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I. The Wide Gap of Time

Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Performed in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissevered.

– Leontes, The Winter’s Tale, 5.3

In spring 2013, I was the dramaturg on Rebecca Taichman’s production of The Winter’s Tale. Since then, as I have followed the evolution of her work, I kept hearing Leontes’s voice at the end of Shakespeare’s mysterious romance. In two hours of stage time, Leontes and the audience traverse a span of sixteen years, and at one point Time itself addresses the audience. In Rebecca’s Tony Award-winning production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, and now with her remounting of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways (its first Broadway production since its debut in 1938), I continue to be struck by the deep continuities in her work.

The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale deal with Leontes’s jealousy, and then Act 4 unties those strands by jumping across the sea to Bohemia and ahead 16 years in the future. When the action moves back to the Sicilian court for Act 5, the strands of the tale ravel themselves back up again in a series of miraculous recognitions, climaxing in the famous “statue” scene. It is one of the most unusual structures in all of drama, a circular structure that, when done well, transports an audience across an unfathomable chasm of space and time. Shakespeare seems to be aware of this. The play begins with a description of Leontes and Antigonus, his Bohemian counterpart, shaking hands “as over a vast.” It ends with Leontes’s referring to that “wide gap of time” since first the characters were dissevered. This is what the theater and only the theater can do, Shakespeare seems to be saying. Not just hold the mirror up to nature, but bridge yawning divides and heal those broken, show us possible realities by positing imaginary ones.

I thought of this spiraling structure when Rebecca and Paula Vogel employed it for Indecent. Vogel’s play—which addresses the writing of Sholem Asch’s God of Carnage (1907) and its subsequent censorship for “indecency”—is structured around a recurrent “jump in time.” These theatrical “jumps” were always over the scene lying at the center of Asch’s play, and the reason for its censorship: a romantic love scene between two young women. In many ways, they made the historical erasure of God of Carnage felt all the more vividly through its absence. The action would periodically build up to the key scene, but the key scene was never shown. Like Shakespeare’s play, this one shakes hands as over a vast, following Asch from repressive Wilhelmine Germany to the equally censored world of McCarthyite America, and by implication the newly Trumpian theater of contemporary 21st-century America.

Indecent concludes with three endings, each jumping to new, imagined realities. The first, a mythopoeic version of the lost scene, shows the two young lovers running off the stage as the troupe of Jewish actors around them turns to dust. In a second, historical-materialist ending, the embittered Sholem Asch, decades in the future, closes the book on his play that had caused him so much anguish. The third and most radical jump is the only time we see Asch’s conception, that simple, radical act of two girls kissing, in full. In performance, the scene was played in real time and the original Yiddish, a sublime and perhaps untranslatable climax, looking back over the wide gap of time to the lost world of the Wilhelmine Yiddish theater separated from us by the political disasters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Like The Winter’s Tale, it is a kind of three-part, circular structure that seems inscrutable on the page but makes manifest emotional sense only in the theater.

In both productions, Rebecca found a way to stage the seemingly unstageable, taking advantage of theater’s unique ability to take the audience outside of real, linear time and transport it across and into metaphorical time. Breaking the physical unities of place and time, Shakespeare and Vogel demand a director solve these cruxes in performance, to transport us imaginatively and not literally. As a result, the dramaturgy itself changes, becoming less about linear causality and more about a chain of correspondences, resulting in an almost metaphysical awareness. Hidden thematic patterns emerge. The language of the theater becomes one more like poetry. [In the wake of Indecent’s success, Vogel carried on a sustained discourse on social media with disapproving, mostly male American theater critics who didn’t understand her and Taichman’s innovations, who took them to task for ignoring the linear, Aristotelian structure of a certain phallocentric tradition.]

Certain playwrights have always understood the power of this shadow-tradition running alongside that of the traditional theater. Walter Benjamin called it the “secret smugglers’ path” stretching all the way back to the medieval mystery plays. [The original thematic unity or “chain of correspondences” was the divinity of God’s word, unifying disparate gaps in time, place, and even Testament along theological lines. In the original medieval epics, events such as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt typologically forecast Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, just as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden predicts the Satanic tempting of Christ and the ultimate final battle of the Last Judgment. The events shake hands as over a vast, and bridge wide gaps in time.]

