J. B. Priestley Essay - Critical Essays

J. B. Priestley Drama Analysis

Much of J. B. Priestley’s drama explores the oneness of all human beings. That notion leads the dramatist to view individuals as members of a charmed or magic circle. The circle is continually broken, but Priestley, the essential optimist, believed that the circle can and must be mended as people accept responsibility for their fellow human beings. The family, then, with its temporary victories, its too frequently dashed dreams, its individuals pulling the circle out of shape only to have it reshaped by the family’s wiser members, becomes the microcosm of the world. That world, however, is continually buffeted by time. Priestley therefore viewed the family through a multiple time perspective. He was conscious of time past, time present, even future time. Occasionally he enabled an especially perceptive character to understand his place in flowing time, but he always led his audience to an awareness that all time is one. Even in an early commercial success such as the melodramatic Dangerous Corner, Priestley implied that a family shattered by the sordid past deeds of one of its members can find life anew. It need not be bound by the past, and a new awareness in the present may even reshape a past. The return to the beginning and a second chance for the characters of Dangerous Corner, though perhaps a mere theatrical gimmick in this early play, foreshadows Priestley’s more thoughtful view of the Family of Man in time in Eden End, Time and the Conways, Johnson over Jordan, and An Inspector Calls.

Eden End

Time provides Eden End its richest dimension. Eschewing the gimmickry of Dangerous Corner’s celebrated time twist, Priestley made extraordinary use of dramatic irony in Eden End, a realistic family drama set in 1912. Not only are his characters about to lose their innocence but also an entire world is about to be plunged into the horrors of a war from which it can never recover. As characters speak of a better time to come, the audience is fully aware of darkening shadows on the horizon. Time itself evokes Eden End’s autumnal atmosphere, making the play a threnody for a glorious but doomed world, which must inevitably give way to a material, technological advancement, spelling the end of the safe and sane values of love and loyalty and the quiet pleasures of a life lived in the service of others. As the Kirby family inevitably breaks apart, Eden comes to an end.

The widower Dr. Kirby, a general practitioner who has always longed for something more from his career, is suffering from a heart condition that will soon kill him. He has with him in Eden End, in Northern England, his younger daughter, Lilian, who serves as his housekeeper, and crotchety old Sarah, who was nurse to his three children and has been retained beyond her years of usefulness. Expected to arrive is Wilfred, the youngest of the children, home on leave from the British West Africa Company. However, an unexpected arrival, Stella, Lilian’s older sister and the family prodigal, disrupts a stable family situation. Stella had left the limited horizons of Eden End to pursue an unsuccessful career as an actress. Aware now that the only happy period in her life was her youth in Eden End, she learns before the play ends that one’s youth cannot be recaptured; to expect miracles is a pointless pastime. Eden End can no longer be for her the haven she has imagined, and she must return to the actress’s life of tiring railway journeys, uncomfortable lodgings, and dusty dressing rooms. Before her departure, which signals a return to normalcy for the others, she attempts to rekindle the love of Geoffrey Farant, who runs a nearby estate. Lilian, however, herself interested in Geoffrey, retaliates by bringing Charlie Appleby, another second-rate actor and Stella’s estranged husband, to Eden End to confront her. On learning that Stella is married, Geoffrey plans to relocate in New Zealand, inadvertently dashing the hopes of Lilian, who has for many years been quietly contemplating a home of her own with the man she loves. Reconciled, Stella and Charlie make a seemingly futile attempt to renew their life together, while Wilfred, frustrated by an aborted relationship with a local barmaid, takes his disappointment back with him to Nigeria, where he will wait patiently for his next unfulfilling leave.

Knowing that his own death is approaching, Dr. Kirby ironically comforts himself with the mistaken notion of a bright future that he believes life holds in store for his children and for the baby he has just delivered. If no dreams come true, if life holds only the promise of hardship and heartbreak in Eden End, it is left to Charlie Appleby to proclaim the reward that life offers to all. That he is inebriated at the time does not diminish the truth of his observation that life is full of wonder. Pain is part of life’s wonder, and humankind is the richer for experiencing it, especially in those moments in which the experience is shared with others. Dr. Kirby is not the failure he believes himself to be, but a good man who has shared the life of family and community.

In a brief critical study, Anton Chekhov (1970), Priestley makes clear his admiration and affection for the plays of the Russian master, and in Eden End he demonstrates that he has been an apt pupil. Priestly’s method is Chekhov’s own as he sustains a mood dependent on depth of characterization and wealth of detail. Stella incorporates the qualities of Madame Ranevskaya of The Cherry Orchard, Nina of Chayka (pr. 1896, rev. pr. 1898; The Seagull, 1909), and Elena of Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914) as she tries to win the man loved by her more practical sister Lilian, who recalls Uncle Vanya’s Sonia and Varya of The Cherry Orchard. Lilian even has a brief exchange with Geoffrey Farant in which, like Varya and Lopakhin, they avoid any discussion of their personal relationship by talking about the weather instead. Wilfred is as much the idle dreamer as Gaev, and Dr. Kirby recalls a number of Chekhov’s sad and wise doctors. Like old Firs, Sarah emphasizes a bewildering, rapidly changing world. She still thinks of her charges as children and fails to come to terms with the technology of motorcars and phonographs. When the others go off to the station at the play’s end, Sarah, like Firs, is left behind and ignores the ringing telephone that replaces Chekhov’s breaking string.

Despite the similarities, however, Eden End is no mere imitation of Chekhov. The play exquisitely evokes the life of provincial England in the second decade of the twentieth century, and English audiences, deeply moved by it, responded enthusiastically. The minute details of English life in another era, however, may finally work against the play’s achieving universality, and it has not found favor abroad. Acknowledging that Chekhov has influenced many English dramatists, Priestley himself suggested that he and others were better for that influence. Eden End ranks among the finest plays of the Chekhovian mode.

Time and the Conways

Priestley, who called himself “a Time haunted man,” inevitably turned again to time as the controlling factor in human life in Time and the Conways, a play highly influenced by the theories of Dunne. In An Experiment with Time, Dunne, the designer of Great Britain’s first military aircraft, attempts to explain the experience of precognition, that sense of déjà vu in which human beings, through the distortion of dream, receive foreknowledge of future events displaced in time. Dunne’s quasi-scientific theory provides for a series of observers within every person existing in a series of times. To a person’s ordinary self, Observer One, the fourth dimension appears as time. The self within dreams, however, is Observer Two, to whom the fifth dimension appears as time. Unlike the three-dimensional outlook of Observer One, Observer Two has a four-dimensional outlook that enables him or her to receive images from the coexisting times of past and future. Part of the appeal of Dunne’s so-called theory of Serialism is its provision for immortality: Observer One dies in time one but lives on within Observer Two in time two, and so on to “infinite regression.” Time and the Conways is Priestley’s rendering of abstruse theory into poignantly effective literature. Revisiting the world of his own past, he infuses it with an awareness of the effects of time on all human beings, a sense of waste and loss tempered with a note of hope and an intimation of immortality.

The play begins in 1919 in the Conway home, in a prosperous suburb of a manufacturing town, where a party is under way to celebrate Kay’s twenty-first birthday. An aspiring novelist, Kay is joined by her widowed mother, five brothers and sisters, friends, and neighbors. With the war ended, all of them look forward to a bright future. Madge is eager to be part of a new Socialist order; Robin, home from the Royal Air Force, expects to make his fortune in car sales; Hazel, the family beauty, awaits her Prince Charming, while Carol, the youngest, is bursting with an overflowing sense of life. Alan,...

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