Four Plays by J. B. Priestly

Time is an entity writers, thinkers and scientists have struggled with ever since… well, the beginning of time! (Sorry for the bad pun.) Well, not exactly, but the nature of time has been an indispensable part of creative literature ever since stories began to be told. In Indian mythology, time is cyclic, with past, present and future recurring ad infinitum whereas in the Occident “time’s arrow” – its apparently unidimensional movement in the forward direction – is an absolute concept with an “end of days” fast approaching. As science progressed, time’s apparent rigidity was first destroyed by Einstein by the theory of relativity: with the arrival of quantum theory, it became a very fluid concept. (According to Stephen Hawking, time is spherical, but wrap my head around that concept I need to go back and read his book once again.)

In the present collection of four plays by J. B. Priestly (<i>Time and the Conways and Other Plays), time takes centre stage in three: in three different ways. The title play, Time and the Conways, uses the possibilities of the stage to mishmash time: in the second one (I Have Been Here Before), the possibilities of static or cyclic time are explored in a narrative which borders on fantasy. In the last play, The Linden Tree, the effect of the passage of time on human beings and families is explored in a conventional manner, making it the most “ordinary” of the lot. An Inspector Calls, the most powerful play among the lot (in my opinion) does not play with time but with possibilities.

Time and the Conways

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Courtesy: World Stage Design

The Conways are prosperous family comprising the charming but shallow Mrs. Conway, her sons happy-go-lucky son Robin and quiet and perceptive Alan; daughters Hazel (pretty and rather silly), Madge (serious and political), Kay (creative and sensitive) and Carol(an exhilarating free spirit). We meet them at Kay’s twenty-first birthday party as the family are playing a game of dumb charades. It is 1919 and the first world-war is ending: Robin, who has been away in the army is due to arrive. There is also Joan Helford who is in love with Robin, Gerald Thornton who is a young man who is a friend of the the family and Ernest Beevers, Gerald’s friend, who is enamoured of Hazel who can’t stand his sight.

This could be any drawing room comedy of the fifties: pleasant and mediocre. But Priestly expertly wrong-foots us by breaking the scene in-between and taking nineteen years forward in time in the second act. It’s once again Kay’s birthday party, this time the fortieth, but the occasion is far from pleasant: the Conways have lost their wealth, relationships have formed and broken down, and most of the family (except Alan) have become disillusioned and embittered. The euphoria of the roaring twenties have given way to the despondency of the forties, and a second war is looming on the horizon.

This itself would have provided a stunningly good play: but the playwright tricks us yet again! In the third act, we go back to where we have left off in the first act – but now, each and every line becomes loaded as we see the shambles of the second act being foreshadowed: and we realise how little events leave long shadows on the path of time. But according to Alan, the trouble is due to how we view ourselves.

Alan: …You know, I believe half our trouble now is because we think that Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.

Kay: As if we were all in a panic on a sinking ship.

Alan: Yes, like that.

Kay: [smiling at him] But you don’t do these things – bless you!

Alan: I think it’s easier not to – if you take a long view.

Kay: As if we’re – immortal beings?

Alan: Yes, and in for a tremendous adventure.

I Have Been Here Before

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Courtesy: Theatremania

 

Literally, this is the feeling of deja vu: where you know that you have never been in a place or situation before, but still it all seems all too familiar. Reincarnation and cyclic time all have been used as explanations for this phenomenon which modern science sees as an anomaly of memory. In the hands of a gifted writer, it makes for the premise of an intriguing play.

The concept of seemingly insignificant events of the present which can have lasting impact on one’s life examined in the previous play is used here too, but with the question asked: if we knew what could happen, can we change it? Or in another sense, can we go back and change the past?

Doctor Gortler, a displaced German scientist, arrives at the Double Bull Inn run by Sam Shipley and his widowed daughter Sally Pratt in Grindle Moor, North Yorkshire. Apparently, he seems to know that the industrialist Ormund and his wife Janet are due to arrive there – and also about the drama to be played out between them and Oliver Farrant, a schoolmaster teaching at one of the Ormund schools. As the events play out in their inevitability, Dr. Gottler acts as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve them.

If one leaves aside the fantasy/ science fiction premise, this play is rather insipid to read. But one can easily appreciate the power it would have had on stage when it was staged in 1937.

Dr. Gortler: You say that you have been happy here?

Sam: Yes, I can’t grumble at all. I have never made much out o’ this place, but I’ve had all I want. I’d ask for naught better – If I had my time over again.

Dr. Gortler: [interested] Do you often say that?

Sam: Say what?

Dr. Gortler: [slowly] If you had your time over again.

An Inspector Calls

This play uses the advantages (and limitations) of the proscenium stage to the maximum extent possible: to produce a play which is a very good mystery (in the Agatha Christie tradition), a social statement (very much like Ibsen) and a final twist which takes it into the realm of fantasy. I read the play, then watched the BBC adaptation… you have to see it performed to appreciate the power packed into ninety minutes of stage-time.

