The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Time and the Conways opens on an autumn evening in 1919, in a well-to-do home in the manufacturing town of Newlingham, England. A party is heard offstage, but the set is dark. Hazel Conway enters and switches on the light. She is in party dress and carries an armload of props and costumes for charades. She is joined by her sisters and eldest brother, and they begin to rummage through the costumes. Kay Conway enters; it is her twenty-first birthday. She also begins playacting with the charades costumes, and the sisters plan their skits. Mrs. Conway comes in, to plan her part.

The talk turns to an absent brother, Robin, recently demobilized from the Royal Air Force, and to their father’s death by drowning. Joan Helford, a friend of Hazel, questions Kay about her writing, which has been unsuccessful: She has burned her last novel. Family members enter and leave throughout as the charades progress offstage. Gerald Thornton enters, arguing politics with Madge Conway. He, too, is being dressed for charades. Ernest Beevers enters: He is an awkward but ambitious man from a lower-class background. He is introduced but is snubbed by Hazel, with whom he is infatuated. He is forced to play charades with the others. Kay reprimands Hazel for being cruel to Beevers, and Hazel responds by poking fun at Kay’s ambition to be a writer.

As the last scene for charades is planned, Robin returns home. An emotional reunion ensues between Robin and Mrs. Conway; he is her favorite child. Joan Helford enters, and she and Robin show an obvious interest in each other, which deeply annoys Mrs. Conway. The sisters begin to return to the room, picking up the props and costumes. Mrs. Conway goes out to sing for the guests. Kay is finally left alone on the stage, listening to her mother sing. Attempting to write, she turns off the lights and stares out the window as the curtain drops.

Act 2 opens on the same room, with Kay still seated by the window. When Alan Conway enters and turns on the lights, it is apparent that the act is set in a different time: The room is redecorated, and there is a wireless set onstage. Kay and Alan are middle-aged. They greet each other and discuss Kay’s job as a tabloid film journalist in London. Kay reveals that she has given up writing novels and that she has had an unhappy affair with a married man. Alan, somewhat seedy and still a clerk, presents Kay with a gift: It is again her birthday, this time her fortieth.

Joan, who is separated from Robin, arrives followed by Madge, now a headmistress at a girls’ school. Madge and Kay begin to spar defensively about their failed careers. Hazel joins them, very well dressed. She is uncomfortable at talk of the possible arrival of her husband,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In his examination of the relation between time and life, J. B. Priestley was highly aware of the usefulness of the dramatic form. The drama, relying on illusion, role-playing, and manipulation of a time frame, lends itself easily to an analysis of the nature of perception. In Time and the Conways, Priestley made the audience highly aware of the subjective, even unreliable quality of the action onstage. At the opening of the play, the audience is, in effect, backstage, watching family and friends prepare to play their roles. The party itself, which would seem to be the “important” event, is only heard offstage. Throughout the play, significance is removed from what might at first seem important—the party, the plans for the future—and given to the seemingly trivial—the childhood games, the casual remarks.

Priestley’s most obvious manipulation of theatrical time appears in act 2, when the action shifts to the future. If Priestley had staged the acts chronologically, the play would remain the story of a family’s decline. The resistance to displaying chronological time, however, permits a view not of decline but of the simultaneous knowledge of promise and loss. Act 3 essentially carries on the relationships as they appeared in act 1, but the view of the future that has been granted to Kay and the audience results in a continual summoning of opposites. In act 3, the characters begin to discuss their futures, and Mrs. Conway...

(The entire section is 524 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cook, Judith. Priestley. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

De Vitis, A. A., and Albert E. Kalson. J. B. Priestley. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Evans, Gareth Lloyd. J. B. Priestley: The Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1964.

Foot, Michael. William Hazlitt, J. B. Priestley. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1990.

Gray, Dulcie. J. B. Priestley. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2000.

Hughes, David. J. B. Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work. London: Hart Davis, 1958.

Klein, Holger. J. B. Priestley’s Plays. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988.

Priestley, J. B. The Art of the Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1957.

Skloot, Robert. “The Time Plays of J. B. Priestley.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (December, 1970): 426-431.

Smith, Grover, Jr. “Time Alive: J. W. Dunne and J. B. Priestley.” South Atlantic Quarterly 56 (April, 1957): 224-233.