J. B. Priestley Essay - Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 5)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 5)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) 1894–

An English novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and man of letters, Priestley has been a versatile and prolific writer since 1922. His best-known novel is The Good Companions, but critics consider Angel Pavement and Bright Day his greatest artistic achievements. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Priestley's] plays are seriously flawed, in my view, because, whilst they are always confoundedly careful, they lack care—that is, compassion, involvement—which, in one definition, is what separates art from entertainment. You feel that the author always calls the tune, that his characters scurry hither and thither at his bidding, always knowing far less than he does, never in any sort of ambiguous relationship with their creator. It's not something you feel of Chekhov, into whose waters Priestley sometimes sails. For Priestley is most definitely not a subtle ironist and his creatures are pushed down and dusted off without ceremony. We, the audience, are perforce as detached as he is. (p. 52)

W. Stephen Gilbert, in Plays and Players (© copyright W. Stephen Gilbert 1973), October, 1973.

J. B. Priestley is, to employ a sporting term he would surely appreciate, a good all-rounder; he is a novelist, playwright, essayist, literary critic, and—I intend no disrespect—something of a professional Englishman. In recent years he has added to a long inning of varied achievements as a man of letters his social histories of the Regency, the early years of Victoria's reign, and the Edwardian era. These characterizations in brisk prose, lavishly complemented by pictures, lead us to expect of his latest experiment in this mixed medium [The English] an original and appealing contribution to our understanding of the race to which the author so proudly belongs. (p. 29)

What Priestley has attempted is a personality profile based on his private analysis of the English….

It is in the nature of guest lists to provoke astonishment and mirth; Priestley's is no exception. For instance, "Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian monarchs, Irish playwrights, Welsh poets, and Scottish painters and engineers" have been excluded on grounds of race and national origin; this exclusive little affair is for "true-born Englishmen-and-women" only. Well, who are the few to be favored with Priestley's hospitality? We should not look here to find Oscar Wilde (Irish), William Ewart Gladstone (Scotch), George Bernard Shaw (Irish), David Lloyd George (Welsh), Dean Swift (Irish), Thomas Stearns Eliot (American), Inigo Jones (Welsh), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Irish), Anthony Vandyke (Flemish), William Butler Yeats (Irish), Richard Wilson (Welsh), or Benjamin Disraeli ("Jewish-dandy-novelist" and "impassive Oriental illusionist"!).

Priestley's own appointed laws, aside from being unjust, are also quite unenforceable. This is no mere procedural point; Priestley's narrow-minded definition of Englishness, based as it is almost exclusively on arbitrary considerations of birth and blood, lies at the very heart of his enterprise. It is a species of cultural imperialism to exclude the donations made to the sum of English identity by, among others, the figures I have listed above. No survey, however sweeping, can truly comprehend the English "soul" if it seeks to divorce it from the cosmopolitan body which that soul inhabits; its "alien" distillations are of the English essence. And this is something the author overtly and covertly acknowledges time and again: Although Disraeli "has no place here," it is fully sixty-nine words before he is dismissed, whereas, to name only a few of the "true-born," Christopher Wren, Alexander Pope, Thomas Hobbes, Charlotte Brontë, Jeremy Bentham, Wilfred Owen, Edith Sitwell, and George Orwell don't get a look-in…. We can only conclude that the author is engaging in that traditional English pastime known universally as having your cake and eating it, too….

The topography of the English spirit, as undertaken by Priestley, is crisscrossed by scenic routes; the tireless tourist will be rewarded with an eyeful of the picturesque and many idiosyncratic views. When Priestley writes well, and as often as not he does, his writing is a study in sturdy morality, shrewd wit, genial humor, and robust affection. He is on the side of life, and it is the English side of life….

At the outset he sets down the slim hypothesis that what makes the English different is their freedom from the tyranny of reason; before he is through, this poor nag has been flogged to death. It is ironic that Priestley should thus unbalance his own equation of Englishness with the free operation of intuition by determining in advance of his findings what his measure of Englishness is to be…. Priestley is muddleheaded—that's one English characteristic we are agreed upon—in his analysis of the socioeconomic realities of the modern scene. He sounds at times as if he is whistling in the dark to keep his courage up. In their insular complacency the English are, after all, most English. (p. 30)

Michael George, "Priestley's English," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 18, 1973, pp. 29-30.

Eden End [a play written in 1934, set in 1912, and reviewed to honor Priestley's 80th birthday] is in part a history lesson, taking us among the heavy curtains and mahogany chairs of the Yorkshire middle class and invoking an assortment of household names for our enlightenment: Wells, Asquith, Christabel Pankhurst, Gertie Millar, Scott of the Antarctic. It's also a sermon of sorts, using a somewhat heavy and deliberate irony to warn us against glib optimism. Priestley's Edwardians may be sceptical about the present: they are pretty smug about the future…. As far as the characters are concerned, Eden isn't ending: it's about to begin. But we know, my children, how very wrong they were.