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Courtesy: Little Baddow Drama Club

Warning: the following passage is a spoiler.  Read only if you are familiar with the play.

The Birlings (the industrialist Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, daughter Sheila and son Eric) are having a quiet little dinner at their home to celebrate Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Sir George and Lady Croft. Gerald is also present. For Arthur Birling, the occasion is doubly joyful, as Birling and Company are the less powerful competitors of Crofts Limited, and the marriage will mean a profitable business deal as well as a social coup d’état. It is the pre-World War I era, and Birling is acutely consciousness of his social backwardness-something he is trying hard to rectify through his financial and political clout. He has been rather successful as he hints to Gerald, because a knighthood is on the way.

Into this haven of bourgeois comfort and security walks in Inspector Goole, unannounced, and goes about destroying it piece by piece. He is apparently there to conduct an enquiry into the suicide of a girl, Eva Smith, who has been admitted into the infirmary after drinking disinfectant. According to the inspector, the Birlings have a hand in the girl’s death. Initially Birling is haughty and superior; being still “on the bench” and a friend of Chief Constable Colonel Roberts, he can afford to be short with a mere inspector. Goole, however, goes about his business ruthlessly and ultimately succeeds in grinding them down, one by one.

It comes out that the girl has been mistreated by all of them. Birling initially fired her from his factory for organising a strike; Sheila got her dismissed from her subsequent job at a dress shop out of pure jealousy and Gerald “kept” her for a year at a friend’s flat, after picking her up from a bar which she was frequenting in her desperation. This last revelation leads to Sheila breaking off her engagement, and Gerald goes out to be alone for a while. But the Birling’s evening of woe is far from over.

Inspector Goole establishes that a couple of weeks before, Eva Smith had approached Mrs. Birling in her capacity of the chairman of a charitable society. She was pregnant and in desperate need of assistance. Initially she had lied that she was a married woman and that her name was Birling (!); however, the truth soon came out that the baby was out of wedlock. Eva did not want to approach her lover because he was an immature boy who is an alcoholic and had stolen money to support her. Mrs. Birling, however, was adamant that the baby’s father must be made solely responsible, and succeeded to influence the society to turn her out without a penny.

However much the inspector bullies her, Mrs. Birling is adamant – now that the woman has committed suicide, her lover must be dealt with very severely. Then Goole drops his final bomb: the culprit is none other than Eric, her son, an accusation which the young man accepts. He also admits stealing money from his father’s firm.

The family is in a total shambles now: a son who has committed adultery and theft, a daughter whose engagement has ended the same day it started and a father in the hope of a knighthood, faced with public scandal and disgrace. Eric is almost ready to murder his mother, because as he says, she is “responsible for the death of her own grandchild”. It is at this point that the inspector begins to behave very peculiarly. After rubbing in the fact that they all have got blood on their hands, he makes this speech and leaves.

 


One Eva Smith has gone… but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. 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 do not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. We don’t live alone. Good night.

 

It is into the situation that Gerald comes back, and he comes with some welcome information – he has just confirmed that there is no Inspector Goole in the police department! With cold logic, he establishes that they have no reason to believe that the girl in each of the incidents mentioned by Goole is the same one – true, he produced a photograph, but it was shown to each of them individually. The hoax is confirmed when they call the infirmary and confirm that there has been no suicide that night.

It is time for a pat on the back for Gerald, a sigh of relief from Mrs. And Mr. Birling, and a jolly round of drinks. Sheila and Eric, though initially reluctant to return to “normalcy” are on the way to being persuaded when the phone rings.
It is from the infirmary. A girl has just died on the way there after drinking disinfectant, and a policeman is on the way to question them… and the curtain descends. (hide spoiler)]

The depth of the play is truly amazing. Only when we encounter the conversation again can we understand its depth, and how cleverly it is constructed. The story takes off smoothly from a drawing room farce to a darkly philosophical tragicomedy, which is sure to draw the viewers into the middle of it without them noticing: and to leave them drained at the end.

The Linden Tree

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Courtesy: Vanemuine

This is the most straightforward play among the lot, describing a situation similar to the one in Time and the Conways, but with a much nicer family, and relatively a more pleasant resolution.

Professor Robert Linden is a history professor at the university in the provincial town of Burmanley. The new vice-chancellor wants to retire him – the play opens on the day of his sixty-fifth birthday, the official retirement age – and the professor’s wife also agrees: she wants out! Linden’s wheeler-dealer son Rex has managed to buy a county estate, and she wants to move there to spend their declining years in peace. His daughters, the serious Dr. Jean and the social climber Marion (married to a French aristocrat), agree – only his youngest daughter, Dinah, is with the Professor who plans to fight tooth and nail to stick on.

Dr. Jean here is a rehash of Madge in the first play, and Dinah is Carol. Marion is a more aggressive Hazel and we can find shades of Robin in Rex. For this reason, reading the plays in succession, it felt repetitive to me – maybe it’s different on stage, however.

Again, time makes its entrance here in the form of history, on which Professor Linden has his own refreshingly different views.

