Thoughts & Musings

Truth and Consequences: J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner (1932)

©2015 by Eileen Warburton

It’s a smug little group that gathers for a dinner party in the England of the early 1930s. One envisions the “Home Counties,” those wealthy counties where inhabitants can enjoy the green peacefulness of a semi-rural life while living close enough for an easy rail commute to the City in London. They’re a “cozy” little network, kind of an extended family, working in the same connected business of publishing, officers in the same firm, with their ladies-who-lunch wives and a long-term employee. They’re representative of the fortunate in their society, affluent, rising, influential. Anyone looking on, like the novelist, Miss Mockridge, will see and even gently mock the smooth, benign, unexceptional surface the group projects. “Your charmed circle,” observes the writer, “What a snug little group you are. . . . In these days almost too good to be true.”

Yet, they’re missing a member, a brother, brother-in-law, and close friend who died violently, by suicide no less, only the year before. Violence? Suicide? What could possibly cause such a misfortune? Well, there’s the story that Jeremy stole money from the firm and shot himself out of guilt. The incident is completely out of character for him, but the explanation is convenient and everyone in the group subscribes to it. As Freda comments, “It was distressing for us at the time, but it’s all right now.” But, in spite of never appearing onstage, dead Jeremy will become the most important, most present character.

A casual discussion about ‘letting sleeping dogs lie,’ the careless admiration of a musical cigarette case, a trivial question, an ill-timed aside—all ordinary, all casual—and suddenly the buried body, the harshly truthful story, is being dug up. The idle, tinkling conversation speeds up and grows accusatory. Like a speeding automobile, the discussion turns a hazardous corner at a dangerous speed and the group races toward the wreck of all their lives.

Everyone in the group has been hiding one little lie, each deception like a single jagged piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the lies seem pretty innocent. But, as the partygoers begin to fit the pieces together, an ugly, damning picture emerges. The surface of fond illusion dissolves as characters are revealed, couples betray one another, reputations shatter, loving memories are irrevocably tarnished. The violence of Jeremy’s death is echoed, the “snug little group” is shown to be a hollow, treacherous society.

Dangerous Corner was the first staged play of J.B. Priestley, one of the great “Men of Letters” of the 20th century. ‘Man of Letters’ is a breed rapidly becoming extinct in the West, replaced, I suppose, by TV pundits. Once there were scholarly writers who acted as kind of public sages. Everyone knew them and listened to them and they were skilled communicators in a variety of media. They were extremely influential. Priestly emerged as one of these with the publication of his first novel in 1929 and occupied the post (literary and political) until his death in 1984.

Born in 1894 to a genteel but poor family (his father was a headmaster) in Yorkshire, England in the waning years of Victoria’s reign, John Boynton Priestley left school at 16 to work in a factory and write. He joined up at 20 at the very beginning of World War I, believing that it was “the war to end all wars.” As a soldier in the trenches in France, he witnessed his generation of young Englishmen blown to bits or gassed. He himself was wounded by mortar fire, gassed, and also buried alive when a trench collapsed on him. He wasn’t demobbed until 1919—a very different young man than the boy who enlisted. After studies at Cambridge, he became a well-known, exceedingly prolific writer, publishing 26 novels, 14 plays, and numerous works of literary criticism and political commentary.

He was also a journalist, broadcaster, and distinguished man of letters. He even wrote an opera libretto. Everything he wrote was shaped by his experiences in the Great War and reflects his conviction that the entire society was flawed with selfishness. He was bitterly critical of the class system, the British Army, and especially of the officers. He became an outspoken Socialist and friend to the Labour Party. During the Second World War, his BBC Radio broadcast (Postscript, 1940, 1941) drew audiences of 16 million listeners, second only to Winston Churchill’s broadcasts. He voiced opinions like the following from 1940:

We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently. One must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test.

Pressed by his cabinet, Churchill had Priestley’s broadcasts censored and cancelled for being too left-wing. However, these broadcasts are credited today with helping to keep up civic morale during the Battle of Britain and with helping to shape the doctrines of the Welfare State in post-war Britain. In his mid-60s, Priestley was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, along with some of the most distinguished public figures of the day: Bertrand Russell, Benjamin Britten, Michael Foot, Julian Huxley, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, E.M. Forster, Doris Lessing, and many other prominent scientists, artists, religious leaders, writers and academics.

One of the most startling characteristics of Priestley’s plays and novels is the way he uses Time in his plotting. Priestley, like many intellectuals of his era, was completely fascinated by metaphysical theories of Time that developed from the 1920s when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity gained public acceptance. The philosophers that influenced Priestley brought him to believe that our lives are a continuum and, while we can only perceive linearly (an illusion), we exist in all the moments of our life simultaneously. Therefore, our pasts, perceived presents, and futures are intimately interdependent. The consequences of our thoughts and deeds will exalt or deform our futures as well as those of the people we touch. Time is a dimension that flows and bends back on itself. Priestley’s plays often explore this idea and present characters who step out of their immediate moment to have an illuminating vision of something that will happen in the future, or has happened in the past, or are visited by someone from another time who bears knowledge that attentive characters transform into action. Dangerous Corner is Priestley’s first play and the first to introduce this idea that the clock can turn back, allowing the characters (and, symbolically, society at large) to avoid the catastrophe of cruelty and to re-live a critical few hours with a different attitude and a different outcome.

Eileen’s disclaimer: Some parts of this essay were adapted from a 2012 essay,
“Am I Not My Brother’s Keeper? J.B. Priestley’s
An Inspector Calls (1945)”
by Eileen Warburton.

The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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