“‘An Inspector Calls’, first produced in 1946 when society was undergoing sweeping transformations, has recently enjoyed an enormously successful revival. While holding its audience with the gripping tension of a detective thriller, it is also a philosophical play about social conscience and the crumbling of middle-class values. ‘Time and the Conways’ and ‘I Have Been Here Before’ belong to Priestley’s ‘time’ plays, in which he explores the idea of precognition and pits fate against free will. ‘The Linden Tree’ also challenges pre-conceived ideas of history when Professor Linden comes into conflict with his family about how life should be lived after the war.”
I first heard of J.B. Priestley when I saw a television adaptation of his play ‘An Inspector Calls’ starring some of my favourite actors: David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Miranda Richardson, Sophie Rundle, Kyle Soller and Finn Cole. I watched the TV version knowing absolutely nothing about the original play and was absolutely spellbound. I fell completely in love with the gripping drama and by the end was both utterly shocked and hooked. It was such an intense feeling that I knew I needed to take a look at the original text and I bought a copy of the edition pictured above in my local Waterstones.
To say I was disappointed while reading this collection of four of Priestley’s plays is probably all too harsh. I did enjoy the stories at the heart of it, and although there were very few characters I felt tolerable I can imagine that was rather the point. My main issue was that because all the characters came from this place of rich white privilege it was almost impossible to feel any emotion apart from annoyance towards them. They came from a completely different world to me and although the stories they were in were interesting their problems and feelings meant nothing to me.
‘Time and the Conways’ is the first play in this collection. It explores the themes of time and fate through its incredibly irritating and vapid characters. The structure is the most interesting part of the play as it jumps through time to ask the audience key questions such as can one night really define the rest of someones life? The first act takes place on the night of Kay’s twenty first birthday before transitioning into the act 2 which is on another night years in the future, the play then returns to the original night of Kay’s birthday for act 3. This timing allows the audience a unique opportunity to really assess the impact of one night on a persons life and how time can change a once close, happy family to a group of bitter individuals who can barely stand to be in each others company for longer than twenty minutes. I enjoyed the concept but I was glad to finish it- the characters of Ernest and Madge were particularly difficult to tolerate and I was almost glad that they ended up so desperately unhappy.
‘I Have Been Here Before’ is another play where Priestley contemplates the effect of time and the notions of destiny and free will. In it a group of people have an interesting weekend staying in an inn in the countryside, that, according to the theory of a strange German professor, they have all stayed in before. The play entertains the theory that we all live our lives in a continuous loop and whether we have the power to deviate in those loops or whether our fate will always be the same no matter what we choose. Once again, the concept of this play is incredibly interesting and provides a lot of food for thought but for me it was once again let down by the characters. The fact that Farrant and Mrs Ormund’s romance develops while the curtain is down means that their sudden infatuation is jarring and difficult to believe. Obviously plays are always written to be performed and a certain amount of that will always be down to the actors to show but even so, for such an important plot point to occur offstage meant that I was left emotionally uninvolved in a pivotal point in the play.
‘An Inspector Calls’ was by far my favourite of the four plays and, for me, offered the most interesting subject matter. The heart of the story was the question of how morally aware are we of the consequences of our actions. Do we ever really stop to think how selfish and potentially vindictive actions can affect the life of someone? What was most interesting for me was that once again we had a group of unlikeable and selfish middle class characters who felt they were socially and generally superior to all those working class people they felt beneath them and despite being faced with the consequences of their actions they still utterly failed to learn anything and so change their ways. At the end of the play Mr Birling was still more concerned with potentially getting a knighthood, while his wife only cared about insisting that she was guilt free in an attempt to drown out her conscience. Although the final line of the play changes the tone and cuts short their celebrations that perhaps the night had just been a hoax, you still feel as though the characters are so eager to assuage their own guilt that they will have no trouble moving past the death of an innocent and vulnerable woman and blaming everyone but themselves. It was an utterly fascinating play and I adored it, although I must be honest and say I preferred the television adaptation, purely because you got to see each of the characters interactions with the victims rather than just hearing their testimony about it.
The final play in the collection was ‘The Linden Tree’. This play discussed the themes of change and death as it focused on Professor Linden, a University lecturer who specialised in history, on his sixty fifth birthday as he struggled to keep his job against the tide of people, including his wife, who are pushing him in to retirement. Professor Linden was possibly one of the only characters outside of ‘An Inspector Calls’ who I actually liked. I felt sorry for him, as someone so desperate to teach the younger generation the perils of history so that they didn’t make the same mistakes that his generation did. His battle to continue in his purpose was one that I felt was very noble and understandable. His wife’s search for her own happiness was also something I understood and although their quarrell left them at odds with each other I loved the fact that they both seemed to accept that their ways had to part without any bitterness. If their children had only been as likeable I would have really enjoyed this play, but Marion especially was so irritating that I honestly couldn’t stand any scene she was in. She seemed to me to be such an arrogant figure of privilege and close mindedness that I spent most of the play wishing she would disappear back off to France- which did distract me from the interesting themes for a time.
All in all I did really enjoy reading these plays but I have to be honest and say that for all apart from ‘An Inspector Calls’, the ideas behind the play were far more interesting and engaging than the execution of the action and characterisation allowed for.