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Good Writing Always Deserves to Survive
on 2 March 2015
John Boynton Priestley (1894 – 1984) was during the thirties, forties and fifties regarded as one of Britain’s leading novelists and dramatists, and towards the end of his long life took on the role of Grand Old Man of English letters. Since his death, however, his reputation has faded somewhat, and some of what were once among his most famous books are now out of print. “An Inspector Calls” is something of an exception and today is probably his best-known work, certainly his best-known play, and has attained something of the status of as a classic of the British theatre, especially since Stephen Daldry’s famous 1992 production.
Priestley was politically on the left, and “An Inspector Calls” is a socialist parable thinly disguised as a detective thriller. Arthur Birling, a wealthy industrialist and former Lord Mayor of a large Midlands city, is hosting a dinner party one evening to celebrate the engagement of his daughter when the gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a police Inspector who states that he is investigating the death of a woman once employed at Birling’s factory. None of the family is suspected of murder; the death was clearly suicide. Under the Inspector's questioning, however, it is revealed that each member of the family in some way helped to drive her to kill herself and must therefore bear some moral responsibility for her death.
In some ways this is a very conservative (with a small “c”) play. Priestley observes the Classical Unities of place, time and action, with the whole action taking place in the Birlings’ dining-room over the course of a single evening. The dead woman, Eva Smith, is often referred to, but never seen. The idea of a detective questioning a small group of people about the death he is investigating is an obvious borrowing from the murder mystery dramas of writers like Agatha Christie. Priestley, however, is able to use this highly conventional format as an indictment of the various ways, both financial and sexual, in which the wealthy elite exploit or take advantage of the working class. Under the Inspector’s questioning each member of the Birling family is forced to admit his or her relationship with Eva and the part that he or she may have played in her death.
The Inspector himself is the one non-naturalistic thing about the play. Priestley deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is a genuine police Inspector, an impostor, a symbolic personification of justice or conscience or a supernatural figure. (His surname “Goole”, pronounced in the same way as “ghoul”, may hint at this last possibility). Something else left ambiguous is whether “Eva Smith” is one person or a composite of several; the possibility is left open that Goole has misled the family into believing that they had all known the same person, whereas there may have been as many as four women involved.
Priestley’s essential message is that no man is an island and that we are all responsible for the well-being of others. The most immediate application of this message is to relations between the different social classes, but it also has wider implications. The play was written in 1945 and first produced in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, and is significantly set in 1912, just before the outbreak of the First. Goole’s last words are “We are responsible for one another. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”. This may be a prediction of the sort of class conflict which, in Russia, was to lead to revolution, but it may also foretell the coming of two World Wars and indicate that Priestley’s message was as relevant to international affairs as to socio-economic relationships.
The other plays in this volume are today not as well-known as “An Inspector Calls”, but in my view at least one, “Time and the Conways”, deserves to be. (It is noteworthy that when first published this volume was entitled “Time and the Conways and Other Plays” rather than “An Inspector Calls and Other Plays”). Like “An Inspector Calls” it is set in the home of a moneyed provincial family. Part is set in 1919, part in 1937, the year in which it was written. In 1919 Kay, one of the daughters of the family and an aspiring novelist, is celebrating her twenty-first birthday. She, her siblings and their friends, are all very optimistic and full of dreams about a golden, successful future. The significance of the date is that 1919 was the first year of peace after the end of World War One, and the Zeitgeist is summed up by Kay’s socialist teacher sister Madge:-
“This horrible war was probably necessary because it was a great bonfire on which we threw all the old nasty rubbish of the world. Civilisation can really begin- at last”.
By 1937, however, the family’s dreams have been shattered, they are in financial difficulties and are troubled by forebodings of another coming war. Kay’s literary ambitions have come to nothing; Madge has succeeded in her profession, becoming headmistress of a girl’s public school, but has abandoned her political ideals and become cold and cynical. Another sister has died and although a fourth has apparently made a “good” marriage to a successful businessman she is deeply unhappy because her husband is a selfish bully. Their brother Robin, once a returning war hero with hopes of a glittering career, has failed in business and is estranged from his wife. Only Alan, the quietest of the family, does not appear to have had his illusions shattered, but only because he never had any illusions in the first place. He remains in 1937 what he was in 1919, a minor, unambitious provincial bureaucrat.