Frankly, I don't see why the National chose this play as the cake for Priestley's 80th birthday. An Inspector Calls attacks nastier and more topical vices…. Time and the Conways has more energy and tension, perhaps because we actually see the bleak future into which the characters are hopefully peering. Eden End seems pretty limp beside them. Priestley has said himself that it 'owes much to the influence of Chekhov'; but his creditor is, I fear, the emasculated, elegiac Chekhov of British theatrical tradition, not the full-bloodied fellow they know in Russia. Chekhov himself would have made far more of the story of the prodigal daughter who returns home after years of failure as an actress, to rumple the rural tranquillity. In fact, he did make more of rather similar situations, notably in The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. The real, bouncing Chekhov would have given us at least some characters with minds as well as feelings, ideas as well as impressions. They'd probably have spoken of work and responsibility and heaven knows what, instead of presenting themselves, like Priestley's people, as the helpless spectators of social change. At any rate, they'd have provoked some solid discussion. They would also have been less flat as characters.

That, finally, is the trouble. What depresses me about Eden End is not its intellectual thinness, though it's surprising that as fine a mind as Priestley's should send us out of the theatre murmuring nothing more complicated than 'how sad that these people were so mistaken about the future'. It's the total failure of the characters to veer from their allotted tracks, their unerring inability to surprise us. When the old Yorkshire housekeeper calls the phone a 'daft machine', or tells a grown-up woman not to forget her mac, or confiscates the gramophone on the sabbath, it's exactly what one has expected since her first entrance. One smiles indulgently…. Such actions are so in character that one wonders, paradoxically, whether he's a character at all. And [one does the same] with the more important people…. (pp. 525-26)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 12, 1974.

Priestley wrote Eden End in Coleridge's old rooms at 3 The Grove, Highgate Village when he was 40 odd and had already established himself in the theatre with Dangerous Corner. Some playwrights at 40 are still young at heart and iconoclastic, Shaw for instance; but Priestley had begun to regret the passing of the golden time and indulged in his favourite clever game of historical hindsight. He turned away from the concerns of 1934 to resuscitate those of 1912….

[Once] the Priestley game's afoot we are quite prepared to join in and to observe the social historian and the novelist prompting the playwright. Confronted by Eden End critics nowadays reach for their Cherry Orchard, aided and abetted by Priestley himself: 'I owe,' he declared afterwards, 'much to the influence of Chekhov…. In this kind of play one's primary object is to conjure up the dramatic colour and shape, in all its absurdity and pathos, hope and heartbreak of life itself…'. This is an admirably fair declaration of intent, and quite true as far as it goes, but there is heartbreak and heartbreak; there are tears that are jerked out of you by playing upon the sense that life will never be the same as it was when our ambitions were untested, and the heartbreak that lies too deep for tears when we observe people of great richness of character and eccentricity become the victims of a historical process. The latter belongs to Chekhov and the former to Priestley.

What Priestley is really doing in this play is re-writing the world of his masters in the theatre, the world of St John Hankin, of Hubert Henry Davies, of Granville-Barker, of Barrie. Anything they could do, he is saying, I can do better, with more humanity and with greater irony; in fact he shares many of their attitudes; he regards the family as a sacred institution with a paramount claim over individual identity and maturity. (p. 34)

As the apologist for the family as being with reservations an essentially benevolent institution he was pre-eminently the practitioner of the ensemble play, of works in which the whole is greater than the parts. (p. 35)

Anthony Curtis, in Plays and Players (© copyright Anthony Curtis 1974), May, 1974.

Several of [J. B. Priestley's] later novels as well as nonfiction works are commentaries on the changing world, often charged with indignation at unnecessary injustices and stupidities or poking fun at some of the absurdities—the conspiratorial airs and self-importance—of big corporate business. Since he isn't a moralist, however, even the novels of social criticism are first and foremost superbly told stories, and many incorporate a life-long concern with time and with magic, the magic inherent in the mystery in which we live. Here, I believe, one comes closest to the man himself, particularly in "Bright Day" (his own favorite) and the more recent "Lost Empires," the tale of a young man touring England in 1913–1914 in the variety show circuit as assistant to a master illusionist. This is a novel layered with meanings, those lost empires being the actual theaters with their "warm deep magic," the illusions of the theater (indeed illusion itself) and, on a deeper level still, the lost sense of enchantment which the narrator recalls as a "bright lost world that had taken [his] own youth with it." Perhaps most of all it is longing for the world that might be, a theme which haunts Priestley's work. One critic, praising the author's own skill as an illusionist was so diverted by the story he missed this point entirely.

For Priestley is a master illusionist, and out of sometimes outrageous tales float glimpses of something beautiful and important at the edge of consciousness—like the doves magicians produce out of all their paraphernalia which go winging away before we're quite sure we've seen them. And there, I think, is the paradox of his fiction: he writes in the older tradition, while his thinking and speculating are ahead of his time, and his sense of life's magic is outside either. What I believe concerns him as much as time is the mysterious intimations we are given of another world, "unmapped and outside solar space and time," from which we feel exiled. [One character tells us:] "There are some queer moments that seem to come out of a deeper reality, as if they were trying to tell us something we can never really know." Repeatedly Priestley celebrates such moments, and we are the richer for them. (p. 35)

Evelyn Ames, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1975.