to the audience in this comically memorable and successful scene that may both produce some subliminal reverberations and provide a bit of foreshadowing. Memorable too are the several scenes in which the students play an identification/guessing game designed by Hector. The boys perform scenes from films, sometimes with song and piano accompaniment; the films are usually from the 1940s and are generally melodramatic even if also of some artistic value. Hector must name the film. There may be a suggestion here that Hector (very much a classroom performer in his own way) has a penchant for theatricality because he comes from an age in which gay men had, of necessity, to act and pretend in their everyday lives. Irwin, a somewhat shy gay man still in the closet, also transforms himself in the classroom and performs his role of superior intellectual wit, replete [page 232] with insult and condescension, in a way that is assured and arresting in its arrogance. Whether Hector’s and Irwin’s propensities for classroom performance are in any way connected with their sexual orientation is uncertain, but Alan Sinfield has noted that
An essential link between homosexuality and theater is sometimes proposed but the project eludes precise definition. Kenneth Plummer argues that while all people play social roles, homosexuals are likely to be aware of ‘passing,’ ‘presenting a self,’ ‘keeping up an act’; hence they have dramaturgical consciousness […]. More often and in contradistinction to the ‘passing’ theory [of Plummer and others], homosexuals are simply supposed to be histrionic, flamboyant […] one way of dealing with stigma. (43)
Irwin’s style of presentation is twice referred to in the play as “meretricious,” once by Irwin himself as he briefly talks with Posner (60) during the outdoor filming of his TV documentary (the proleptic scene in which we learn that Posner’s life has turned out unhappily). It is unclear whether Irwin is simply acknowledging that he knew this was the view of the boys five years before when they were his students—Dakin said to him then, “We decided, sir, you were meretricious but not disingenuous” (75)—or whether he is confessing that he is indeed meretricious. There are more ironies and a puzzle, though, connected with this meeting with Posner five years in the future. It is now Posner who is deceptive and meretricious in hopes of making a bit of money from a scandal sheet: he has a concealed microphone on his person in an effort to record something that the now-famous Irwin might say about a relationship with Dakin in the past. Consider, though, this oddity. There are three basically homosexual men in the play: Hector, Irwin, and Posner. Posner, like the other two, is a performer; thrice we hear him sing in the classroom (12, 79, 106). And Posner, like them, is made to suffer. Hector is killed in the motorcycle accident in which Irwin is crippled for life; and Posner, those five years later, is the loneliest and most troubled of the former students. He “lives alone in a cottage he has renovated himself, has an allotment and periodic breakdowns […] He has long since stopped asking himself where it went wrong” (108). [page 233]
The Ending and Its Attendant Ambiguities
Whatever the reason might be for Bennett’s meting out misfortune to his gay characters, he (and/or his director, Nicholas Hytner, listed as co-author of the film adaptation from the play) withdraws a good deal of the misery in the film version. Here, the most serious injury that Irwin appears to have suffered in the motorcycle accident is a broken leg (although Hector remains killed). The last time we see Irwin (The Film 106), he is walking easily, without wheelchair or crutches. And in the film scene corresponding to the one in the play version that represents Posner as a tortured, maladjusted loner, we have him, at a class reunion, say in answer to Mrs. Lintott’s question to each of the former students as to what they are doing now, “Slightly to my surprise, I’ve ended up like you, a teacher. I’m a bit of a stock figure … I do a wonderful school play for instance … and though I never touch the boys, it’s always a struggle, but maybe that’s why I’m a good teacher. I’m not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it” (The Film 107, ellipsis marks in the original). Some may see here (more particularly in the stage version) what they think is the author’s sadly retrograde attitude about sexual orientation, one involving some self-loathing on the part of the homosexual author himself (Bennett seems never to use the term “gay”). Whether Bennett intends any irony here, and if so, how it is directed, are questions that lead only to speculations of dubious value.4
The largest question as regards the ending is whether Hector’s death and Irwin’s crippling have any interpretable meaning. Does it have some logical integrity within the overall structure of the play? Or must we be forced to conclude that it is a melodramatic contrivance, a ‘cheesy’ ending by an author said, not entirely unfairly, to have difficulties with endings, or, as Stephen Schiff has said, with plot in general (97)? Are there convincing ways to defend the ending? Are thematic ironies at work again? Judgments about what constitutes success or ‘success,’ about what being ‘true’ to oneself means, or what it is that makes for a happy and fulfilled life are, of course, relative to [page 234] individuals, here both the characters in the play and the members of the audience. So, even the question whether the play ends happily or unhappily for the gay characters is an open one. We can note that Irwin enjoys astonishing success with what he was hired to do (all of the “history boys,” eight out of eight, gain entrance to Oxford or Cambridge), and Irwin himself goes on to a very successful, albeit possibly meretricious, career as a TV presenter, his success abetted, he thinks (60), by his wheelchair. But what of Hector? It can be argued that Hector achieves his foremost wish; at least if we accept the judgment of Mrs. Lintott, who says to Irwin, “Forgive Hector. He is trying to be the kind of teacher people will remember. Someone they will look back on. He impinges” (50). Whether or not Mrs. Lintott offers, here and elsewhere, a validly objective view of Hector (I think she does), it has to be said that Hector’s longtime teaching performance was successful in the eyes of the boys (even if they had begun to come more heavily under the sway of Irwin), and that his consuming desire to be remembered has been fulfilled. His sudden and dramatic death certainly aids in this. He gets, from the grave, the last lines of the play, right after receiving the testimony of Scripps about his [Hector’s] type of education: “Love apart, it is the only education worth having” (109). Hector’s lines, “Pass it on, boys. / That’s the game I wanted you to learn. / Pass it on” (109), precisely because they are the last words of the play, appear to provide a strong ratification of Hector—that he did indeed have something well worth passing on.5 It is, then, of the three homosexual men, only the ending for Posner that is unrelievedly (and poignantly) sad.
