Play Time: I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley

I Have Been Here Before is the third of J.B. Prietsley’s time plays, written the same year as Time and the Conways. The play explores P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, that everyone lives their life over and over again, and déjà vu and precognitive dreams are the result of remembering past lives. Unlike Time and the Conways or Dangerous Corner, Priestley doesn’t develop this idea through any formalistic techniques. The acts occur in chronological order, and it all takes place in the same timeline. The fact that it’s a work of theatre is in itself a formalistic technique, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but otherwise Priestley’s pretty straightforward, and presents the theory in a science fictional style.

The story unfolds over the weekend before Whitsuntide, a week-long holiday celebrated after Pentecost in parts of England. Three interconnected groups meet in the Black Bull Inn: Sam and Sally, father and daughter and the managers of the inn. Mr. Farrant, a teacher at the boarding school which Sally’s son attends. And Mr. and Mrs. Ormund, Mr. Ormund being one of the governors and funders of Mr. Farrant’s boarding school. Ouspensky’s theory comes in with Dr. Görtler, an exiled German scientist who seems to know exactly what everyone is going to do before they do it. The major conflict of the play, which ends up affecting everyone because of how entangled their lives are, is an affair between Janet Ormund and Mr. Farrant. Dr. Görtler attempts to defuse the situation by explaining a dream he had, in which he met Janet at a later time in her life, and learned that she and Mr. Farrant had run off together, causing Mr. Ormund to commit suicide, and the boarding school to collapse. This play seems the most hopeful of the three time plays I’ve so far read, because Dr. Görtler explains that everyone actually is capable of making small changes in their lives—their existence is not circular, they “move along a spiral track … [They] must set out each time on the same road but along that road [they] have a choice of adventures.” (264) Görtler convinces Ormund to let his wife divorce him and start a life with Farrant, and to not kill himself, and so, Ormund escapes the memories of self-destruction in past lives which have always haunted him.

As I said, while there’s no time jumping or out-of-order chronology in the play, the fact that it is a play is in itself a formal choice. Theatre, as a medium, fundamentally lends itself to fatalistic themes. While most forms of story-telling have the quality that no matter how many times you read/hear/see the story, the characters will always make the same choices, and things will always turn out the same, theatre is the medium that emphasizes this most. As audience members, we are seeing actual live human beings on stage, experiencing the same present moment as us, who are (hopefully) highly skilled at creating the illusion that everything they do is natural and internally motivated, though in truth everything they do is being dictated by a script. This is part of the power of Greek tragedies, in ancient Greece and today—because they adapt myths that everyone is familiar with, the audience knows exactly what will happen before the show even starts. The tension comes from the illusion that maybe, this time, Creon will be convinced to spare Antigone, perhaps Medea will not murder her children—but, of course, there fates are sealed—both by the gods and by the stage.

Priestley takes advantage of this in Time and the Conways, by showing the audience what’s going to happen twenty years later in the second act, and in I Have Been Here Before he gives us glimpses of the future through Dr. Görtler, who hints early on that Ormund is going to shoot himself in the garage. Dr. Görtler also brings up the connection between fate and theatre explicitly a few times, first describing the feeling of déjà vu as “the vague sounds of the city outside that we hear sometimes inside a theatre,” (220) and later describing life as “the long drama of the soul. To suffer like that, then to die young, that is not easy nor pleasant, but it is a rôle, a part” (230). So from the beginning, it seems like a foregone conclusion that something bad will happen, and is bound to happen by the weight of these people’s past lives. The medium of theatre reinforces this idea, with the characters reliving the same life with each showing. Priestley even introduces a gun in the first act, which theater-goers will naturally expect to follow the principle of Chekov’s Gun by going off in the third act. Reading it, I really expected it to have a downer ending, similar to Time and the Conways.

However, In the third act, the metaphor of theatre as fatalism is flipped on its ear. Janet’s affair with Farrant has been revealed, and Görtler is trying to talk Mr. Ormund down off the ledge. Mr. Ormund cries, “New life! I wish I could believe that. … Why should this poor improvisation be our whole existence? Why should this great theatre of suns and moons and starlight have been created for the first pitiful charade we can contrive?” (264) To translate—I wish I could believe you, Görtler. I’ve never liked the idea that this whole universe was created for us to live in, with just one chance at a life. Dr. Görtler responds, “It was not. We must play our parts until the drama is perfect.” (264) In this moment, Priestley reframes theatre in relation to free will. Rather than being a limiting trap, the repetitions of hundreds of rehearsals and performances are a way to improve the play. Each rehearsal is additive, “not quite the same journey … each time.” (264) The reiterative nature of theatre is in fact preferable to a single, one-off improvisation.

Although an audience probably wouldn’t know this, the idea gains additional weight with the knowledge that I Have Been Here Before was a play that, “unlike most of the others, [Priestley] rewrote several times,” (ix) as he admits in the introduction to the play. It’s total speculation, but wouldn’t it be interesting if, in a previous draft of the play, Ormund actually did kill himself?

In all, I Have Been Here Before has more in common with We Are Proud to Present or Dangerous Corner in the way it is engaging with theatre and the audience than it does with Time and the Conways—although, in terms of content, Time and the Conways and I Have Been Here Before are more similar, both dealing with precognition and attempts to avoid a set future. It’s not literal about it like We Are Proud to Present, but the play does portray Ouspensky’s theory as what Drury might call “Processtation”—performance and rehearsal happening at once, making small changes and improvements with each rendition. The play also further explores the concept of multiple realities that Priestly touched on in Dangerous Corner, though they occur in an ordered sequence in I Have Been Here Before, where Dangerous Corner leaves it up to the audience to determine if the multiple realities are simultaneous, or if one is more real than another.

 Conclusion

I Have Been Here Before is the third of J.B. Prietsley’s time plays, written the same year as Time and the Conways. The play explores P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, that everyone lives their life over and over again, and déjà vu and precognitive dreams are the result of remembering past lives. Unlike Time and the Conways or Dangerous Corner, Priestley doesn’t develop this idea through any formalistic techniques. The acts occur in chronological order, and it all takes place in the same timeline. Priestley’s pretty straightforward with the theory, and presents it in a science fictional style, using plot and characters. It’s a fairly pedestrian, uninteresting treatment, so I’m going to focus instead on how the play utilizes theatre as a medium, and how it being a play actually is a formalistic technique in itself. Theatre is a medium that inherently lends itself to fatalistic themes, and Priestley is aware of this, with the character of Dr. Görtler drawing comparisons between life and theatre multiple times throughout the play.

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