In Priestley’s time, Bertolt Brecht termed it the “epic theater,” and a play exactly contemporary with Time and the Conways, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) is an epic of the American Gothic, its perspective at once intimate and cosmic. In the 1920s, Luigi Pirandello wrote plays that opened metatheatrical doorways onto eternity. Today, the heirs to this tradition include Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl. Both, not coincidentally, are frequent collaborators with Rebecca Taichman.

II. Time and the Conways: Pussyfooting with Time

J.B. Priestley is up to something similar in Time and the Conways. When we first meet the Conways, in Act 1, it is 1919. The large and seemingly happy family is throwing a 21st-birthday party for Kay, seeking a return to their previous lifestyle. From the very beginning, then, the play is concerned with a lost world: prewar Edwardian England. Not coincidentally, the Conways are playing their childhood favorite, charades. The Conways have not played charades since before the War, back when their father, a wealthy industrialist, was still alive. The keyword of the game—each of its syllables acted out, and then guessed all together by the party guests—is also significant: “Pussyfoot.”

Part of the point of charades, according to Mrs. Conway, is to look “silly,” a goal which often results in her putting on an exotic and faraway accent (“some Spanish or Russian something”), and to the children in exaggerated lower-class milieus (we catch a glimpse of Kay’s “East End Scene” complete with cockney accents). The Conways, a family constantly performing for each other, always pitch their performance either upward or downward on the class ladder, suggesting a certain ambivalence about their own upper middle-class identity. At the end of Act 3, Mrs. Conway predicts triumphantly that one of her children will come into a title. [Charades, a game itself handed down to the middle classes by the aristocracy, was also memorably depicted in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), as the central episode in Becky Sharpe’s social climb and subsequent downfall.] Over the course of the play, the Conways are forced to drop the charade and silly accents and speak the truth to one another. The results are ugly.

Act 2 suddenly transports the action—via a jump in time—ahead to 1937, the year Priestley was writing the play. This 1937 world is a ghostly mirror of Act 1’s 1919, characterized by coldness and stasis instead of warmth and dynamism, and bereft of nostalgic fun and games. The tinkling piano playing Brahms and Schubert has been replaced by the crackling static of a lonely radio set. Instead of greeting visitors to their grand country house, the Conways all now live apart in suburbs and cities, taking trains and ring roads to see each other. Instead of Kay’s birthday party (though it is her fortieth), they are gathered for a grim update on the family’s financial affairs. Cracks already apparent in Act 1—between family members, in the family’s finances, in the fabric of the globe itself—have turned into enormous fissures, only visible via the long view provided by the theater. “That was just after the last war, and this is just before the next war,” says Ernest Beevers, the play’s clear-sighted rationalist and ruthless capitalist. Priestley’s ominous portrait of working-class resentment, Beevers is the only one who sees things as they are, both when he nervously meets the Conways in 1919 when he regards them with familiar contempt in 1937. Every other character has been pussyfooting around the truth.

In his non-fiction masterpiece, An English Journey (1934), Priestley writes of the “unreal world of masquerades and disguises” of English society during the interwar period. In this era of prolonged economic recession, Britain decisively lost its status as economic and political world power while paradoxically embracing nostalgia for empire and the good old days. It was an era, Priestley writes, in which a self-perpetuating elite, “a plutocracy pretending to be an aristocracy,” could only “debar themselves from behaving like grown-ups.” Often read as nostalgic evocations of little Britain, Priestley’s dramas are in fact a ferocious critique of that mindset’s comfortable conservatism.

Like Shakespeare, Priestley ravels the tale back up again by returning to where he began it. But Priestley’s Act 3 is a jump back in time instead of another leap forward, granting his audience a godlike omniscience over the characters, who suddenly seem small and powerless, like figures in a diorama or puppets in the marionette theater. Like the beginning of the play, Act 3 is structured around childish masquerades and silly games. Instead of charades, the Conways are playing hide-and-seek, literally veiling themselves from each other and themselves, stumbling around in the dark and confusion. Mrs. Conway ends the play by reading tarot cards, which offer the satisfying but ultimately fruitless illusion of peering into the future. We want to jolt the Conways awake, shake them out of their party games, force them to take a longer view of time and of themselves, but we are equally powerless, and can only watch as the same tragic story repeats itself.