Does the ending have some simple, interpretable meaning? The evidence strongly suggests that it does not. The simple formulation that Hector must die on his motorcycle because of the clear association with his hamartia (his sexual groping of the boys), is naïve in its simplicity. Besides, the play is definitely not a tragedy. To say that Hector must die6 because the values and philosophy for which he stands have been superseded by the crippled and crippling values symbolized by the now-paralyzed but soon-to-be influential Irwin has some plausibility, [page 235] but this jarring intrusion of the symbolic into the realm of day-to-day realism seems strained.
A variant and extension of this theory resides in the idea that the play can achieve significance only if Hector (again seen as the protagonist) dies by some conscious choice, rather than by accident. Support of a kind for this idea is given by the character Kafka in Bennett’s play The Insurance Man when he says, “Accidents as we well know, are never an accident” (Plays Two 155). In this theory the motorcycle crash is seen as suicide and attempted murder. Hector, feeling that he and what he represents have been conquered by Irwin and all that is represented by him, decides that physical death is preferable to the spiritual one that he would otherwise suffer. Detesting the newly dominant ethos embodied in Irwin, Hector attempts to take him with him. A few supporting lines of evidence may be found for this theory, but, mostly, it is not sufficiently convincing. Bennett is not quite interested in psychological realism or naturalistic representation in the play. Too much argues for the simple acceptance of the accident theory, particularly if we see it as just the culmination of Hector’s personal history, and we keep in mind Rudge’s dictum (not really original with him) that “history is just one fucking thing after another” (85), or Mrs. Lintott’s conclusion about “the utter randomness of things” (93). Besides, Hector shows no sign of personal animus toward Irwin; rather he treats him with respect and offers him understanding and kindly advice. Ironically, perhaps, we must conclude that Mrs. Lintott’s randomness theory is as convincing as any other. Hector outlived his time, a long age in which absolute values were thought not only to exist, but to have a good chance of prevailing. He leaves a new world where randomness and relativism hold sway.
“Maybe this was irony”
Irony, ambivalence, and paradox are rampant in the play, giving it its intellectual texture and largely supplanting any emotional component. [page 236] Why we can still enjoy the play as much as we do, is a most useful but not easily answerable question. Peter Wolfe, writing before The History Boys was ever performed, briefly alluded to Bennett’s use of Brechtian, metatheatrical, or postmodernist techniques (29). Does he, in The History Boys, deny the audience the opportunity for much emotional connection or response because he wants his audiences’ minds alert, not for instruction, but for the beginning of intellectual contemplation incited by ambivalences and ironies?
