Tag Archives: Drama

79. I Have Been Here Before: J.W. Dunne, J.B. Priestley, Time and Dreams

This week’s Object is An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne (1927), which had an extraordinary influence on J.B. Priestley’s work.  Priestley reviewed Dunne’s book when it was published and later got to know him: “though we never became close friends we had some good talks”.

Front cover of Faber edition of Dunne Experiment with Time

A mathematician and aeronautical engineer, Dunne developed his time theory “to account for the startling precognitive element in his dreams”.  Priestley did not follow Dunne into the wilder reaches of his Serialism theory.  But he felt that Dunne had much to say about the mysteries of “Life, Death and Time”, especially the crucial question of dreams.

Dreams were always  important to Priestley (we have seen his interest in Jung):  “I am one of the dreamers. My dreaming self is just as important as my waking self.  I have had dreams that haunted me for days and days …”

Priestley often wrote about his own dreams in his essays and autobiographies: witness the Strange Outfitter in Apes and Angels (featuring horrible masks with movable mouths) or the Berkshire Beasts in Open House.  Not to forget the powerful dream vision of the Birds and the White Flame in Rain upon Godshill.  He sought out examples of powerful and predictive dreams from talking to others and even from a television appeal, on the BBC’s Monitor programme.

Front cover of Priestley Man and Time (Aldus)

So why did Dunne’s ideas interest Priestley?  Dunne proposed multiple selves and streams of time.  As I understand it, Observer 1, our everyday self, lives in Time 1: linear chronological time.  Observer 2 is another self operating in four dimensions (Time 2)  who can see Observer 1’s future and past.  Hence deja vu.  Above all, Observer 2 comes to the fore when Observer 1 is asleep, hence precognitive dreams which seem to bring the future into the present.  Observer 1 will die in Time 1, but Observer 2 is immortal and will continue to exist.  Observer 2 might therefore revisit and improve the life led by Observer 1 …

Priestley also explored the works of other writers reflecting on time, such as Ouspensky’s New Model of the Universe, which features multiple dimensions of which the final one is circular – people live their lives over and over again.  However, at certain points, they can choose a different path, turning the circle into a spiral, escaping the endless repetition and moving into a better or higher state.

Priestley exploited the dramatic or literary potential of these ideas to the full in the famous time plays and many other works.   They make for wonderful plot devices, but go beyond that in evoking deep mystery or emotion.

J.B. Priestley with cast of Russian production of An Inspector Calls, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

J.B. Priestley with cast of Russian production of An Inspector Calls, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30) (see Object 19)

Witness the end of An Inspector Calls: all seems to be back to normal after the shocking revelations elicited by the Inspector’s visit, but then the mysterious Inspector is at the door – again …

I Have Been Here Before brings together individuals in a Yorkshire pub – they have certainly been there before, but this time one of the characters makes an Ouspenskian choice, freeing them from the cycle of repeated lives.

In Time and the Conways, a happy family reunion in 1919 in the First Act is followed by the same characters, disillusioned, in Priestley’s present.  In the Third Act we are back to 1919, but it is made poignant by our foreknowledge of what lies ahead.

Johnson over Jordan uses the idea of the “bardo” state from Tibetan beliefs.  An Everyman character has to confront and review his life in a strange limbo immediately after his death.  The scene at the Inn at the End of the World uses the Time 2 idea to moving and comforting effect: Johnson “touchingly re-encounters those forgotten or unrecognised aspects of his existence that had warmed and illuminated it”: his childhood books, photographs, pictures, the characters he knew and admired, the people he has loved …

At the end, Johnson steps into the unknown that so intrigued Priestley:

“JOHNSON, wearing his bowler hat and carrying his bag, slowly turns and walks towards that blue space and the shining constellations, and the curtain comes down and the play is done”.

Front cover of Priestley Over the long high wall

Note on sources: Inn scene quotation from Paul Taylor in the Oberon edition of Johnson over Jordan.  Priestley quotations from Over the Long High Wall and Rain upon Godshill.  The other essential Priestley work on time and dreams is Man and Time, which discusses the Monitor postbag.  Series 17 of the J.B. Priestley Archive contains many of the letters sent to Priestley as a result of this appeal.

PS I put this Object out in this particular week because there are two exciting happenings around Priestley’s speculative fiction.  Find out more on the main Special Collections blog site.


19. Remember Eva Smith: The Inspector’s Russian Journey

JB at work in his Moscow hotel

JB at work in his Moscow hotel

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.