In Letter to a Serviceman, written after World War II, Priestley wrote: “There was a time around 1940 when we were able to convince a lot of people that only a diseased and rotten society could have thrown up a Hitler, but since then there has been a huge campaign telling us day and night that it was Hitler who somehow produced any disease and rottenness there may be in our society. Tory gentlemen who have clearly not learned anything, and now never will, confidently offer themselves as our guardians again, assuming that because they choose to forget the sickening muddle, darkening into tragedy, of the 20s and 30s, we shall have forgotten too.”

The persistent motif of seeing into the future in Priestley’s “Time Plays” is not an attempt to predict what is going to happen. It is always, ultimately, an attempt to change what has already gone wrong, to use the theater to see the present moment more clearly. Like many writers of his generation, Priestley was obsessed by “the Great War” and haunted by the prospect of a second World War. He had volunteered and fought in the trenches as a young man, a traumatic experience from which he would never recover. In Margin Releases, a collection of essays, Priestley writes, “I felt, as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation’s fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but mainly by huge, murderous, public folly.” In his novels and plays, such as the revealingly titled Eden End (1934), Priestley returned obsessively to the Edwardian era, a period that represented a wholeness irrevocably shattered by the war. The fact that Time and the Conways is set in 1919 suggests that it is already too late. The cracks had already started, the great abyss had already opened up.

The most challenging aspect of Time and the Conways for a contemporary audience is its density and range of topical reference specific to interwar Britain, one bound together by Priestley’s idiosyncratic political platform of democratic socialism. The play’s veritable first words are of Lloyd George, reformist Prime Minister and something of a forgotten figure today, despite the fact that he was one of the most influential British politicians of the 20th century, thanks to his introduction of the elements of the modern welfare state. The 1919 world is similarly littered with apparently random references to railway strikes, nationalization of industry, and postwar financial policy. Toward the end of Act 3, these references cohere in an emotional climax as the idealistic Madge makes an impassioned case for socialist government and sings Sir Hubert Harry’s setting of Blake’s “Jerusalem.” [The song itself is now embraced in England as a modern-day national hymn, owing to its growing fame after the centenary of Blake’s death in 1927 and really starting with its use in the 1950s Proms concerts after World War II. At the time of Priestley’s play, however (seemingly the first to use it as a symbol of England), it had been associated with the liberal antiwar movement. Parry was an atheist and its first performance in 1919 was at a concert for women’s suffrage.]

Still, Priestley may be too indirect by assuming his audience will remember or know that Lloyd George was forced out of office in 1923, and also that they will connect the dots on the fragmented state of interwar labour. He never dramatizes his political program explicitly within the diegetic frame of the action.

This political strata is nevertheless central to understanding Priestley’s conception of Time and the Conways. An impassioned advocate for the welfare state, Priestley dramatizes its absence vividly in the 1937 world of Act 2, binding all of the characters together into a moral vision of the diseased body politic. In Priestley’s analysis, the cataclysmic war begat a short-lived economic boom and then the inevitable recession, bringing with it untold misery for the Conways and countless others.

Priestley is especially prescient in his depiction of changing roles for women. In Act 2, one of the Conways is now a single mother, too poor to afford healthcare for her children and unable or unwilling to obtain a divorce. Until 1937, married women were unable to get a divorce for any reason other than adultery. After 1937, the list of reasons was expanded to drunkenness, “cruelty,” and desertion. Another of the female Conways is brutalized by her husband and seems to harbor thoughts of suicide. The two sisters with successful careers—schoolteacher Madge and journalist Kay—have done so at the cost of marriage and a family, as well as larger personal fulfillment. Ideals such as writing the next great novel or building up a new world have taken the back seat to doing “useful” work in a world of services rendered professionally and impersonally.

Rather than a “classless society,” the dreamt-of New Jerusalem, the 1937 world of Time and the Conways is one that grows more divided by the day. This was a common refrain in Priestley’s writings. English Journey ends with Priestley in the back of a car, crawling home to London in the post-war England reshaped by the automobile. A “new England” had been created, but it is one of “arterial and bypass roads,” of “giant cinemas and dancehalls,” of “factory girls looking like actresses […] and everything given away for cigarette coupons.” The central image of this loss of rootedness and community in the play is of course the Conways’ grand country house, that resonant symbol of the country’s collective unconscious. It is to be sold off or turned into flats, in a progression suggestive of the transition from the private capitalism of locally based family firms to a corporatized society of larger companies owned by shareholders and run by managers.

