Other Literary Forms
J. B. Priestley’s plays may be his most lasting contribution to literature, yet as a consummate man of letters, he mastered many genres in a canon consisting of nearly two hundred works. Beginning his writing career as critic and essayist on subjects ranging from William Shakespeare to Thomas Love Peacock, from the art of conversation to political theory, Priestley became a household name in 1929 with the extraordinarily popular success of The Good Companions, a picaresque novel about a concert party, which, translated into many languages, was an international best-seller. In all, he wrote more than thirty novels, eighteen books of essays and autobiography, numerous works of social commentary and history, accounts of his travels, philosophical conjectures on the nature of time, even morale-boosting propaganda during World War II, as well as an occasional screenplay and an opera libretto. Poetry was the only genre he neglected, after publishing, at his own expense, a single slim volume of verse in 1918, The Chapman of Rhymes. He was a popular professional writer, vitally concerned with every aspect of human life, and no subject escaped his scrutiny. As a result, the gruff, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman held a unique position in English letters as a highly respected sage who was also a man of the people.
For more than half a century, he remained loyal to a single publishing house, William Heinemann, which brought out nearly all of his massive output in various genres. Heinemann published single editions of most of his plays as well as thematically linked collections of two, three, and four plays. Heinemann’s major collection of his drama, consisting of twenty-one of his plays, both comedies and dramas, was published as The Plays of J. B. Priestley in three volumes from 1948 to 1950.
J. B. Priestley’s achievements as a dramatist outshine his work as a novelist. If he was a mainstream figure, albeit a minor one, in a vastly rich period of the English novel, in drama, he was the single serious English writer of the first half of the twentieth century, bridging the gap between George Bernard Shaw and John Osborne. Only Sean O’Casey, an Irishman like Shaw, had a reputation as dramatist greater than Priestley’s in the same period. The plays of John Galsworthy were quickly dated, while much of the work of Sir James Barrie, aside from the 1904 production of the immortal Peter Pan, was too cloying to survive its own generation. The plays of W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward may have been more successful with contemporary audiences, but they remain monuments to triviality rather than attempts to illuminate the plight of twentieth century humankind.
Priestley’s focus was England and the Englishman, not the aristocrats and idle wastrels who people Maugham’s and Coward’s elegant drawing rooms but the middle classes, the workers—the backbone of the country, England’s defenders and its hope for a workable future. Priestley was an optimist who believed that human beings working in and for the community can overcome any obstacle. A socialist, he firmly believed throughout a long career that the golden world in which he grew up before World War I could be reestablished once people rid themselves of sloth and greed and willingly accept responsibility for others. His view, which may seem overly romantic to modern readers, was fueled by a belief in a quasi-scientific theory of the coexistence of all time, popularized by J. W. Dunne in An Experiment with Time (1927), and was tempered by a clear-sightedness concerning his compatriots’ failings, which may have caused a decline in his popularity at home after World War II at the same time that his plays were embraced in the communist world. Priestly was offered a knighthood and a life peerage but insisted on remaining a man of the people and refused them. In 1973, however, he received the conferment of the Freedom of the City of Bradford. In 1977, he accepted membership in the Order of Merit,...
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