Tag Archives: Plays

The Inspector’s Russian Journey

Seventy years ago, in September 1945, a great English play had its world premiere.  J.B. Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the USSR to see An Inspector Calls staged in Leningrad and Moscow.  Since its rapturous Russian reception, and a rather cooler (“almost hostile”) one in London the following year, the play has been seen, enjoyed, and studied by thousands worldwide.

Priestley, JB Russian journey

Front cover of Russian Journey, a pamphlet by J.B. Priestley

It uses the device of a mysterious inspector to explore how each member of a prosperous family contributed to the fate of a young girl who has killed herself.  Inspector combines Priestley’s fascination with the nature of time and reality with a powerful moral message.   While many aspects of the play are ambiguous and open to interpretation, its message could not be clearer – and remains highly relevant: “We don’t live alone.  We are members of one body.  We are responsible for each other.  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”.

So why the USSR?  No theatre was available in London, and Priestley’s work was popular in the country.  He was at the peak of his fame, so it would be something of a coup to host his new play.  Not to mention that Inspector would be seen favourably, as it can be interpreted as an expose of capitalism.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945

Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

Visiting Britain’s ally so soon after the end of the Second World War was an extraordinary experience for the Priestleys; fortunately both wrote about it.  They found a warm welcome and wonderful cultural life, but also extreme poverty, repression, and squalor.  This weekend’s Guardian Review featured a lively account of their Russian Journey, written by Valerie Grove and based on the vivid letters Jane wrote to her children.  You can find out more about the fascinating poster and photograph album featured in the article (and shown here) in our 100 Objects exhibition.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley's birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945

Priestley’s birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

If this has tantalised you, you can see two interpretations of Inspector in the next few months:

  • A new tour of the 1992 production by Stephen Daldry, which led to a great revival in the popularity of the play.  Touring from 5 September 2015.
  • A new BBC Drama, filmed in Saltaire and featuring David Thewlis as the Inspector, will be broadcast on Sunday 13 September 2015.  A DVD will be available from the 21 September.

If you don’t know the play, now is the time to catch up and see what all the fuss is about!

Credits: quotations from An Inspector Calls and Margin Released.

Unique chance to see! Johnson over Jordan, 12 October 2014

The J.B. Priestley Society and National Media Museum present Johnson over Jordan. 12 October 2014, Bradford.

In the experimental play Johnson over Jordan (1939), J.B. Priestley explored the meaning of life – and death.  Everyman Robert Johnson leads an ordinary family life, until he dies and is thrown into bewildering, terrifying, and, ultimately, moving afterlife experiences.  This event offers the first opportunity to see the TV adaptation of the play since its original “Thursday Theatre” broadcast on BBC2 in 1965.  The adaptation features a stellar cast, including Ralph Richardson, who created the part onstage, as Johnson.

A must-see for all Priestley fans and anyone with an interest in theatre, television or philosophy.  You can book tickets via the National Media Museum website.



New! J.B. Priestley Archive Catalogue April 2013

We’ve just put the latest edition of the catalogue of the J.B. Priestley Archive online.

YMCA "On active service" letterhead from one of J.B. Priestley's letters home.

YMCA “On active service” letterhead from one of J.B. Priestley’s letters home.

Lots of new things and improvements in response to readers’ needs, including:

  • Enhanced section on Priestley’s unpublished scripts for books, plays, television and film.  These  include collaborations with Fred Hoyle and Iris Murdoch.  Lots of detail on the physical nature of the scripts e.g. amendments by Priestley.
  • More letters, notably Priestley’s incredible Great War letters from the trenches.
  • Detailed cataloguing of files on Priestley’s art collection, indexing the artists he collected.
  • Programmes, press cuttings and other responses to Priestley 2008-2012.   Definite revival of interest, encompassing several less well known plays, and from scholarly, political and literary angles.
  • Some sections renumbered for ease of use (don’t worry if you’re using the old numbers, we can cross-refer between them).

More on all the above in future blog posts!

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.

“Words, Magnificent Words, Wonderful Words”: Priestley on Shakespeare

A new insight into the world of the 17th century and the stories behind Shakespeare’s plays:  Shakespeare in 100 Objects, created by the Collections Team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Find out more about nightcaps, chamber pots, solstice dishes and a monk’s head spoon, with expert commentary from many Shakespeare scholars.

