January 8, 2019 | Theatre,
The Life and Times of J.B. Priestley
J.B. Priestley began his impressive writing career like so many other famed authors: writing after hours. A junior clerk for a wool firm by day and a writer by night, Priestley’s writing appeared in newspapers throughout London, but it wasn’t until after World War I Priestley’s works became an international influence, with his novels and plays touching on topics of politics, economics, and the human condition.
While his burgeoning writing career began in the early parts of the 20th century, Priestley’s writing became part of the global narrative following his book The Good Companions. Published in 1929, the novel focuses on a traveling variety show concocted by a Pierrott troupe between performing throughout England following the aftermath of World War 1. This picaresque novel follows the misadventures of the troupe members as they take on the trials and tribulations of entertainers of the road. Arguably one of Priestley’s most famous books, it was later adapted into two different films, three staged musicals — one starring Judi Dench, and even several radio plays, the most recent a 90 min adaptation on BBC in 2018. The Good Companions fell out of popularity in the mid 1950s due to the outdated trope of traveling theatre troupes, but was published again 2007, with a forward by Judi Dench herself, as part of a new edition.
In 1932, Priestley’s focus shifted from novelist to dramatist, diving into the theatrical world. His first play, Dangerous Corner, opened on the West End, traversing the mysterious past of the Caplan family and their guests. While the play initially received poor reviews, it became a worldwide success and was also adapted into a film in 1934. However, the film adaption was filmed shortly after the introduction of the Hays Code, a censorship law upheld in the United States. Because of the Hays Code, many elements of the original play were cut from the film adaptation, such as the homosexual relationship between two men, drug use, and themes of adultery.
During World War II, Priestley became a regular radio broadcaster for the BBC with The Postscript every Sunday. His broadcast ran from 1940-1941, amassing a peak audience of 16 million listeners — second to none other than Winston Churchill. You can listen to Priestley’s report on Dunkirk here and the BBC recently ran a story on their archives, covering Priestley’s broadcast, deeming him the “voice of Britain.” Despite the popularity, Priestley’s broadcast was cancelled due to circulating rumors that his ideologies were too left leaning and a threat to Churchill’s cabinet. In fact, Priestley’s political views landed him on the Orwell List, created by George Orwell in 1949 for the Information Research Department (IRD) which created counter Soviet propaganda. However, the Orwell List included individuals that Orwell felt were potential communists and therefore banned from contributing to the IRD. In addition, Priestley refused knighthood and peerage from the Queen, but did accept the Order of Merit as the Queen’s own gift with no political connections in 1977.
An Inspector Calls remains his most popular work, especially following the revival directed by Stephen Daldry. Though written in 1945, the play continues to entrance audiences and ask larger questions of morality and societal responsibility, a theme clear throughout many of Priestley’s books, plays, anthologies, and articles. While Priestley passed away in 1984, his work and contribution to popular culture and political zeitgeist remains integral to not only our interpretations of the 20th century, but also prompts us to question our current politics and human responsibilities. As Priestley says, “It is good fiction, so largely ignored now, that brings us so much closer to the real facts.”