J. B. Priestley World Literature Analysis
Between 1922 and 1977, J. B. Priestley wrote more than one hundred books. These include numerous novels and about forty plays, together with literary criticism, social histories, essays, autobiographies, and travelogues, but do not include his screenplays and teleplays. For decades his novels were the most read and his dramas were the most often produced of any living English writer. Only one decade after his death, his novels were almost forgotten, and only two of his plays were still produced with any regularity. The reasons for his unprecedented success and for his fleeting preeminence are the same: He addressed the issues of his time to the people of his time. The effect of his writing was powerfully immediate but without the universality that allows literature to transcend its own day.
Priestley’s novels are difficult to categorize because he is not associated with any particular movement and the influence of many schools of thought can be found throughout his fiction. This results from the enjoyment he derived from the technical challenge of creating in different styles. Priestley wanted to tell a story, to cause his reader to laugh, to cry, and to think, but he always based his writing on the belief that people read primarily to be entertained. Given his working-class background and experiences at Cambridge, it is not surprising that Priestley never wrote for the intellectual or professor of literature. This disregard may have contributed to his almost never being included in courses on the modern English novel. History has also demonstrated that critics are usually disdainful of popular artists. The broad enthusiasm with which his books were received by two generations of the general public contributed to the critics’ dismissal of his works as typical light fare from “Jolly Jack” Priestley.
Priestley’s novels can be broadly grouped into three categories. One is the suspense thriller, such as Saturn over the Water (with the subtitle An Account of His Adventures in London, South America, and Australia by Tim Bedford, Painter; Edited with Some Preliminary and Concluding Remarks by Henry Sulgrave and Here Presented to the Reading Public, 1961). The second is lighthearted satire, such as Sir Michael and Sir George (with the subtitle A Tale of COMSA and DISCUS and the New Elizabethans, 1964), a sparkling tale of the last days of two competing arts councils. The third is the thoughtful social commentary of his best novels, such as Angel Pavement (1930), a piercing examination of the struggling lower-middle-class workers in a small London office, and Bright Day (1946), about a screenwriter’s loss of innocence. Priestley’s novels usually reflect a romantic view of life. Even in his darker tales, such as Blackout in Gretley: A Story of—and for—Wartime (1942), Priestley reflects an enthusiasm for life, sometimes to the point of sentimentality, which explains his usual happy endings. A favorite device, which he perfected in his first major success, The Good Companions, was to gather a group of characters, each with a unique background, and allow them to struggle together toward their various goals. Through this struggle they learn the importance of community and of responsibility to one’s fellow human beings.
Priestley valued clarity. He never wrote in a cryptic manner. His storytelling is straightforward and his themes are always explained. His keen sense of observation and description in such novels as Faraway (1932) generated the criticism that his novels are mere reporting. This ability to characterize and describe enabled his unsophisticated readers to remain with him even when he wrote his esoteric novels and plays about the nature of time. Priestley conjectured that people do not live in linear time but in circular time. Life repeats until the inner self discovers or learns how to change and improve, at which time the circle becomes a spiral and the self escapes to a higher plane of existence. This is best described in the novel The Magicians (1954).
Priestley is remembered almost exclusively as a playwright. Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls both have the distinction of being, for several decades, the most often produced plays on five continents by an English writer. In 1971, drama critic and anthologist Stanley Richards selected Dangerous Corner as one of the ten best mystery and suspense plays of the modern theater. From 1993 to 1994, An Inspector Calls had a successful revival in London’s West End and then on Broadway. Although neither are great dramatic literature, both plays contain all of the elements necessary for successful suspense drama: interesting characters, intriguing situation, and ingenious construction with an unexpected twist at the climax. Dangerous Corner is the better of the two, with its theme (that a chance remark may completely alter the course of one’s life) heightened by surprisingly modern subthemes of homosexuality, drug use, and criminal cover-up. An Inspector Calls, on the other hand, is peopled with caricatures, obvious in its devices, and preachy in its condemnation of the disregard of individuals for one another. According to Priestley, it was meant to be an allegory for the history of England in the first half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, it was first produced in Moscow and became a favorite play in communist and socialist countries.
Priestley was known to write his plays quickly, often within seven to ten days. His critics complained that they did not wish to be subjected to unrevised plays. His champions extolled his ability to define a unique situation, delineate characters, and re-create the rhythms of conversation and dialect from various locations and classes of England. These qualities are in full evidence in the best of his social comedies and farces, such as When We Are Married (pr., pb. 1938), a delightful, if dated, comedy created on the premise that three respectable couples discover that their marriages are illegal and that they have been living in sin for these past twenty-five years.
Priestley also wrote “time plays,” such as I...
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