Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
At the piano in the well-worn but comfortable Kirby sitting room in a village in the north of England, Wilfred Kirby picks out a tune from a London musical. Sarah, the nurse who tended the Kirby children and has remained a family fixture, informs the bored young man that he does not have the talent his older sister Stella has. Lilian, Dr. Kirby’s second child, has an equally low opinion of her younger brother’s musical ability and tells him so. Wilfred teases his sister about Geoffrey Farrant, who runs a nearby estate, while Lilian questions Wilfred about the barmaid he keeps trying to ring up on the Kirbys’ new telephone. Wilfred admits that he is unhappy wherever he is. He had eagerly anticipated his leave, but now he is beginning to look forward to his return to Nigeria. He is dissatisfied with his work and his life but expects that everything will be better in three or four years. When Sarah shows them the costume, now moth-eaten, that she made for Stella for an amateur performance at the Town Hall, Lilian and Wilfred discuss their sister, an actor whom they have not seen in eight years and have not heard from in three. Against her mother’s wishes, Stella had left home to make the stage her career. In the intervening years, Mrs. Kirby died, and Lilian has assumed the running of the house.
As they put a record on the gramophone, they hear a voice through the door. Stella, the prodigal daughter, has returned home, a little the worse for wear—like the tattered costume. She reveals to Sarah what she cannot admit to her brother and sister. Her career is a disappointment and she considers herself a failure. Dr. Kirby, delighted to see his daughter, whom he wrongly believes to be successful, admits to his firstborn what he has never told anyone else: He has envied her determination to follow her dream. He had the opportunity to make something of himself as a specialist in London, but he gave in to his wife’s wishes and settled for a steady but unexciting existence as a hardworking practitioner in Eden End. He is aware that his heart condition is serious and that he will not live long enough to see the better world he feels certain will be dawning in a year or two.
Alone with her sister, Lilian forces Stella to admit that she is married to an actor with whom she had toured in Australia three years earlier. Although they have not divorced, they had remained together only a year. Stella had lost touch with Charlie Appleby, her husband, but she unexpectedly saw him in her agent’s office in London shortly before traveling north to Eden End. Geoffrey Farrant arrives to see Lilian but is thrilled to learn that Stella is home; Lilian retires with a headache. The act ends with the rest of the family gathered around the piano. Stella is playing a waltz while Wilfred and Geoffrey look on admiringly, Dr. Kirby beats time to the music, and Sarah smiles in the doorway. What appears to be a cozy, even idyllic, family scene masks the reality of the situation. Stella’s sudden return has shattered the family’s tranquillity.
In act 2, four days later, Wilfred is still unsuccessfully trying to contact the young lady he fancies. He is startled when a stranger walks into the house out of the rain. It is Charlie Appleby, whose charm and breeding are clearly in evidence, as are signs that he drinks too much. Charlie has been invited to Eden End by Lilian, and Wilfred soon decides that his newly found brother-in-law will be a good companion in the local pubs. When Wilfred shows Charlie to his room, Stella enters with Geoffrey. Unaware of Charlie’s existence, Geoffrey tells Stella, who encourages him, that he still loves her. When Geoffrey suggests that the coming years will bring little change, Stella, with curious precognition, suggests that in a few years they may look back on 1912 as belonging to another world, a lost world. Their intimacy is interrupted by Charlie, and Stella is forced to introduce her admirer to her husband; Geoffrey, who is devastated, hastily retreats. Soon after, Stella confronts Lilian and slaps her face, accusing her of bringing Charlie there not because she cares about Stella and her marriage, but because she herself is in love with Geoffrey. When Stella leaves the room to introduce her husband to her father, Lilian, to calm herself, sits down to her accounts but loses control and cries.