Layers of irony are present in The History Boys in ways not always easily discernible. Bennett does, though, provide a few clues. Most significantly, perhaps, he employs a metatheatrical device to draw attention to his own artifice. In Act II Mrs. Lintott, left briefly alone on stage, turns directly to the audience and says, “I have not hitherto been allotted an inner voice, my role a patient and not unamused sufferance of the predilections and preoccupations of men. They kick their particular stone and I watch” (68). At other points Scripps and Posner serve as one-man choruses. Amidst all the many performances that we have been watching, we are now reminded that we are watching another one, that of the author writing the play. Implicitly we recognize that his performance may, like all the others in the play, be called into question. Does Mrs. Lintott, in her brief address to the audience, not make a valid point? Note all the authors mentioned, by either Hector or the boys, in his classroom: A. E. Housman, Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rudyard Kipling, Franz Kafka, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stevie Smith, T. S. Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hardy, Rupert Brooke, Shakespeare, Marcel Proust, Ludwig Wittgenstein, David Storey, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell. Only one of these, Stevie Smith, is female and she chose to change her name from Florence Margaret Smith. Women writers, then, are definitely scanted, although gay and bisexual writers are perfectly adequately represented.7 Admittedly, the near-total maleness of this list (and its total whiteness) may not have attracted much attention as recently as even forty years ago, but Bennett is surely aware of its distinctively old-fashioned quality today, and it [page 237] serves as one more example of the subtly ironic representation of Hector. Interestingly, Virginia Woolf does happen to be mentioned, but this occurs when Dakin, talking with Scripps and Posner outside of class, describes the room he stayed in at Oxford while taking his entrance examinations. The regular resident had “an Arsenal [English football team] scarf draped around a photograph of Virginia Woolf, only I think maybe this was irony” (96). The last phrase—”I think maybe this was irony”—is a notable one because it seems slyly self-referential: as suggested earlier, anyone paying careful attention to the play has to wonder where Bennett’s own irony begins and ends. The phrase might well provide an authorial alert for viewer and reader to be on the lookout for irony.
Bennett has a well-known relationship with ambivalence. Kara McKechnie, writing just before the appearance of The History Boys, saw it as the necessary form of tension in much of his oeuvre: “In Bennett’s work, close observation often results in ambivalence. He has effectively presented himself as politically left-wing, socially right-wing, and a strong sense of being in two minds runs through his whole body of work […]. This sense of ambivalence provides the crucial tension within Bennett’s work” (McKechnie, DLB). This ambivalence is made explicit (with functionality and humor) in The Lady in the Van, a largely non-fictional play. Two characters (played by two different actors) named “Alan Bennett” appear on stage, often together, with Alan Bennett 1 facing off against Alan Bennett 2 (as they are referred to by the author) with digs, insinuations, and opposed points of view. And a character in the play called Pauline tells one of the Bennetts that she saw a “particularly perceptive review about you.” Bennett responds, “Really? Saying what?” Pauline replies, “That you couldn’t make your mind up.” “What about?” asks Bennett. Pauline says, “Anything really. It meant in a good way” (56-57).
Bennett clearly has a nostalgia for a time past in which people were generally inclined to believe in many absolutes, and he seems to feel that many in his audience will share a sense of longing for a world now past. However, he is clearly aware that the door cannot be [page 238] slammed and held shut against the intrusions of the present, and that no one should try. Hector literally locks his classroom door, and Irwin asks the boys why he does this. Despite their respect, and even affection for Hector, each gives a humorously satiric response that shows their sophisticated and balanced judgment. Lockwood answers, “It’s locked against the Forces of Progress, sir” (36). Crowther adds, “The spectre of Modernity” (36). And Akthar puts in, “It’s locked against the future, sir” (36). Hector is thus the target here of some gentle and genial satire on the part of the boys and also on the part of the author himself. The nostalgia is real and is sometimes given an elegiac feel, but it is accompanied by today’s recognition that this old world, seemingly so innocent, was complicit, sometimes consciously, often only vaguely, in various types of oppressiveness and unfairness, if not blatant and outrageous injustice. That it should be the homosexual Hector who seems least inclined to see yesterday’s shortcomings is ironic, but in the full context of the play quite believable; another attestation to its emotional complexity.
Much the same sort of attitude prevails in Forty Years On. Daphne Turner is exactly right when she says of this play, “If Bennett knows that the England of 1914 deserved to die and did, the Romantic tug toward it goes deep and has to be resisted” (“North and South” 562). So while Bennett does seem to give us a character who is nostalgic for what he thought a better time, Bennett desists from sentimentalizing Hector himself. Joseph O’Mealy, writing in 2001, saw Bennett as “a writer who refuses to sentimentalize his characters by exempting them from his satiric scrutiny” (157). Hector does not avoid the satiric searchlight; Mrs. Lintott, his friend, shows herself capable of training it on him rather easily (History Boys 50, 69, 95).