These objects have the richness and humanity that J.B. Priestley found in Shakespeare’s works.  Again and again he returned to Shakespeare in his books, his essays, his journalism.  Priestley revelled in Shakespeare’s stunning use of language, his humour, his tolerance …  Shakespeare (in Priestley’s view of him) had all the qualities he most admired in literature and culture:

“In his desire to keep a balance, his wrestling with the opposites … despite his immensely rich nature (and rich is surely his favourite word) and many-sided genius, he comes close to generations of ordinary Western men of intelligence and goodwill” (Literature and Western Man, 1960, from which the title quote also comes).

Priestley is particularly interesting when he discusses Shakespeare as a fellow  dramatist.  The chapter on Elizabethan literature in Literature and Western Man discussed the practical realities of the stage of the day, ending with “But with so many plays to find, put into rehearsal, and then perform, the work, worry and strain must have been wearing; we should not be surprised that Shakespeare retired, probably worn out, before he was fifty”.  Priestley spoke from experience:  his memoir, Margin Released (1962), includes a vivid chapter on the difficulties and craziness of theatrical production.

There is much more to be said about Priestley and Shakespeare, a theme to which I hope to return.  It is rather fitting that JB’s home in later life was in “Shakespeare Country”: the beautifully-named Kissing Tree House in Warwickshire.

Yorkshiremen in Space!

This month sees the end of a three year project to catalogue and share the Papers of scientist Sir Fred Hoyle.  The Papers were donated to St John’s College, University of Cambridge, by Lady Barbara Hoyle in 2002, a year after Professor Hoyle’s death.  Professor Hoyle was a creative, unorthodox astronomer, who coined the term the “Big Bang”, though he favoured a steady state explanation of the universe.  His great discovery was the theory of nucleogenesis, explaining the creation of the elements inside stars.  Despite this important work, he (famously) never received the Nobel Prize his achievement deserved.  Fred Hoyle had many interests: he wrote music, science fiction and plays, and loved chess and mountain climbs.

A Yorkshire Quartet

A Yorkshire Quartet: JBP, Len Hutton, Henry Moore, Fred Hoyle (photograph by Jacquetta Hawkes)

And our connection?  Professor Hoyle was a Yorkshireman, born in Bingley.  And he knew another controversial Yorkshireman, J.B. Priestley.  The two co-wrote a play, The Astronauts, around their shared interest in time and the cosmos.  The Astronauts concerns the arrival of a spaceship containing humanoid (blue-ish) people from a civilisation now under Antarctic ice.  “Astro” and “Stella” have travelled for what seems to be a few years to them, but time dilation has brought them 150,000 years into the future.  An unfinished typescript of the play, corrected by Priestley, survives in the J.B. Priestley Archive (ref. 2/1/AST).  The folder also contains dialogue notes in what we believe to be Fred Hoyle’s handwriting.  The Astronauts was written for the stage, though I think it would have worked well on television.

You can find out more about Fred Hoyle’s life, works and interests on the  Hoyle Project website, especially the Fred Hoyle in 10 Objects exhibit, which sums up his life and ideas very effectively using 10 significant items from the Archive.

Priestley goes to the Parody Party

Parody Party

Parody Party

Here’s an interesting bit of Priestleiana I hadn’t seen before.  Parody Party (Hutchinson, 1936) is a collection of parodies of popular authors by other well-known authors, edited by Leonard Russell, and featuring illustrations by Nicolas “Clerihew” Bentley.

J.B. Priestley is one of the authors parodied, in a piece called “Eden Week-end: after you Mr J. B. Pr**stley” by A. G. MacDonell.

MacDonell was a satirical writer and journalist.  His most famous work was England, their England (1933), a Scotsman’s view of the English including a very funny cricket match.  MacDonell was himself parodied in the piece immediately following his Priestley one, in which an Inca prince endures English dinner parties and golf.

The Priestley parody is very affectionate and reveals that MacDonell knew J.B.’s works well.  It is dominated by The Good Companions and Angel Pavement, with elements from the time plays.  The parody tells the story of a weekend at Tunnicliffe Towers, home of the mill-owning Wainwright family, in the “woolly” valley of the Kilner.  At the climax, the Staffordshire-born butler, Mr Arnold, turns out to be from Yorkshire, to the delight of everyone else, and fulfils his dreams of acting fame.

