PRIESTLEY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
It is now 30 years since J B Priestley, one of the undeniable giants of 20th century English letters, died and it is possible to claim, as some commentators do, that he is now a largely forgotten figure whose vast output is gathering dust on the shelves of libraries and in second-hand bookshops. Whereas his contemporary George Orwell is considered by some commentators still to be a major influential figure and the novels of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, two other contemporaries, remain in print. There is therefore a perception that Priestley’s books and plays, with a very few exceptions, are no longer viable as ‘front line’ publications. On stage, too, the names of, for example, Alan Aykbourn and Alan Bennett might seem to loom far larger than Priestley’s.
These charges can be roundly rejected by considering just what has happened in respect of Priestley’s works since the turn of the century.
In general it is his plays that have ensured Priestley’s reputation has been sustained since the turn of the century. This has manifested itself both in the theatre and in other media.
Many of Priestley’s 48 stage plays continue to be performed by professional and amateur companies throughout the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.
Here are a few examples taken from productions since 2000.
In London’s West End and South Bank, the mecca of the country’s theatre scene, there have been major revivals of Dangerous Corner, Time and the Conways and When We Are Married while other theatres around the capital have staged revivals of The Linden Tree, They Came to a City, Cornelius, Laburnum Grove, The Long Mirror and Summer Day’s Dream. Above all, the multi award-winning and critically-acclaimed Royal National Theatre’s production of An Inspector Calls, the most successful revival ever of a classic play, has continued until recently to play not only in the West End but in the provinces and abroad.
Major revivals of Priestley’s plays have taken place at regional theatres such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Salisbury Playhouse, Royal and Derngate Theatres, Northampton, Oldham Coliseum, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Palace Theatre, Watford, York Theatre Royal and Nottingham Playhouse.
The, again, critically-acclaimed productions of The Linden Tree by the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond and of Cornelius by the Finborough Theatre in south-west London have been instrumental in rescuing the plays from a long and undeserved neglect.
Priestley’s plays, particularly An Inspector Calls, When We Are Married, Time and the Conways and Dangerous Corner, have continued to be performed by amateur companies throughout the British Isles. But there have been productions of rarities like Dragon’s Mouth, and People at Sea as well as other neglected plays such as Eden End. 2013 saw the second highest number of amateur productions since The J B Priestley Society started to keep records.
Abroad it is heartening to record how often Priestley’s plays are performed in, for example, the United States, by both professional and amateur companies. In New York there have been well-received professional revivals of Time and the Conways, I Have Been Here Before, The Glass Cage and Cornelius (the last-named transferred from London’s Finborough Theatre). Elsewhere, that perennial favourite, When We Are Married, has enjoyed major professional revivals in Minneapolis and Denver and in 2014 is to be revived at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Dangerous Corner remains a world-wide attraction for theatre companies. In Europe productions of the plays have been mounted in countries as far apart as Spain and Finland.
There have also been professional and amateur stage productions of the three musical versions of
The Good Companions, notably that with a score by Andre Previn and Johnny Mercer.
Oberon Books have re-issued the following plays, in some cases in association with professional productions:
In single issues: Dangerous Corner, Eden End, Johnson Over Jordan, When We Are Married, Cornelius, Laburnum Grove, Summer Day’s Dream
In collections : Plays One: Laburnum Grove, When We Are Married, Mr Kettle and Mrs Moon
Plays Two: They Came to a City, Summer Day’s Dream, The Glass Cage
Plays Three: Music At Night, The Long Mirror, Ever Since Paradise
Plays Four: The Thirty-First of June, Jenny Villiers
Although, regrettably, the plays are no longer produced on television (reflecting a trend which has not only adversely affected Priestley but many other 20th century dramatists), some of the plays have been issued in other media :
DVD and CD
DVDs are available for An Inspector Calls (film version), Now Let Him Go (television version) The Other Window (co-written with Jacquetta Hawkes)(television version) in a Region 1 format, Dangerous Corner (television version) in a Region 2 format and They Came to a City (film version) in a worldwide format.
CDs are available for An Inspector Calls (radio version and student guide version), Time and the Conways (radio version) and When We Are Married (radio version).
For details of radio broadcasts of Priestley’s plays and other broadcasts see J B Priestley’s Radio and Television Diary by Alan Day (2011). Since this was published an adaptation of Angel Pavement has also been broadcast.
It is possible to access BBC television versions of An Inspector Calls and Time and the Conways and to download a radio version of Private Rooms.
NOVELS AND OTHER FICTION; NON-FICTION
At the turn of the century virtually none of Priestley’s novels were in print but since then the following titles have been, or are scheduled to be, re-issued :
By Great Northern Books: Angel Pavement, Bright Day, The Good Companions, Lost Empires
By Valancourt Books (USA) : Benighted, The Doomsday Men, The Magicians, Salt Is Leaving, Saturn Over The Water, The Shapes of Sleep, The Thirty-First of June.
Other Fiction and Non-Fiction
The following titles have been re-issued:
By Penguin : The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency
By Great Northern Books: Delight, English Journey, Priestley’s Wars
By Oberon Books: The Art of the Dramatist
By Valancourt Books (USA) : The Other Place (short stories), Benighted, The Magicians, Saturn Over the Water
DVD and CD
DVDs are available for The Good Companions (film versions 1933 (Region 1 format) and 1957 (Region 2 format), television version (1980) (Region 2 format)), Lost Empires (Region 2 format)
CDs are available for The Good Companions (audiobook and 1974 musical version)
In recent years the National Film Theatre has screened Level Seven (television play), When We Are Married (film version), They Came to a City (film version) and The Old Dark House (film based on the novel Benighted).
DVDs are available for Last Holiday (1950 version, screenplay), Sing As We Go (screenplay), Look Up And Laugh (screenplay), Jamaica Inn (additional dialogue), The Foreman Went to France (original story); and the documentaries We Live In Two Worlds and Britain At Bay.
J B Priestley’s Bradford (Gary Firth) (2006)
Priestley’s England – J B Priestley and English Culture (John Baxendale) (2007)
J B Priestley (Maggie B Gale) (2008)
The Vision of J B Priestley (Roger Fagge) (2012)
In recent years there have been a number of newspaper and journal articles about Priestley which have been positive in tone. In particular, Andrew Marr’s comparative appraisal of Orwell and Priestley in the London Library Magazine in autumn 2009 was a perceptive and well-balanced corrective to the current emphasis on the achievements of the former at the expense of the latter.
Michael Nelson, Information Officer, The J B Priestley Society