Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

In a monograph on the dramatist who most influenced him, Anton Chekhov (1970), Priestley noted that there have been many plays that resemble the works of the master, but few of these imitations can actually rival such works as The Cherry Orchard or Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901; Three Sisters, 1920). Eden End is an example of Priestley’s Chekhovian style at its best, moving beyond imitation to convey the feel of northern England’s country life. His characters struggle for a dignity that they cannot quite achieve, as their hopes for the future are frustrated by the disappointments of the present. Priestley continued to write in a Chekhovian vein in Cornelius (pr., pb. 1935), a play about a failing business enterprise, and returned to that style with The Linden Tree (pr. 1947), in which a family comes to terms with itself in an England that has survived World War II.

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The Chekhovian atmosphere, as well as the dramatic irony so effective in Eden End, would also be employed in Time and the Conways (pr., pb. 1937). This play’s second act takes place in 1937, the year in which it was written, moving the characters eighteen years ahead from the first act, set in 1919. When the third act returns to 1919, the audience knows so much more about the fate of the characters than they themselves can imagine that an almost unbearable poignancy is achieved. Stella’s hint of precognition is fully developed in the characters of Alan and Kay in Time and the Conways, a play in which Priestley dramatized an intriguing theory of time that he had encountered in the works of J. W. Dunne.

If Priestley’s innovative expressionistic plays such as Music at Night (pr. 1938) and Johnson over Jordan (pr., pb. 1939) did not achieve the success of his more naturalistic dramas, they helped to expand the limits of the once stultifyingly conservative British theater. These plays led to works such as An Inspector Calls (pr. 1946), in which Priestley moves his characters from a naturalistic setting into a mystical, supernatural world. Eden End (Priestley’s own favorite among his plays) suggests what lay ahead in Priestley’s drama, the genre of his best works: a significant contribution to world literature that would surpass his considerable achievements in the novel and essay.

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