The twist is that Priestley does not tell this story in a straightforward linear manner. The scene set in 1937 forms the play’s central Act Two, with the action returning to 1919 in the final Act Three. Priestley's idea was to use his story to illustrate the Time Theory of the philosopher J. W. Dunne according to which past, present and future are eternally present and the idea of linear time an illusion. The quiet Alan appears in the play as the spokesman for this theory, and it is his beliefs, essentially a system of non-religious mysticism, which enable him to view the world with greater philosophical detachment than his siblings. (There is also a curious discrepancy in the play. The later scene is said to take place on Kay’s fortieth birthday, yet if she was 21 in 1919 by rights she should be only 39 in 1937. This discrepancy may have been deliberate to create a sense of disorientation in time).
“I Have Been Here Before”, also from 1937, is another “time play”. A group of travellers arrive at a remote inn on the Yorkshire Moors. They include Walter Ormund, a wealthy industrialist, his young wife Janet, Oliver Farrant, a headmaster, and Dr Goertler, a mysterious German professor. Goertler is the advocate in this play of another time theory, derived from P D Ouspensky, according to which past, present and future are not so much eternally present as eternally recurring, although with possible variations. It is implied that Goertler has somehow travelled back in time in order to prevent a tragedy which he has witnessed in the future.
Unfortunately, this play is not in the same class as “Time and the Conways”. In that play the time theory is not too intrusive and does not detract from the play’s other themes, a psychological study of the downfall of a complacent bourgeois family and an examination of British society between the wars. As the title suggests, it is about the Conways, not just Time. In “I Have Been Here Before” (as the title suggests) the time theory is of central importance and the characters more crudely drawn. The love-affair of Oliver and Janet, which plays a central role in the plot, is not convincing; they go, in the space of about five minutes, from casual acquaintances who do not like one another very much to being so passionately in love that Janet is prepared to leave her husband for Oliver. Goertler is not so much a character as the mouthpiece for a contentious philosophical theory and the play as a whole is far too didactic.
“The Linden Tree”, from 1947, is a rather slight piece, centred upon Professor Robert Linden, an ageing academic at a provincial university. The action revolves around whether the Professor will retire, as his wife and most of his family wish him to do, or whether he will carry on working after reaching retirement age, which would be his own preference. Priestley never really generates much dramatic tension out of this premise, even when Linden’s wife threatens to leave him if he does not do as she wishes, although there are some effective pen-portraits of Linden’s family and students. Among these are his son Rex, a slippery financial wheeler-dealer who has made a fortune in stocks and shares, his daughter Marion, a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who has converted to an ultra-conservative form of Catholicism following her marriage to a French aristocrat and her sister Jean, an equally dyed-in-the-wool Marxist. Priestley was not above occasionally satirising his fellow-leftists; Jean’s vision of a socialist Utopia seems more like an authoritarian, joyless cross between Stalin’s Russia and Cromwell’s England, and Madge Conway is another ideologue of a similar stamp.
Despite Priestley’s left-wing views, he was regarded with some suspicion by the “Angry Young Men” of the fifties, who saw plays like these as the sort of drawing-room drama they were reacting against. The “Angries” preferred to depict working-class life via social-realist drama rather than discuss working-class problems via middle-class metaphor. The only working-class characters in any of these plays are servants who only play minor roles. (Ironically Priestley was to remain a socialist throughout his life, unlike some of the “Angries” such as John Osborne, who were to move sharply to the right). Criticism like this, however, with its implication that there is only one “correct” style of writing for the theatre, seems rather dated today; quality writing always deserves to survive, regardless of the writer’s political slant or of how well he conformed to contemporary fashions.