(The following article by Benedict Nightingale appeared in the Times of London, 5/4/09.)
J. B. Priestley, a voice for our times
Once deeply unfashionable, the plays of the Yorkshire playwright have found new relevance in these straitened days
Ogden Nash wrote that “Mr J. B. Priestley is simply beastly”, no doubt reinforcing the dramatist’s belief that New York, where his plays regularly flopped, was inhabited by “the silliest people the world has ever seen, entirely without sense or roots”. And in the prePeter Cook era, the Cambridge Footlights staged a sketch showing J. B. Beastly watching a play in which a Chorlton plumber and his clippie wife say such things as “Aye, home’s best” and “All that glitters is not gold”, while he cried “author, author” from a box. For another southern snob, Virginia Woolf, the doughty Yorkshireman was “a tradesman writer”.
Priestley was the son of a Bradford teacher, left school in 1910 at 16, but, after enduring horrors galore in the First World War, got an MA from a Cambridge that he thought packed with shallow, spoilt men. They, Bloomsbury and America found him solemn and pontificating, which he could be. But they missed his importance. As a national tour of Stephen Daldry’s great production of An Inspector Calls is now showing, and Rupert Goold’s impending revival of Time and the Conways may confirm when it opens tomorrow, he was the playwright who kept serious drama alive during the frivolous 1930s and 1940s.
His foes also missed his sense of humour. Personally, he could be grim and depressed — some thought because he had been traumatised by a war that had “sliced my generation into sausage meat and held it above a swill bucket” — but also warm, funny and the jaunty womaniser who counted Peggy Ashcroft among his lovers. When We Are Married, now playing at the Everyman in Liverpool, is a terrific comedy: a genial, mischievous portrait of the respectable northern bigwigs who discover they were never properly wed.
Whether he was writing tragedies, comedies or a mix of both, Priestley was scathing about hypocrisy, pomposity, callousness, selfishness, cynicism, idleness and avarice. When the title character of An Inspector Calls accuses a rich, smug family of complicity in the suicide of a poor girl, his targets are as universal as those of a medieval morality play, even if they’re transposed to the northern town he variously called Brumley and Burnanley. But when he’s attacking what he saw as the neurotically obsessive greed of money-men interested only in making yet more money, as he did again and again, he seems topical too: which may be why he’s so firmly back on the theatrical map . . .