Bennett is never heavy and never dull. His work is characterized by a kind of classical lightness and ease, a sense of never trying too hard or being too insistent. One manifestation of this is the ease with which he blends what used to be called “high culture” with “popular culture” or “mass culture.” In fact, he was just slightly ahead of his time with his untroubled combination of the two; it was not really until the [page 239] arrival of “cultural studies” that this false binary was broken down. Like Stoppard, Bennett flatters his audience with a seeming assumption that they have a rather thorough knowledge of various levels of culture. Also noteworthy is the fact that Hector and Irwin, teachers with antithetical philosophies, both find a place for popular film (although, in both cases, films of the past). Hector plays, a few times each day, it seems, the film scene identification game, and Irwin advises Rudge (33) to get acquainted with the “Carry On” films (a long-running series of low budget films featuring slapstick and parody).
Irwin and Bennett Himself: Ironic Similarities
An additional reason for the play’s success is connected with another bit of self-reflexivity, namely, that the advice that the seemingly amoral Irwin gives to the boys is essentially the same, very useful as it turns out, advice that Bennett gave himself in writing the play. This is a prime irony, of course, especially since Irwin initially might seem to come near to being the villain of the play:
1. Remember Irwin’s advice to the boys about “useful gobbets” (48) and eye-catching quotations, and then consider how much of the play’s ambiance and intellectual flavor, its aesthetic feel, is provided by quotations from poets and philosophers.
2. Recall Irwin’s admonition to the students that they must hold nothing back that could be to their advantage on the Ox-bridge exams (38-39), and then note how Bennett was not above relying on and revealing something of his own self both in the play and his introduction to it: that, like Scripps, he was a very religious adolescent who thought he would probably take Holy Orders (x, xiv); that, like Posner (although Bennett was then a bit older), he was hopelessly in love with another male student (xiv), and that, as with Posner, puberty came late (Untold Stories 130); that, like Irwin, Bennett had devised his own “flash” method for succeeding on exams, especially [page 240] in history, and that it worked (xv-xvi); that, like Irwin, Bennett, during some teaching stints at Oxford after receiving his degree, “did at least try and teach my pupils the technique of answering essay questions and the strategy for passing examinations—techniques which I’d had to discover for myself and in the nick of time: journalism, in fact” (xvii). Bennett holds back little, even if it is sensitive or embarrassing, that is to the artistic advantage of the play.
3. Irwin teaches the boys how to get and hold examiners’ attention by turning some usual concepts or understandings inside out or upside down, and by teasing and beguiling the reader through irony and paradox. Note how Bennett manoeuvres the reader toward thinking Hector is a hero of sorts, then soon after something close to an old pervert, and then back toward a basically good but flawed man, and probably a fairly accomplished teacher. Most of all, the idea of a molester of boys being held up for an audience as an admirable figure is certainly a twist on what might be expected. The extent and final destination of Bennett’s irony is debatable (I conclude that the ironized figure of Hector is only qualifiedly admirable), but, in any case, the apparent approval of the near-pederastic Hector provides a twist that gets audiences’ attention.
4. Irwin, the pseudo-villain, advises Rudge that it will be a good tactic for him to get some acquaintance with popular culture through the “Carry On” films; Bennett, through the tactic of Hector’s movie identification game, involves the audience in a kind of play that pleasantly tests their own knowledge of popular culture.
5. In his professional life Irwin is all about presentation, performance, and polish. “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance,” he says (35). In his introduction to The History Boys, Bennett maintains that the reason some students excel on examinations is that “doing well on examinations is what they do well; they can put on a show” (xxiii, my emphasis). Later in the introduction Bennett says he came to realize “that teaching history or teaching the self-presentation involved with the examination of [page 241] history was not unrelated to presentation in general” (xxv). People like Irwin, then, are showmen—they “put on a show.” They are skilled and polished in their craft of self-presentation. The plaudits that Bennett, a professional showman, has won with The History Boys are due to polished craftsmanship, an unerring sense of pace, a sure balance of disparate types of material, and an unusual approach—in short, the manner of presentation is more important than the content. Some readers or viewers, feeling this is a ‘play of ideas,’ might find the play somewhat deficient because the ideas are shallow or underdeveloped, ‘tricked up,’ or, in Dakin’s term, a bit “flash.” Is Bennett, through his presentation of Irwin, confessing his own limitations, and also confessing that Irwin had his origins, and now has his continuance, in Bennett’s own self? Or does the very form of the play, with its quick, unrelenting, and crisscrossing ironies, the final destination point of which is arguable or uncertain, prove its thematic idea about the inevitable triumph of relativism?