Rupert Goold, for his 2009 revival, called this play “The English Cherry Orchard,” and its symbolic sweep does indeed suggest Chekhov’s masterpiece. More importantly, however, its narrative strategy is curiously indirect in a matter befitting the great Russian. Like Chekhov (another playwright obsessed by time), Priestley gently declines to dramatize the turning-points in his characters’ lives. Instead, he jumps over them, giving us the push-and-pull between quotidian business and actionless lulls in which deep pathos from the past or intense anxiety about the future come bubbling up, seemingly out of nowhere. The entire dramaturgical grammar changes, as if he is writing about things just below the surface, so often unspoken in plays like this. In doing so, he prompts us to think about the countless items that add up to the totality of our own lives, what makes them happy or frustrated, successes or failures. While Priestley populated the stage with lots of comings and goings, the play does not have the energy of farce, nor the staid quality of the well-made, drawing-room play, a tag with which his plays are often saddled. Instead, the play is set in the back room of the Conways’ house, the room where unwanted things are dumped, much like the Conways themselves.

Priestley also shows, in startling moments, a capacity for expanding the vocabulary of the theater. He ends the play a true visual stylist, with contrasting pools of warmth and moonlight, comparing and contrasting the Conways as ghost figures and angelic lit-up faces. And there is the fascinating manner in which he subtly transforms the figure of Carol, who begins the play as an ordinary young woman, becomes a ghost presence in Act 2 (literally staged, in Rebecca’s production), and ends the play a creature of almost pure symbolism, a life-spirit. One thinks of The Winter’s Tale and Hermione, a character who undergoes a similar progression from human wife to ghostly vision to a statue, an artwork, all through the uniquely immediate and ephemeral properties of the theater.

On the surface a conservative writer, Priestley is in fact a radical one his experiments with form setting a template for later English “Time Plays” such as Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 (1979), Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993), and Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges (1982). All three plays are inconceivable without Priestley’s example. Cloud 9 and Arcadia use the “jump in time” motif to span centuries—1879 and 1929 in Churchill’s play and the early 19th century and late 20th in Stoppard—whereas Ayckbourn’s play uses the time-jumping dramaturgy to pick up on the quintessentially Priestleyan theme of momentous yet seemingly inconsequential moments in life that pass by teh characters unnoticed.

The form in Time and the Conways is also curiously theatrical, with Priestley drawing our attention to the unique properties inherent in the theater. “Only an idiot would consider me a naturalistic dramatist,” Priestley wrote in 1946. “I was a wild one only pretending to be a tame one.” His plays, yes, are about socialism and England and country houses but also always, fundamentally, about the theater itself, which can switch effortlessly between linear and metaphorical time, offering striking vantage-points on past, present, and future.

In Rebecca Taichman’s recent Broadway production, at the American Airlines Theater, Priestley’s heightened visual language manifested in shocking and cathartic breaks of the illusionistic frame, with the figure of Kay stepping out of the picture-frame set and into the void-space of the theater. This happened three times, at the end of each Act, at the precise moments in Priestley’s text when Kay seemed to become aware of Time not as a fixed, linear thing but as something malleable and relative. In those moments, the plot of the play momentarily ceased its forward motion, allowing for a higher, metaphysical consciousness to fill the frame of the stage. In performance, by drawing attention to the artificiality of the playworld itself, Taichman masterfully transformed Priestley’s metaphysical theory of time into a metatheatrical recognition of the limits of the artistic illusion itself. Kay’s vision of a world outside linear time could only be gestured at, not fully staged. It existed in the sublime realm of the unstageable, the anti-theatrical, beyond rational comprehension or illustration.

The subject of Priestley’s play turns out not to be the Conways at all. The true subject and action of the play is time’s relativity. “All I suggest in this play,” Priestley wrote in 1937, “is that the single and universal Time that is imagined to be hastening everything to decay and dissolution is an illusion; that our real selves are the whole stretches of our lives.” Like Shakespeare and Paula Vogel, Priestley creates a chain of correspondences uniting the action across time and space. The play is tragic if seen in its immediate, linear context. However, through Priestley’s expansion of the theater’s expressive capabilities—his synthesis of its capabilities for realism and imaginative fantasy—the nature of recognition is changed from personal to cosmic, from a tragic to a philosophical understanding of our whole selves, stretched along the wide gap of time from when we first were dissevered. At the end of Act 2, Alan speaks of “another time, which is only another kind of dream,” one where we can perceive the manifold shortcomings of our present moment and also our latent potential for goodness. There is a name for this dream. It is the theater.