An introduction to TIME AND THE CONWAYS
—by E. R. Wood
E. R. Wood's introduction to J. B. Priestley's play Time and the Conways (London: Heinemann, 1964).
John Boynton Priestley was born in Bradford in 1894, the son of a schoolmaster. On leaving school he went to work in the local wool trade, and at the age of sixteen he was already writing pieces for Bradford newspapers. He served in the army throughout the war of 1914-1918, and on demobilization in 1919 he was awarded a government grant which enabled him to go to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. At the university he supplemented his grant by writing, and after taking his degree he settled in London to make literature his profession.
He achieved a series of reputations in different spheres. At first he was a literary critic and essayist; among his early books were The English Comic Characters, The English Novel, and scholarly biographies of Peacock and Meredith. Next he began to write novels, and in 1929 everybody was reading and praising The Good Companions, which made him famous all over the world. Over the next thirty years this was followed by a score of successful novels. Then in 1932 he began a new career—as a dramatist. Dangerous Corner was the first of some twenty-five plays covering a wide range, from popular comedy such as When We Are Married to ambitiously experimental dramas like Johnson Over Jordan and Music at Night. In the 'thirties J. B. Priestley was deeply involved at the very heart of the theatre world; he became a theatre director, closely associated with the most prominent actors and directors; he even took over once, at twenty-four hours' notice, the leading part in When We Are Married. At this time he was determined to give the public something more than the conventional 'West End success'; to make them feel or think more deeply and more originally; and at the same time to hold his own financially in the theatre industry. He had some disappointments, but on the whole his plays were very popular.
During the last war he established a new reputation, this time as a broadcaster; by his Postscripts to the Sunday night news bulletins he did much to sustain the people's spirit with his forthright common sense and humanity, and the BBC's Overseas service made his personality well-known over the world. After the war he was chosen as a delegate to U.N.E.S.C.O.
He has written film scripts and television plays, books about his travels and books about peple, as well as many articles on public affairs. He is well-known in America. Among his most recent works are The Art of the Dramatist and Literature and Western Man, which recall the academic bent of his early years.
He is married to Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist and writer, with whom he has written Dragon's Mouth and Journey Down a Rainbow. They live near Stratford on Avon. J. B. Priestley's political sympathies have always been towards the Left, but his mind is too independent for party ties. He was one of the people who initiated the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but he has not been so actively engaged in the movement as has Jacquetta Hawkes.
His powerful personality adds vigour to everything he writers; he is never dull. In the preface to Delight, a collection of short essays on the things in life he enjoys, he says that he is often considered to be 'too blunt, brusque and downright difficult', but he protests, 'Actually I am amiable and rather shy.' His essays and more personal writings give the impression of a zest for life as it is, combined with a reformer's idea of what it might be and a philosopher's awareness of its mystery. All these qualities can be seen in Time and the Conways.
Time and Mr Priestley
J. B. Priestley has long been fascinated by the riddle of Time, and he has been much influenced by the theories of J. W. Dunne and others. As long ago as 1927 Dunne published a book called An Experiment with Time, which was followed by The Serial Universe. People have always told stories of seeing into the future in dreams or trances: Dunne systematically recorded dreams immediately on waking, and after studying his records he came to the conclusion that in dreaming we foretell future events about as often as we recall the past. There are obvious reasons why we are not all aware of this. First, the events of the past, present and future are so disguised and distorted in dreams as to be often difficult to recognize. Second, most of our dreams are immediately frogotten. According to Dunne, the uncanny sensation, familiar to many people, that something is happening or about to happen that has already happened once is due to dimly recalling a forgotten dream of the future at the moment when it comes true. Thus you may dream of a place that you have never seen, and when at some later date you visit that place for the first time in your waking life, you may say with certainty, but in bewilderment, 'I have been here before.'
An Experiment with Time begins with a large accumulation of evidence of apparent awareness of the future in dreams or peculiar waking states, and goes on to an enquiry into the Time factor in existence and a presentation of the theory of the Universe which Dunne calls Serialism. This part of the book is abstruse and not easy reading; for the appreciation of Time and the Conways it is unnecessary to understand the theory in detail. Here is a brief summary of it, written by J. B. Priestley, showing its appreciation to Time and the Conways:
On this theory of Time we are each of us a series of observers in a corresponding series of Times, and it is only as Observer One in Time One that we can be said to die, the subsequent observers being immortal. Mr Dunne had been led to work out this theory by his discovery, which I for one believe to be valid, that frequently in dreams the future is revealed to us. His explanation is that in dreams, when we are no longer functioning as Observer One, it is our Observer Two who catches a glimpse of events that await our Observer One in Time One. Thus in a dream, Observer Two often focuses together events that belong both to the past and to the future of Oberver One; and as this Observer Two has a four-dimensional outlook, quite different from that of Observer One, our dream experiences are startingly different from our waking life.