MacDonell parodies J.B.’s theatrical interests and reflections on time and the meaning of life …

“Life, after all, is only a tragi-comedy, and who can blame Mr Arnold for longing so desperately to play his part among the puppets of grease-pot and cold-cream, as well as among the puppets of reality that we almost all are”.

His way of looking at commerce …

“The managing director of the firm lived in London, but he knew his job.  He might be a hard man, and a ruthless man, but he could tell a badly groined saucepan a score of yards away, and when he did it meant trouble on Humberside.”

And J.B.’s evocations of the richness of Yorkshire dialect, life and customs …

“Young James, the handsome first valet, whose grand-uncle had owned Susan Oglethorpe, the finest brindled bitch-whippet that ever coursed a hare across Sutcliffe Fell.  She was by Bolton Abbot out of Fishcake …”.

We don’t yet have a copy of this book in Special Collections.  I borrowed this one from a colleague!  We will certainly acquire one in the future.

“Now, Herbert Soppitt!”

“When We are Married” may be  J.B. Priestley’s funniest and best-loved play. Maureen Lipman, Michele Dotrice, Roy Hudd, and other well-known actors are part of the cast for a new revival at the Garrick Theatre.

The play is set in the world of Priestley’s childhood in the West Riding before the First World War, a world of solid comfort and eccentric, larger than life characters, of stifling respectability: “wool business and town councillors and chapel deacons”.  On their joint silver wedding anniversary, three married couples are shocked to learn that their marriages were not in fact legal …

The history of the play includes an intriguing appearance by Priestley in the original production.  He stood in as the drunken photographer Ormonroyd when the actor Frank Pettingell was injured.

Press coverage of the new production includes:

The Daily Telegraph. Dominic Cavendish interviews Maureen Lipman and Tom Priestley (JB’s son) and Review.

The Guardian. Review by Michael Billington.

Daily Mail. Review.

Observer. Review.


Priestley on the Radio

Details of a mini-season of BBC radio broadcasts about J.B. Priestley,  on Radio 4 and Radio 7.

Saturday 22 May 2010

BBC Radio 4. 8 pm. Archive on 4: Priestley’s Postscripts. Marking “the 70th anniversary of a broadcasting phenomenon – the story of how Yorkshireman J.B. Priestley became the voice of the nation during the darkest days of the Second World War. Using original broadcasts, information stored in BBC files and interviews with his son Tom Priestley and step son Nicolas Hawkes, Archive on Four revisits these extraordinary broadcasts and asks why, in spite of their astonishing popularity, Priestley was taken off air. Presented by Martin Wainwright”. Partly broadcast from our Reading Room!

BBC Radio 7. 2.30 am. Time and the Conways . 1994 broadcast of Priestley’s classic, moving, time play.

Sunday 23 May

BBC Radio 7. 1 pm. Repeat of Time and the Conways.

Monday 24 May

BBC Radio 7. 10 am. The Good Companions. (1/3). Priestley’s famous tale about a stranded concert party.

BBC Radio 7. 2 pm. An English Journey. (Lemn Sissay) (1/2). Poet retraces Priestley’s classic 1930s journey.

BBC Radio 7. 3 pm. Postscripts (Patrick Stewart) (1/5). The actor reads Priestley’s legendary scripts.

Tuesday 25 May

BBC Radio 7. 10 am. The Good Companions (2/3)

BBC Radio 7. 2 pm. An English Journey (2/2)

BBC Radio 7. 3 pm. Postscripts (2/5)

Wednesday 26 May

BBC Radio 7. 10 am. The Good Companions (3/3)

Thursday 27 May

BBC Radio 7. 3 pm. Postscripts (4/5)

Friday 28 May

BBC Radio 7. 3pm. Postscripts (5/5)

Saturday 29 May

BBC Radio 4. 2.30 pm. An Inspector Calls.  A new production of  Priestley’s great play

The season continues … more details once they appear on the BBC websites.

Radio and the Conways

A 1994 BBC radio broadcast of J.B. Priestley’s time play Time and the Conways is now available as a CD in the new Classic Radio Theatre series.   The cast includes Marcia Warren, Stella Gonet, Belinda Sinclair, Amanda Redman and Toby Stephens.  ISBN 9781408426951.  Available online via the BBC Shop and Amazon.