J. B. Priestley Essay - Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 2)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) (Vol. 2)

Priestley, J(ohn) B(oynton) 1894–

An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright, Priestley is best known for The Good Companions, a novel published in 1929. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Priestley] has added high quality of conception, perception, and description to the great quantity of his creations and his commentaries. Time and again he has shown that in the swift etching of a character, either in a novel or for the stage, he has a most vivid appreciation of the human comedy and a command of wit and of sympathy, qualities rare in combination, that puts him among the highest rank of verbal portrait-painters. Furthermore, his reporting of a journey and of the economic, as well as the physical, panorama of the places visited, has revealed a brilliant power of observation and description…. One always knows where one is with Priestley: it may be ground that one cannot share, but it is ground that is excellently mapped. He has written for the general reader and not for the intellectual specialist. Although, especially in his latest work, he has developed doubts about the value of pure reason and a taste for what some would call the superrational and others would dismiss as the whimsical, he has always stated his case for the unusual in the idiom and vocabulary of use and wont. If he turns to mysticism, he does not mystify, and the fact that his thinking is restless has never inclined him to be obscure. He deals in theories without being the abstract or the baffling theorist. (pp. 5-6)

Those who wish to examine the Priestley 'ego,' with all its Yorkshire background and its London experience, its relish for music in the home as well as for the clowns in their various arenas, must read his essays; they will not find it difficult. (p. 12)

The dominant note of Priestley's philosophy is dislike of withdrawal and of the 'non-participation' advocated by Aldous Huxley. His criticism of most religions is that they are too narrowly ethical, too negligent of the real flame of life…. In Priestley's writing one is always coming up against the Radical, but certainly not the Roundhead Radical. If there is fire in him it is the Promethean fire, with its glow of conflict and its heating of the forge of thought. Though he likes his desert solitudes and his midnights under alien moons he does not stay there long. He could no more be a scholar-recluse than he could be a political reactionary. Participate he must. (pp. 14-15)

Because Priestley excels in description, he has been criticized as reporting, not creating. He is thus made a victim of his own virtue, since nobody denies that he is a superb recorder, able to seize in words the essentials of any place or community through which he may, perhaps hurriedly, have passed. His speed of observation is equalled by his sureness in choice of the right phrase. But because he has such readiness in making the report, it is absurd to overlook the creation of character in which he shows no less capacity. (p. 20)

Priestley has been exceptionally eager and able to write for his readers and for the theatre public simultaneously. To guess about an artist's survival is always rash, but one may risk a surmise that future generations will be reviving the best of his plays more frequently than reading the best of his novels. (p. 22)

Ivor Brown, in his J. B. Priestley, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1964.

J. B. Priestley's The Good Companions (1929) recaptured, in motoring days, the spirit of the English roads which had been destroyed when the railways took the traffic and the life that had meant so much to the novels of Dickens, Fielding, and others. The Good Companions was an honest piece of work that deserved its popular success, though the capers of a small concert party were subjected to a great strain in supporting so large a book. Considered technically, The Good Companions is a clumsy affair, but so, for the most part, were Dickens's novels; and Priestley's book, like all Dickens's, has gusto, a flair for comic characterization, and a general warm-heartedness. With this novel Priestley became suddenly a leading figure in contemporary fiction and, shortly after, a respected playwright…. None of his later novels surpassed The Good Companions and by 1950 his stature as a novelist had dwindled. (pp. 71-2)

After the huge popular success of The Good Companions, J. B. Priestley's interest in novel-writing was submerged by the attractions of the theatre, in which his career as a dramatist began with Dangerous Corner (1932), an exceptionally neat and ingenious piece of playmaking…. The play never loses grip, notwithstanding the author's inclination (shown again in Time and the Conways) to rain too many blows upon his people, and it is a superb example of dramatic craftsmanship. Laburnum Grove (1933) and Eden End (1934)—the first dealing with a crook who lived between crimes as a respectable suburban householder, the other a study of character in a Yorkshire setting—maintained Priestley's popularity as a playwright, but Cornelius (1935) had few admirers, though its aim was more ambitious…. Everything in Cornelius happens too swiftly: the reduction of the time-scale necessary in a stage play is not adequately compensated, as it can be by a just use of dramatic illusion. With Time and the Conways (1937) J. B. Priestley may be said to have begun a new phase—a phase in which, though still announcing his belief that theatre audiences have the right to be entertained, he became more inclined to use the stage as a platform for the expression of ideas. Cornelius had been a signpost pointing in that direction. Though Time and the Conways was acclaimed by the critics as a highly original masterpiece, the time-theme fumblingly handled there by Priestley had already been treated with a closer approach to profundity in Berkeley Square (1928) by J. C. Squire and J. L. Balderston…. Ideas are the most exciting of adult playthings, but they hardly are so in J. B. Priestley's hands. He was compelled to over-simplify the new conceptions of time in Time and the Conways…. Except when a dramatist is also a great poet, able as Shakespeare was to absorb and transcend philosophy in and through poetry, the theatre is a ramshackle place for the expression of philosophical concepts. Moreover, the value of a play (or of any other work of the creative imagination) is not in proportion to the seriousness or solemnity of its author's intention. An excellent farce may merit higher marks than an indifferent morality play. The contrary view is a heresy that obtained wide currency in the 1930s and after, and among its by-products was the scolding delivered by J. B. Priestley in the explanatory epilogue to the printed text of his Johnson Over Jordan (1939), which suffered on the stage from over-elaboration and pretentiousness. This play, using (consciously or not) the mode of Expressionism, depicts an ordinary man re-experiencing phantasmally after death the main phases of his moral life. If instead of employing all the resources of modern stage production the author had trusted to simplicity of presentation, Johnson Over Jordan might have ranked as a modern Everyman. As it was, the playgoing public was justified in preferring Priestley's own farcical comedy When We Are Married (1938), and his scolding was misdirected…. Of the many stage pieces written by Priestley in the 1940s the most successful and satisfying was The Linden Tree (1947), a solidly characterized presentation of intellectual integrity in which the Priestley who feels with and understands men and women had the freedom and scope he failed to command in the severer climate of the realm of ideas. (pp. 132-34)

A. C. Ward, Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964.

Priestley is full-blooded, genuinely comic, full of social awareness…. Unlike so many novelists who grew up in an earlier age, Priestley has insisted on living in the present, and—with such concepts as 'The Grey Ones' (the title of a short story in the collection Another Place) and 'Admass'—he has actively influenced post-war England's attitudes to itself. That he is rarely taken seriously in contemporary surveys of the novel … is perhaps due to his failure to make any fictional experiments (he has reserved experiment for the stage) and his willingness to be content with a burly, no-nonsense, unintellectual approach to life in his novels (he is intellectual enough in his plays and essays). Yet it would be foolish to disregard his achievement and make little of his vast creative energy.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 101-02.

Take at least 116 characters, a scoop of crusty humanism, unlimited delight in the English scene, bake according to an old recipe—and you have this generous Christmas pudding of a book…. The old recipe is the author's 40-year-old formula for "The Good Companions," in which a matronly angel bankrolls some charming picaroons in a venture leading them all over the English map to love and success on their own terms. In this enterprise, the picaroons are a pair of lovable emeritus professors of philosophy, who turn the country on its ear when they switch from post-Hegelian hair splitting to high-octane public relations….

A happy ending, of course, is part of the recipe. This one scatters cash, requited love and humane values over a liberal zone.

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1969, p. 49.