In the first scene of the last act, Wilfred and Charlie come home drunk. Charlie, the one character who has come to terms with his own mediocrity, tells his young friend about his conquests among the fair sex and the disappointments in his career. He concludes that those things, however, are of little consequence because life itself is wonderful. Wilfred learns that the girl of his dreams, the barmaid at the White Hart, has made eyes at Charlie and, according to Charlie, flirts with all her customers. He is consequently taken ill and must be put to bed. Lilian is outraged and tells her sister to leave and to take Charlie with her. Dr. Kirby returns from assisting at the birth of a baby, a baby who will grow up, Kirby believes, in a world that will soon sort out its problems. The tired doctor tells his eldest child how proud he is of her. He had made a mistake in settling for less than he had really desired, but she is rectifying that mistake by living the life she has chosen. Stella, aware that her father must learn the truth about her failed career should she remain, announces that she and Charlie have been offered good parts and must leave the next day.
The final scene of the play takes place the next afternoon. A house that has been in upheaval since Stella’s arrival is about to return to normal with her departure. Geoffrey comes to say good-bye and announces that he himself will soon be off to New Zealand for a year or two. Stella tells him that over the years Eden End seemed to her a haven free of muddle, but now she knows that the village of her girlhood is as confused and confusing as the rest of the world. She will try to get on with her life, living it as best she can, perhaps with Charlie as her partner in adversity. She no longer expects miracles. Left alone in the house as the others go off to the station, Sarah eyes with suspicion the ringing telephone, a newfangled gadget that she does not understand, and refuses to answer it. The firelight fades, there is silence, and the play ends.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
Eden End achieves its effect through dramatic irony. The audience knows what lies in store for the Kirbys—and for England—although the Kirbys do not. World War I, not the better life Dr. Kirby anticipates, is only two years away. When Wilfred makes jokes about being victimized with a bayonet, his father tells him that no one need worry about bayonets anymore: The world is more sensible than it used to be . . . and science will enable it to become even better. Whatever bleak thoughts Priestley had in mind as he put that optimistic statement into Dr. Kirby’s mouth, he could hardly have foreseen the destructive power of atomic weapons.
In the preface to the collected edition of his plays, Priestley suggests that his audience may consider a play like Eden End to be entirely naturalistic because of its setting. However, he believes that, like Anton Chekhov, he moved away from conventional realism as the play progressed to concentrate on dramatic color and shape. Mood and atmosphere may bring out the absurdity and pathos of life far better than a complex plot.
Eden End owes as much to Chekhov for its characterization as for its prevailing mood. The sensible, hard-working Lilian suggests Sonya of Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914) and Varya of Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908). She even has a brief exchange with Farrant in the third act that is reminiscent of Varya’s conversation with Lopakhin, in which two people whom the rest expect to wed can talk only about the weather. Stella calls to mind Nina in Chayka (pr. 1896; The Seagull, 1909) as well as Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard, whose arrival and departure, like Stella’s, frame the play. The world of Eden End is coming to an end just as the world of Chekhov’s landed gentry did. His characters, too, had to cope with a new life. Sarah, like Firs in The Cherry Orchard, sees the others as children and treats them accordingly; she represents an older generation, too set in its ways to adapt to the modern world.
Despite the play’s success in Great Britain, a success that was not repeated abroad, some critics consider that Priestley’s language is not as evocative as Chekhov’s. The Ranevsky estate may stand for all of Russia; Eden End, however, seems to some to be merely a provincial backwater, not truly representative of Great Britain. These critics point out that to achieve poetic effects Priestley has his characters quote from the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson and William Wordsworth. The characters’ own language is often that of prosaic reporting rather than poetic evocation.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69
Sources for Further Study
Cook, Judith. Priestley. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
De Vitis, A. A., and Albert E. Kalson. J. B. Priestley. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Evans, Gareth Lloyd. J. B. Priestley: The Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1964.
Gray, Dulcie. J. B. Priestley. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2000.
Klein, Holger. J. B. Priestley’s Plays. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988.
Priestley, J. B. The Art of the Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1957.
Wood, E. R. Introduction to Eden End. London: Heinemann, 1974.