At the time of its completion J.B. Priestley considered Johnson Over Jordan the finest and most ambitious work he had created for the theatre. Calling it his ‘adventure in theatre’ it was a massive departure from the naturalistic dramas that had made him famous as a playwright around the globe. Priestley applied his interest in the time theories of Dunne and Ouspensky, and Jung’s model of the unconscious by taking his central character, Robert Johnson, out of three-dimensional time and placing him in a four-dimensional, non-chronological universe. To do this Priestley also took Johnson out of this life altogether and the action of the play takes place as preparations are made for his own funeral. As these continue Johnson begins a very personal four-dimensional in-and-out-of-dream-time experience in his afterlife where he is given the opportunity to experience again certain moments and also face his worst fears and anxieties. At times frightening, lurid and emotional Johnson tries to discover who he is, who he was, and eventually attempts to rediscover his own best self.
The play explores universal human questions about the nature of happiness and success, ignorance and knowledge, family responsibility, love and loss, the oneness of humanity, death and corruption. Robert Johnson is an Everyman. His attempt to make sense of a life half lived and find his own true, best self leads us to consider the same for ourselves. At the end of the play when Johnson shivers and turns up the collar of his coat and walks towards that blue space and the shining constellations a part of us goes with him and we experience a sense of loss that comes only through understanding.
John Braine, a fellow Bradford author, summed up better than anyone else this understanding and what Priestley was trying to achieve in this neglected masterpiece of the theatre:
‘Some of the critics acclaimed it for what it was, recognized instantly its power and grandeur, its enormous range, its masterly use of techniques… they too became citizens of eternity, they gave themselves to the play… I saw the Bradford Civic production, and am always grateful that I did. It was a magnificent production… But now as I write, I look back and remember going out of the theatre into the Bradford streets, taken out of myself, a citizen of eternity, strangely exultant and free…’
Johnson Over Jordan is an extraordinary piece of creative writing whose original 1939 production made use of every aspect of the theatre: dance sequences and ballet; elaborate costumes and masks designed by Academy Award winner Elizabeth Haffenden; an original score by Benjamin Britten; innovative reflected lighting effects; and complex stage design. As well as offering us all this, the play also offers the possibility that we can all, with effort, discover or rediscover our true Selves and gain wholeness. It also impels us to enjoy the moments in life as they happen and because of this, Johnson Over Jordan is in the end, not a play about death and what comes next, it is a magnificent play about life.
Journal 15 of the J.B Priestley Society celebrates Johnson Over Jordan in its 75th anniversary year. Free to members, the Journal is also available to download via our download page.