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, Act 5, Scene 3
Over the course of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, in two and something hours of stage time, the audience traverses from Sicily to the seacoast of Bohemia (i.e. nowhere) and back to Sicily, a journey that altogether spans a total of sixteen years. At one point Time itself addresses the audience. It is one of the most unusual structures in all of drama, a circular structure that, when done in the theatre, transports an audience across an unfathomable chasm of space and time.
Shakespeare seems to be aware of this, and in fact to call attention to it. The play begins with a description of Leontes and Antigonus, his Bohemian counterpart, shaking hands “as over a vast.” It ends with Leontes referring to the “wide gap of time.” This is what the theater and only the theater can do, Shakespeare hints. Not just hold the mirror up to nature, but bridge yawning divides and heal those broken, show us possible realities by positing imaginary ones.
Certain playwrights have always understood the power of this shadow tradition running alongside that of the traditional theater. It tends to surface, for some reason, during periods of social upheaval. In the period in between and just after the two world wars, Bertolt Brecht developed the theory of the so-called “epic theater,” with its strategy of freezing “dramatic” time and commenting on it from outside the action. In his 1948 treatise, the “Short Organum,” Brecht praises Einsteinian relativity and writes of a theatrical equivalent that shows the world and mankind to be changeable things, relative to one another, not fixed in time and space. Closer to home, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town is an American Gothic epic, using the theatre to lift the veil between life and death, with past, present, and future all coexisting on the stage. In Wilder’s theatre, the perspective is at once intimate and cosmic, mixing together the everyday with a non-linear conception of the universe.
J.B. Priestley is a member of this unlikely Greek organization. A beloved and popular mid-century British playwright, Pristley authored, on closer look, a series of plays traversing time. Beginning with his first play, 1932’s Dangerous Corner, and continuing with plays such as Time and the Conways (1937) and Johnson over Jordan (1939), Priestley’s “Time Plays” skitter across the vast, flipping it back and reversing it, glimpsing alternative futures or looking back at moments past, impossible to change now. For a playwright often categorized as a crafter of conventional drawing-room mysteries, Priestley leaves behind a surprisingly experimental legacy. He is the closet king of Eisensteinian relativity, the British counterpart of Brecht and Wilder, a renderer of mindbenders from between the wars.
The interwar period was a decisively traumatic one for Priestley’s Britain. After the imperial peak of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the war ushered in a period of prolonged economic recession. Britain progressively but decisively lost its status as the economic engine and political power of the world to its American cousin. The result was an era, Priestley writes, of a self-perpetuating elite enshrining an attitude of nostalgia for bygone hegemony, of a “plutocracy pretending to be an aristocracy” sticking their heads in the sand and denying the inevitable forward march of history. Instead of evoking little Britain, Priestley’s dramas instead mount a ferocious critique of such comfortable conservatism.
An Inspector Calls is set in the Edwardian spring of 1912. (Most likely the reference is an ironic, timely one: to the sinking of the Titanic in April of that year.) Priestley almost invariably used the period to evoke a sense of wholeness and innocence, shattered Humpty Dumpty-like by the times to come. Like countless others, Priestley was obsessed by “the Great War” and haunted by the prospect of a second one. He volunteered and fought in the trenches as a young man, an experience he would never forget. “I felt,” Priestley writes, “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.”
The central image of the play is a variation on the Chekhovian estate: a “large suburban house […] substantial and comfortable and old-fashioned but not cozy and homelike.” The Birlings, an upper middle-class industrialist family, are celebrating an engagement that doubles as a business merger when the curtain rises. As Birling says hopefully, it will bring in “lower costs and higher prices.” An impassioned advocate for what would come to be known as the welfare state, Priestley dramatizes its absence vividly here. The mindset of the play is one of economic selfishness and deep social division, class striations that immiserate and isolate.
The plot kicks in with the arrival of one “Inspector Goole” investigating the suicide of a young, pregnant, working-class girl formerly employed by the family. Over the course of the play, the phantasmal Goole, like Hamlet’s ghost, acts as a hinge between the past and the present. Showing a photograph to each of the Birlings, each confesses to a part in the girl’s death. But as the plot thickens with suspects, rather like Murder on the Orient Express, the play’s form nevertheless remains oddly expressionistic. We seem to be looking at the characters from an omniscient remove, gazing at them over the shoulder of the ghastly Goole, who at one point intones a speech that threatens to break the frame with eerie prophecy: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
We want to reach out and shake the characters awake, tell them to look out for one another and for their world, soon to be consumed in conflagrations, but it is too late. The ship is already sinking. In Priestley’s plays, the manipulation of time is not an attempt to contrive a tricksy solution to a linear narrative, to see what comes next. It is always, ultimately, about involving the audience in a process of social recognition, an attempt to understand what has already gone wrong.
After World War II, shortly after he wrote An Inspector Calls, Priestley warned darkly of the rising tide of fascism and against political complacency at home. “There was a time around 1940,” he writes, “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.” The real crimes, Priestley understood, are larger than any one person, even the Hitlers of the world. They involve us all, and they unfold in slow motion, over the course of many years. We can only see them through the wide gap of time.