Play Time: Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestley

Time and the Conways is the second of J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays—six plays (the first being Dangerous Corner) dealing with different theories of time, and how time is experienced. This play focuses on the Conways, a wealthy family living in a prosperous suburb of the fictitious manufacturing town Newlingham, and their declining fortunes between 1919 and 1937. The first act takes place during Kay Conway’s twenty-first birthday in 1919. Aside from Mrs. Conway, the Conways are all in their early twenties or younger, and have their whole lives ahead of them. The boys of the family have just returned from war. Mrs. Conway, the widowed mother of all of them, owns lots of valuable real estate in Newlingham. The future appears bright.

The second act jumps ahead twenty years to the present when the play was written—1937. Most of the Conways have scattered from Newlingham and fallen out of touch with one another, but they are reconvening (coincidentally on Kay’s fortieth birthday) to discuss Mrs. Conway’s finances, which have significantly deteriorated to the point of near bankruptcy. Everyone is disillusioned with their lives, where they ended up, and this point is driven home with Act III, which returns to that birthday party in 1919. We see the Conways interacting with the family friends that will end up being their spouses, and expressing their desires for the future—all of which, we know from the second act, will not come to pass.

Future

Priestley basically analyzed his play for me:

“KAY: But, Alan, we can’t be anything but what we are now.
“ALAN: No . . . it’s hard to explain . . . suddenly like this . . . there’s a book I’ll lend you—read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us—the real you, the real me.” (177)

The book that Alan, the oldest of the Conways, is going to lend Kay is almost certainly J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time. Priestley was continually interested in Dunne’s theory of time, exploring it in plays and essays throughout his career. An Experiment with Time posits exactly what Alan explains to Kay, with the additional claim that in dreams, our consciousness is able to experience the whole stretch of our existence, delivering precognitive visions of the future. Kay has this experience in Act III, apparently seeing some vision of Act II while Mrs. Conway is talking about how wonderful the future will be for the Conways. Of course, this is also the experience of the audience, throughout all of Act III. Having just come from the grim, shabby household of 1937, the jubilance of all the characters in 1919 rings false and discordant.

Present

The other part of Dunne’s theory—that even though we experience time “from one peephole to the next” as Alan puts it, time itself is a “whole landscape” (177) without vector—overlaps with the treatment of time in Top Girls and in Strange Interlude. Time and the Conways doesn’t mix up different moments in time as much as Top Girls does, but by splicing the scene in the present into the middle of the scene in 1919, Priestley is encouraging the audience to look at the events in this play as a landscape rather than a fixed sequence of events (as he presented time in Dangerous Corner.) The audience can see both the ruptures in this landscape, and the smooth, natural flows connecting different moments. Watching Act III, we can see how the over-confidence of the Conways, and Mrs. Conway’s unwillingness to sell any holdings until the economy improves in the post-war boom (which never came for Britain) flows into their demise in Act II. We also see the painful, ugly disjuncture of time with Carol, the youngest Conway who we know to be long dead in Act II, gushing about all her ambitions and desires, all the things she wants to accomplish with her life.

The overlap with Strange Interlude is in the conflict between peepholes and landscapes. Conways covers roughly the same period of time (even the same years) as Strange Interlude, and both distort the audience’s ability to experience this time. Where Strange Interlude portrays half-hour clippings throughout the lives of the characters, Time and the Conways portrays two moments at either end of the continuum. However, the way Priestley presents these two moments actually removes the audience from the experience of the characters, where O’Neill fixated on pressing the audience as close to the experience and thoughts of the characters as possible. The audience has a pretty firm grasp on the events of these twenty years after Act II of Priestley’s play, so going into Act III, seeing the foolishness and naiveté of the characters is frustrating and painful. The audience is squirming, while almost every character is celebrating in blissful ignorance. The only character that shares the experience of the audience is Kay, when she glimpses the future.