Shy in personal encounters, Bennett is, in his writing, possessed of the easy confidence and professional assuredness said to characterize the Oxford graduate, which Bennett, unlike both Irwin and Hector, is. Like virtually all his other plays, The History Boys is meticulously crafted, with irony figuring in the plan even more heavily and integrally than it usually does for this author celebrated for irony. By and large, the irony is quite successful here, although even sophisticated audiences can debate, at times, its purpose and limits. Less sophisticated audiences may be puzzled, or even oblivious of its presence. Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times several years before The History Boys, was fully aware and appreciative of Bennett’s irony, but somewhat apprehensive that it might not serve him all that well in America:
Irony, a particularly gentle variety that by no means excludes compassion, is Mr. Bennett’s element, and it is an anomaly in a country [the USA] where audiences prefer their drama writ large and confessional and their comedy on the knee-slapping side. Even in his native England, Mr. Bennett is perceived [page 242] as unusually oblique. (14)
Irony and paradox are common in Bennett plays, even if not deployed quite so heavily as in The History Boys. It is quite different, though, from his plays in general, except for Forty Years On. Think of the fast pace, the exuberance of character and of speech, the general vitality and intellectual energy of the rather extraordinary characters in The History Boys, contrasted with Bennett’s more usual characters, with “the banality of their speech” and “plebian ordinariness” (Catling 28). Whether British or American reviewers traced it all to successful ironies or not, the great majority bestowed abundant praise on the play, some seeming to equate it with a quite different kind of play, Kushner’s socially-committed Angels in America, a means of salvation for the serious theater. Some may say that Bennett, using the ‘Irwin side’ of himself, found a winning formula for filling seats in the non-musical theater. Others may say that, as with Irwin, there is something fake and “flash” about this play so successfully hyped in middle-class media. Neither fakery nor shallowness, though, should be necessarily equated with stylistic polish, a smooth veneer, and skillful integration of disparate elements. Humor, ‘performance,’ debate, dialectic, and even bits of melodrama and didacticism are made to work together with calculated and effective smoothness throughout this play. As produced by the National Theatre, it has become a theatrical phenomenon. The play has enough complexity and intricacy to allow productive academic discussion; it is surprising that university English and theater departments have, at least in print, been silent to this point.
Fredonia, New York
[page 243] 1. Bennett’s father was a butcher in Leeds as we learn in the first paragraph (3) of his Writing Home. This first section of this book, “Past and Present,” contains some selective and finely styled evocations of the author’s early life.
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2. Ambiguity exists regarding Hector’s age. In the play’s first scene the directions tell us that he is “a schoolmaster of fifty or so” (4). Later, though, when talking with Posner about Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” Hector responds to Posner’s question about how old Hardy was when he wrote the poem by saying, “about sixty. My age, I suppose” (55). It is possible that this is one of several intentional ambiguities concerning Hector.
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3. It seems that only one reviewer has sharp, and, as he has framed them, sensible objections to all three teachers: Hector, Irwin, and Mrs. Lintott. Warren Goldstein, a professor of history writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asks, “How does a theatergoer turn to his friends, their faces aglow with pleasure, and suggest that the play was great fun, but that its portrayal of history, history education, and historical practice was not only incorrect, but deeply damaging to public conceptions of what he does for a living?” (B11).
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4. Bennett has customarily been discreetly taciturn about his sexual preference. When the actor Ian McKellan asked Bennett publicly at an AIDS benefit whether he was homosexual or heterosexual, Bennett very artfully dodged the question (Games 194). It was a surprise when Bennett, talking with Stephen Schiff, who was writing a piece on him for The New Yorker, revealed that in the late 1970s he had had an affair with Anne Davies, “the darkly attractive woman who had been doing his housecleaning” (Schiff 95-96). The evidence seems almost conclusive, though, that this was a stratagem of Bennett’s by which he “had managed to reveal that he was gay […] but only as a byproduct of his relationship with Anne” (Games 252). In his Untold Stories (2005), Bennett writes about being a victim, along with a male friend, of an unprovoked physical attack by several young Italian males on a lonely street in an Italian town at night. He writes of this friend, “I am not sure I would have called him my partner, or indeed known what to call him, though partners is what we are now” (562).
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5. Despite his mock-heroic introduction where Hector appears knight-like, maybe a Don Quixote-like figure, he should probably not be seen as fatuous or, like Jean Brodie, dangerous. Leopold Bloom, most famous of twentieth-century alienated men, is not Ulysses, but his generosity of spirit, his thoughtfulness, and his overall humanity are pronounced and worthy of respect.
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6. When I use phrases such as “some may say,” I am not entirely giving way to invention. In fact, because of the absence of analytic commentary in print, I am recalling the comments, always interesting, and often very incisive, of students in two sections of my Modern British Literature classes at SUNY Fredonia, to whom I express my gratitude. The History Boys was on the list of assigned readings.
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