J.B. Priestley’s best known play, An Inspector Calls, brought together all the strands of his writing to create a masterpiece: anger at social injustice, affection for the Bradford in which he grew up, fascination with time and dream-like events. The play was first shown in 1945 in the then Soviet Union, because no London theatre was available at the time. Apparently Priestley’s work was popular in the country; AIC can be read as an anti-capitalist polemic (though there is much more to it than that). Productions by the Kamerny Theatre and the Leningrad Theatre were shown in Moscow, followed by a European tour ending at the Old Vic in London.
Later that year Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the country, as guests of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries; he wrote about his experiences for the Sunday Express, reprinted in the pamphlet Russian Journey. Priestley found the people highly congenial and wrote sympathetically about a country that had recently been Britain’s wartime ally: he admired the attempt to seek equality and the value placed on culture. Later he was to realise more about the nature of the regime.
The J.B. Priestley Archive includes two intriguing items which illustrate the Russian journeys made by Priestley and his play.
Here is the original poster for the Moscow productions, another personal favourite in the Collections. The poster was created for a particular purpose, and hence shows what those who first encountered it made of a play that is now so familiar that it is hard to imagine it new. Unlike later productions which have tended to use the motif of the Inspector in their publicity, this design concentrates on Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, the lost girl at the heart of the story: she is elusive and fragile against the hard lines of the smoky city. Incidentally, the title on the poster is not a direct translation of An Inspector Calls. We think it means something like You won’t forget/will remember (her or me?) – any Russian speakers care to comment?
The other object is a souvenir photograph album. It shows the Priestleys arriving at the Moscow Aerodrome, the sights they visited, productions of AIC, Dangerous Corner and The Cherry Orchard, dinners and other events, and a meeting with a 147-year-old Armenian man (who certainly looks quite leathery!). Like this one from the Leningrad Theatre production, the photographs in the album are decaying, silvered; we have investigated conservation but all we can do is interleave them with archival tissue to slow down the process and digitise them so something survives. The decay gives the images a quality of age and mystery, as the figures loom out of the silvery shadows of the past.