Time and the Conways by J. B. Priestley

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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Time and the Conways is a drama about the possible connection between an idea and life. While the opening scenes of the play establish ample potential for plot development—various romances and careers are at their inception—the following two acts reveal that development of story lines is not J. B. Priestley’s central concern. Indeed, the play is peculiarly “plotless,” focusing as it does on perception rather than action.

The idea that Priestley intends to convey is one he acquired through a considerable amount of reading on time theory, in this case that of the philosopher J. W. Dunne. Dunne’s notion of “serial time,” expounded in such works as An Experiment with Time (1927) and The Serial Universe (1934), asserted the possibility of envisioning the future as well as the past. Dunne relied heavily on an interpretation of dreams: In his view, the dreamer represented another observer-self, outside linear time. Thus, in the play, Kay Conway enters such a dream state in act 2: She is both a character within the time of the second act and outside it. Kay is in the same location on the stage at the beginning of each act, and the fact that she alone is never offstage during act 2 shows her double perception: Act 2 is intended to be her vision. The irony that results from the return to the past in act 3 is simply a result of the audience’s foreknowledge acquired in act 2: The audience knows precisely how the hopes and plans of the characters will be thwarted. The tragic element in the play, however, comes from Kay’s vision of the future and the knowledge she carries with her in the last act. She alone shares the audience’s foreknowledge of events.

Where Priestley’s play is successful is not in the elucidation of a particular theory—the play can largely be understood without recourse to the writings of Dunne—but in its insistence on the importance of an idea, of order, to life. The relevance of an abstract theory to...

(The entire section is 507 words.)