And now for Time and the Conways. Some simple souls have declared that this play is a lot of fuss about nothing and merely has the third act played where the second act ought to be and then the real second act put last. This is of course a ridiculous criticism. It should be noticed that Kay Conway is never off the stage throughout Act II, although she is frequently absent in Acts I and III. The reason is of course that Act II is really Kay's glimpse of the future, or, to put it in terms of Serialism, it is Kay's Observer Two who sees what will happen, years ahead, to her Observer One. Alone, quiet after much excitement, the girl has a vision of a scene in the future, and Act II is that vision. Then Act III takes up the story of the young Kay from Act I, but Kay herself, with her Observer Two still awake and half remembering, is now different from what she was in Act I; hence her appeal to Alan at the end of the play.
(Preface to Three Time Plays).
Time and the Conways
Even if Dunne's theory of Time is rejected, Time and the Conways remains an imaginative and moving play, which gains much by having 'the third act played where the second ought to be'. The events of Act III are full of poignant dramatic irony when we already know from Act II what is to happen to all the eagerness and gay promise of the Conway family. It appears here that Time is the great enemy that destroys the hope of the young. In Act I we are shown how exciting and inspiring a big family can be, so that Kay can say, 'I think life's wonderful.' Twenty years later Mrs Conway says:
I used to see myself at the age I am now, surrounded by you and your own children, so proud of you, so happy with you all, this house happier and gayer even than it was in the best of the old days. And now my life's gone by, and what's happened? You're a resentful, soured schoolmistress, middle-aged before your time. Hazel—the loveliest child there ever was—married to a vulgar little bully, and terrified of him. Kay here—gone away to lead her own life, and very bitter and secretive about it, as if she'd failed. Carol—the happiest and kindest of you all—dead before she's twenty. Robin—I know, y dear, I'm not blaming you know, but I must speak the truth for once—with a wife he can't love and no sort of position or comfort or anything. And Alan—the eldest, the boy his father adored, that he thought might do anything—what's he now? A miserable clerk with no prospects, no ambitions, no self-respect, a shabby little man that nobody would look at twice.
Of course, Mrs Conway is a bad judge of character, who ignores her own responsibility for much of what has happened, but this is a rough summing-up of what Time has brought to the family. Kay says to Alan:
Remember what we once were and what we thought we'd be. And now this. And it's all we have, Alan, it's us. Every step we've taken—every tick of the clock—making everything worse. If this is all life is, what's the use? Better to die, like Carol, before you find it out, before Time gets to work on you. I've felt it before, Alan, but never as I've done tonight. There's a great devil in the universe, and we call it Time.
It is a gloomy picture, but the play contains a message of comfort. According to Dunne's theory, the later, darker stages in the life of the Conway family do not cancel out or supersede the earlier, happier days; both times are different aspects of the essential Conway existence which was, is, and will be. Alan attempts to expound the view of Time which he has read in 'a book'—no doubt An Experiment with Time. He says that Time does not destroy; it 'merely moves on—in this life—from one peephole to the next'. For the benefit of those who do not accept or cannot follow this reassurance, the author also provides, through Alan, the message of Blake:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Safely through the world we go...
In Blake's lines this thought seems to acquire a serene wisdom that sets life's disappointments and Time's blows in a scheme of things that we can face with grave resignation. Dunne's theory can then be thought of as no more than an imaginative stimulus and an effective theatrical framework.
The rearrangement of the time-sequence reinforces our appreciation of the play on another plane—that of the development of character. The troubles that come upon the Conways are not all the product of Time and changing fortune: fate is also moulded by character. In most plays we are accustomed to the last act presenting the final stages of a character's development and to looking bac to recall earlier indications of what is to be. In Time and the Conways we form impressions of the characters in the pleasant atmosphere of Act I; then we suffer a harsh shock when in Act II we see them nearly twenty years later; finally we are able to see in Act III the seeds of future unhappiness being sown by people whom we had judged too superficially in the first act. In the light of what we know they will become, we now see their weaknesses. There is bitter irony in such ambitions as Hazel's: 'I shall marry a tall, a rather good-looking man . .. and he'll have plenty of money and be very fond of travel, and we'll go all over the world together but have a house in London . . . I couldn't possibly spend the rest of my life here. I'd die.' Similarly Robin's aspirations are the more revealing when we know what is to become of him: 'I'm going to do something. And none of this starting-at-the-bottom-of-the-ladder, pushing-a-pen-in-the-corner business either. This is a time when young men get a chance, and I'm going to take it.' The person who most obviously brings on herself in Act III the unhappiness of Act II is Mrs Conway. She makes an enemy of Ernest Beevers and ruthlessly shatters Madge's relationship with Gerald. For all her charm, her behaviour is unforgivable, and it is not forgiven.
J. B. Priestley succeeds in making us care what happens to the Conway family, whom we come to know and understand, with a mixture of liking and sympathy and disapproval. But the interest of the play extends beyond a particular family: what happens in the play to the Conways actually happened to a whole generation in the twenty years between the wars. The slump that followed the post-war boom hit some classes harder than others; but the collapse of material prosperity suffered by Mrs Conway was a fate common to many property-owners. After the optimism of 1919, disillusionment was universal. The spirit of 1919, with its promise of 'a free, prosperous, happy people, all enjoying equal opportunities, living at peace with the whole world', sounds like grim mockery after the years of slump and unemployment, with Hitler and Mussolini successfully defying the League of Nations, and the prospect of a new World War in everyone's mind. Of the Conways, only Alan, who never hoped for much, suggests a way to take the rough with the smooth.
Time and the Conways