‘History, to be worthy of the name, should bring us a stereoscopic view of man’s life. Without that extra dimension, strangely poignant as well as vivid, it is flat and because it is flat, it is false. There are two patterns, endlessly being superimposed on one another. The first pattern is that of man reproducing himself, finding food and shelter, tilling the land, building cities, crossing the seas. It is the picture we understand now with ease, perhaps too easily. For the other pattern is still there, waiting to be interpreted. It is the record of man as a spiritual creature, with a whole world of unknown continents and strange seas, gardens of Paradise and cities lit with hell-fire, within the depths of his own soul. History that ignores the god and the altar is as false as history that could forget the sword and the wheel…’

Thankfully, we have the artists and writers to record the second pattern.

When Vengeance Walks the Town – A Review of “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller

Recently, a group of students allegedly shouted anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and the political and religious conservatives in India went virtually mad. Soon, any criticism of India was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. The JNU, a leftist stronghold and a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu Right-Wing government at the centre, was termed a positive hotbed of crime and vice and a recruiting ground for terrorists. Many a Muslim, unless he wore his love of India on his sleeve for all to see, was branded a Pakistani agent – the refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) resulted in intimidation and even physical abuse in many places.

What is interesting about this phenomena is that it is not only an orchestrated move from the right-wingers: many Indians are genuinely frightened that Pakistanis are in our midst, bent on destroying the country with the support of the leftists. There is a paranoia that is being exploited by the political vultures.

I am frightened by how much this resembles McCarthyism – the madness that gripped America from 1950 to 56 and destroyed many lives and careers. Wikipedia says

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

It seems that human beings don’t learn anything from history, and therefore keep on repeating it.

But then, according to Arthur Miller, the Red Scare of the fifties was a repeat of a much darker event from the seventeenth century – the Salem Witch Trails. He wrote this play in 1953 to remind fellow citizens on how mass hysteria can engulf a society and demolish civilisation.

in 1692, a group of children in Salem were afflicted by diseases which showed classical symptoms of hysteria, but were soon diagnosed as demonic possession by the church authorities based partly on the children’s own confused utterings. Soon, people were being denounced left and right as witches and executed. Malicious people with revenge and other material interests (such as grabbing a condemned person’s property) seems to have contributed enthusiastically to the madness. As John Proctor, an accused, says in the play:

Is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God’s fingers? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem – vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

These words are chillingly applicable to both McCarthyism and the events I quoted at the beginning: common vengeance is writing the law. Anybody can be accused – proof is not required, accusation is proof enough. Any kind of fair dealing and neutrality would be seen as potential collaboration, so the safest thing is to side with the accusers. Verily, the term “witch hunt” has entered the English language with strong credentials.

A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud – God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!

We will. We, the conformists who let the madness continue to save our own islands of comfort in this burning sea of paranoid anger.

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From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

1.1 A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new

It is evident that Arthur Miller put a lot of thought into the naming of his play. He wanted to emphasise the heat and the fire, the hatred and the horror: at the same time, he also wanted to point out that after the melting process, a refined product would come out. Times of extreme tribulations in society are usually followed by a period of rejuvenation.

The playwright takes a lot of liberty with history to make his point. This is nothing new: Shakespeare regularly did this, it seems. So in the play, the historical 11-year-old Abigail Williams, the niece of the puritan minister Reverend Parris of Salem is transformed into an oversexed teen. She has seduced John Proctor in whose house she was working as a servant, and has apparently tried out some black magic to kill his wife. During such a magic session in the woods with Tituba and other kids, the Parris’s Caribbean servant, they are surprised by the minister. Betty, the minister’s young daughter, falls into a dead faint and cannot be cured by the doctor. Abigail immediately shouts witchcraft, and others join in; and soon the subterfuge becomes mass hysteria.

Miller has chosen John Proctor to be tragic hero of this play; haunted by guilt at his infidelity (even more so because his wife forgives it), he seeks punishment for himself, at least inside his soul. His torment is further compounded as his wife Elizabeth is denounced as a witch by Abigail. To make matters worse, there is the cunning Thomas Putnam, abetting the hysteria to settle scores against old opponents and grab their lands. As the roller-coaster of paranoia rolls on towards its destructive end, Proctor himself is sentenced to hang for witchcraft but Elizabeth ironically escapes as she is pregnant.

At the insistence of friends and a few sane people who want to stop the madness, John Proctor confesses at the last moment: however, he immediately sees the falsehood and cowardice in it and immediately withdraws it.

HALE: Man, you will hang! You cannot!

PROCTOR [his eyes full of tears]: I can. And there’s your first marvel, that I can. You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.

Yes indeed: the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right is ultimately the refined product that comes out of the crucible.

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The character who impressed me most in the story was Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to confess or refute when faced with charges of witchcraft. He was subjected to a horrendous form of torture called “pressing” (thankfully it occurs offstage in the play) where more and more rocks were piled on his chest in an effort to make him speak. Giles endured this for a whole two days before he died – his last words, reportedly, were “more weight”. There’s guts for you!