Priestley the Experimenter

The revival of J.B. Priestley’s play Cornelius at the Finborough in London has drawn fantastic reviews.  This one in particular from Michael Billington in the Guardian is interesting, because it draws attention to a quality of Priestley’s dramatic work which is rarely recognised.

Front cover of Cornelius play by J.B. PriestleyPriestley is often seen as nostalgic and cosy, creating well-crafted but outdated plays about Yorkshire in 1912.  Certainly his plays were incredibly well put together and, yes, he was always drawn to the world of his childhood.  However, as Billington observes, Priestley was also a “restless experimenter” when it came to drama.  He enjoyed the challenge of taking the artform in new directions.

Witness Johnson over Jordan, which traces the journey of a Yorkshire everyman through the Tibetan bardo limbo state, complete with a disturbing Expressionist interlude and a circle of time which restores Johnson’s lost childhood things.  The play ends with Johnson walking away from the stage – into what?

Or Dragon’s Mouth, a platform play in which Jung’s ideas take human form and argue about the meaning of life.  Or They came to a City: nine different characters find themselves outside the walls of a strange city – a kind of Utopia – which tests and transforms them …

Even his more seemingly conventional plays dissect comfortable hypocrisies (When We  Are Married) or explore mysteries of time and meaning (The Linden Tree).

There is a real revival of interest in Priestley’s less well known plays, as directors and actors explore his critiques of society and unfettered capitalism.  Special Collections has copies of them all, of course.  If you’re interested in seeing these works on stage, a great way to keep in touch with developments is to join the J.B. Priestley Society, whose members are enthusiastic about seeing and sharing information about Priestley’s plays.

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