Can you see into the future? JB Priestley said he could. His play, Time and the Conways, comes to The Little Theatre stage this week.
Imagine yourself born in early Anglo Saxon Britain: the Romans have left, Arthur has retreated, Merlin kindly offers you a glimpse of the future. Will theatre flourish in Britain? What form will it take?
It will go a little like this:
Early Morris Dancing becomes Morris Dancing with a bit of story until the medieval Mystery Play is born, bringing with it travelling players and performances in the yard outside the tavern – no plastic glasses for your mead, so it may get messy. Then Court Masques arrive with pageantry, lots of dancing, and an opportunity for Kings to meet future wives (Henry VIII holds quite a few). England’s first proper theatre is imaginatively called The Theatre; its wooden beams are eventually used to make The Globe (after being slid across a frozen Thames, so the legend goes). Simplistic Renaissance plays need talent to develop them – Christopher Marlowe is game but dies too young to see it through. Instead the Greatest Writer Who Will Ever Live arrives from rural Stratford upon Avon and British Theatre has an eternal hero; but it doesn’t last long before Cromwell’s Puritans, not liking things like Christmas or “fun”, close the theatres. Happily, the restored Charles II likes fun more than anything and reopens them (including actual women on the stage!), encouraging the Restoration comedies much loved by rakish aristocrats in fancy wigs. Thereafter follows a period of 18th century Augustan twaddle just about offset by the great Irish trio of Sheridan, Goldsmith and Farquhar, whose The Recruiting Officer is the first play to be staged in new colony Australia (which isn’t called Australia yet). Garrick changes acting at Drury Lane – making it much better or much worse, depending whom you believe. A lot of samey Victorian melodrama ensues while the British concentrate on their novel writing skills, then in the late 19th century foreign genius arrives in the form of Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov (the first “modern playwright”). Strindberg believes Lead can be turned into Gold and spends his life trying; Chekhov dislikes his own plays and can’t see them lasting; Ibsen keeps a scorpion on his desk while his plays appal polite society. Between them they change all theatre, forever. The century ends as Wilde becomes the toast of London and writes an earnest masterpiece before prison, Paris and death overwhelm him. Another injection of Irish genius arrives when Yeats produces Synge and O’Casey, while in London Bernard-Shaw does his best with socially-conscious dramas (a little wordy these days). And then uber-producer Binkie Beaumont helps the West End rise to supremacy, the opulent drawing room dramas of Priestley, Coward, Rattigan and Christie becoming box office gold: star names, bright lights and The Mouse Trap opening only to never close.
And then 1956. The Royal Court. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Terrence Rattigan said in 1977, the year of his death: “There I was in 1956, a reasonably successful playwright with Separate Tables just opened, and suddenly the whole Royal Court thing exploded, and Coward and Priestley and I were all dismissed, sacked by the critics.” Rattigan famously claimed that when writing he kept in mind the tastes of fictional Aunt Edna, a “respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady.” This patronising personification was swept aside by the spirit of the Angry Young Men: Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop gave us taboo subjects in A Taste of Honey and parodied British sentimentality in Oh What a Lovely War; actors like Albert Finney and Alan Bates brought a thrusting masculinity to the stage; Pinter’s The Caretaker made thrilling box office success out of menace, ambiguity and a tramp who wanted to get his papers from Sidcup. Didn’t cozy Priestley, Rattigan and Coward, with their unambitious opulence and stereotypical depictions of
the working class, now look like relics? And weren’t the Americans so much bolder – Tennessee Williams with his passion and violence; Arthur Miller with his barely contained social rage?
If Priestley did see the future, he might have known not to worry: the tables would turn once again. In recent years his works have been re-appreciated, not dismissed through the prism of class trends but admired for their elegant construction and solid characterisation. They may be set in drawing rooms, but Priestley’s plays look beyond the French windows. And the race is not to the swift: Look Back in Anger, so important in its day, now seems an oddly ungenerous piece of theatre, hectoring and one sided, full of voice but no echo. An Inspector Calls, surely the ultimate workhorse of British amateur dramatics (can there be a village hall which hasn’t hosted it?), seems born out of genuine feeling – for all its over-explicitness it never fails in performance, and can seem closer to what theatre “is” than far more sophisticated constructions. Neither is Time and the Conways a fanciful creation – Priestley believed sincerely that human beings were capable of sensing their own future, and that tragedy and hope could be experienced simultaneously to offset the inhumanities of life. He witnessed the horrors of the trenches first hand; horror always underwrites his writing.
It is not hard to make a case for Priestley’s relevance – not this year and, in a glance at the headlines, not this week. His public campaigns for social justice after the war helped usher in Attlee and Bevan’s new National Health Service; he was one of the founding members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. On discussions of Trident renewal or junior doctors’ pay, he would not have been silent. Through the ability of his work to ride out fashion and continue unabated and appreciated, his voice remains loud. This was the future that always awaited him. Perhaps he could see it.
Time and the Conways opens here at The Little between 22-27 February 2016.