The reason for these different approaches may be—guess what—time. But not the time of the plays, the time of the real world. O’Neill finished Strange Interlude in 1923, so the beginning acts of the play were closer to his present than the final acts. Priestley wrote Time and the Conways in 1937, so the end of the play’s timeline was the present, and the beginning was as distant to him as 1937 was to O’Neill. So O’Neill’s characters exist in a world that doesn’t seem to change much from where the play begins just after World War I, but Priestley knew exactly how the world would change—or come full circle—between 1919 and 1937, because he was writing from the present into the past. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War was a year old, nations were undergoing massive rearmament, and Germany had reclaimed the Rhineland. For Priestley, who had lived through and served in the first World War, the feeling must’ve have been similar to Kay’s precognition—“Just as if—now and then—we could see round the corner—into the future.” (137) So while Strange Interlude gets at the psychological experience of this conflict between the immediate present and the whole stretch of history, Time and the Conways gets at the problems this causes. The feeling watching Act III is, if only we could warn the Conways, and tell them to make decisions that take into account past present and future, and not just their immediate impulses and desires. Again, Priestley analyzes this for me through the character of Alan: “I believe half our trouble now is because we think Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.” (177)

Past

It’s difficult to say if knowledge of the entire history of the 20th century negates Priestley’s presentation of this theory of time and the problems it causes, or if it actually makes the play the epitome of that theory, and those problems.

Certainly, playing the Conways of the present off the Conways of the past illustrates Dunne’s theory of time well. The audience can see how their short-sightedness, and their taking for granted their prosperity, precipitates their decline. Where the whole thing gets trickier is when the play applies this to history, through the character of Madge Conway. The frustration of dramatic irony, and the frustration many people must have felt in the late thirties, looking back at all the expectations and high hopes that came at the end of the Great War, comes through strong when Madge exclaims,

“We’re going to build up a new world now. This horrible War was probably necessary because it was a great bonfire on which we threw all the old nasty rubbish of the world. Civilisation can really begin—at last. People have learned their lesson— … You’ll see. No more piling up armaments. No more wars. No more hate and intolerance and violence … I believe that when we look back—in twenty years time—we’ll be staggered at the progress that’s been made.” (188)

Yeah, Priestley’s laying it on thick. Madge continues:

“Under the League, we’ll build up a new commonwealth of all the nations, so that they can live at peace for ever. And Imperialism will go. And so in the end, of course, will Capitalism. There’ll be no more booms and slumps and panics and strikes and lock-outs … There’ll be socialism at last, a free, prosperous, happy people, all enjoying equal opportunities, living at peace with the whole world.” (188)

Madge is dead wrong. But, depending on how you read this, so is Priestley. If we take this as a bitter mockery of people failing to learn from history, only snatching and grabbing and hurting each other because they are so caught up in the present moment, then can’t we say that Priestley, too, couldn’t look beyond the present moment? The playwright was correct to expect another war soon, though what struck me, as a person with knowledge of the future of Madge and of Priestley, was that almost all of Madge’s dreams were in some way accomplished after the end of the second World War. Britain finally experienced its post-war boom, as did most of the western world, a period without constant booms and busts. There was a wave of Socialist reform in Britain, including the creation of the NHS and the nationalization of the coal industry. Imperialism was dismantled. Where the League of Nations failed, the United Nations has stuck around for over seventy years. Perhaps twenty years wouldn’t be enough to stagger people at the progress made, but eighty would. So then, isn’t Priestley himself falling into the trap of focusing on immediate time rather than looking at the broad sweep of history?

If he did, he gave himself a bit of an out, in Alan. Although it’s easy to come out the end of the third act, the end of the play, with a feeling of hopelessness from all the ironic optimism, there is a moment of genuine optimism embedded in the end of the second act. Of all the Conways, Alan is the only one who doesn’t seem miserable. He’s as subdued and reserved in 1937 as he is in 1919. Priestley wasn’t bold enough to have Alan proclaim that the next war really would set things straight, but he at least nodded to his own inability to see what was coming:

“ALAN: I think it’s easier not to—if you take a long view.
“KAY: As if we’re—immortal beings?
“ALAN (smiling): Yes, and in for a tremendous adventure.” (177)

Conclusion

Launching off of this, there can be a meta reading of Time and the Conways. The non-meta reading: By reorganizing the chronology of this family, Priestley distances the audience from the characters. While the characters are trapped seeing just the immediate present, the audience can see the whole stretch of time, and they can spot all the pitfalls that these characters, and all of Europe, will fall into, snatching and grabbing and hurting each other.

The meta reading: In part, the play is Priestley meditating on the state of his world, and what is to come. Priestley is trapped in the gloomy interwar period, looking back at the failures of postwar promises, and he writes this play as he looks through the peephole. While he can see World War II around the corner, he can’t see the remaking of Europe that will come after, nor the final realization of socialist reform in the UK. The play itself is Act I and III, but eight decades later, we’ve seen Act II, and we know that those failed promises will eventually be fulfilled. Although Time and the Conways is predominantly grim from the second act on, and the case of this family seems hopeless, because we can see the whole landscape, we know that Alan was right when he said we’re “in for a tremendous adventure.”

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