Time and the Conways

by J. B. Priestley

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Critical Context

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Time and the Conways is one of three so-called Time Plays written by J. B. Priestley in the 1930’s. Dangerous Corner (pr., pb. 1932) and I Have Been Here Before (pr., pb. 1937) show the same concern with the possibility of representing an idea using a popular, realistic dramatic form. These plays were written early in Priestley’s career as a dramatist; he had already established himself as a novelist and critic, and he would continue to write for the stage into the 1960’s. The plays represent both Priestley’s early experiments with dramatic form and his lifelong interest in the philosophical possibilities of popular art forms. The Time Plays are among Priestley’s most important attempts to domesticate philosophy, to show an abstract significance in the everyday. In these plays, the philosophical matter is provided by the theorists J. W. Dunne and P. D. Ouspensky, whose New Model of the Universe (1931) examined the possibility of the recurrence of events in time.

Time and the Conways is the most accomplished of the Time Plays in its dramatic technique. Dangerous Corner examines the notion of a division in time, when a seemingly casual comment bears the potential for the concealment or revelation of truth. A group of people at a party are slowly implicated in the death of a friend and relative, and the progress of their conversation can—and does—follow two distinct and opposite paths. The play makes ample use of the mystery at its center, but in this earliest of the Time Plays Priestley has not taken advantage of the theatrical possibilities inherent in his subject. In I Have Been Here Before, inspired by Ouspensky’s idea of repetition, Priestley is more aware of the dramatic potential of the theory at hand but relies on a character outside the action, the German Görtler, to expound the theory and attempt to break the repetition of tragic events, of adultery and suicide, into which the other characters have fallen. It is only with the creation of Kay Conway that Priestley finds a way to connect theatrical performance with theory.

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