J. B. Priestley

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J. B. Priestley Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,805 words.)