Play Time: Dangerous Corner by J.B. Priestley

Dangerous Corner is a 1932 play by British writer J.B. Priestley, about a dinner party attended by the directors of a publishing firm and their wives. Pretty soon the audience learns that one of the directors, Martin, recently committed suicide, and was suspected of embezzling money from the company. A few moments later, one of the guests, Olwen, makes an offhand remark about recognizing a cigarette box—a cigarette box that she shouldn’t have any memory of, because it was originally Martin’s, and it was mailed to him the day he died. Olwen’s remark is like a single loose thread in a sweater, and once Robert, one of the directors and the brother of Martin, pulls at it, the sweater begins to unravel, spooling out a series of interconnected secrets that every last character has been hiding, all wrapped up in the death of Martin and the embezzled money. In the final act of the play, Robert, in a drunken craze, retrieves a revolver, the lights go down on the stage, and we hear a shot and a woman’s scream. When the lights come up, we are back at the beginning of the play, with the female characters having just listened to the last scene of a murder mystery radio play. The play progresses as it originally did, only this time, when Olwen remarks on recognizing the cigarette box, it goes unnoticed, as one of the directors succeeds in tuning in to a channel on the radio—something he had failed to do in the first iteration of the timeline.

Priestley presents time in a very concrete, mechanical way, as a series of events with causes and effects, and with specific choices directly affecting the chain of events. This if clear, of course, in the final scene in which the audience sees the entire course of the play altered by one instance, but it’s also clear throughout all the revelations that form the meat of the show. The characters are constantly trying to figure out who is to blame for Martin’s death—who is the person at the root of all of it?—and with each secret revealed, the blame shifts, and the timeline that the characters are constructing reorganizes itself to place a different person as the catalyst for all the events. The conflict and tension of Dangerous Corner comes from these clashing timelines that each character holds, and the only way to resolve the tension is by filling in the gaps with more information from other characters. Of course, each contribution to this communal timeline only opens up more questions, and reveals new gaps that have to be filled. Ultimately, the timeline can never be perfect because at the heart of it is Martin—someone whose understanding of the chain of events has disappeared from the world with his death. Olwen herself describes the problem of clashing realities when she’s talking about the radio play:

“The point is, I think—there’s truth and truth. … the real truth—that is, every single little thing, with nothing missing at all, wouldn’t be dangerous. … But what most people mean by truth, what that man meant in the wireless play, is only half the real truth. It doesn’t tell you all that went on inside everybody.” (5)

Indeed, the biggest gap in the story, the hole that will never be filled, is “all that went on inside” Martin. It seems like everyone had a different relationship with him, and characters will often assert something along the lines of, “you didn’t know him as I did.” When Robert is convinced that Martin killed himself because Martin believed that Robert stole the money, and Martin was shaken by his older brother’s misconduct, Robert explains, “But neither of you knew him as I did.” (37) When Freda, Robert’s wife, learns that Martin attempted to assault Olwen, she moans that “he wasn’t like that really. If you’d known him as I’d known him—before.” (42) Although the characters are intending to invoke authority when they say this, as if they are experts on who Martin is, Priestley’s precise phrasing points to the reality of the situation. You didn’t know him as I did. Not a definitive “I knew him,” or “I knew him best,” but rather a distinguishing between the different ways that different characters understood Martin, understood his experiences, composited his history.Read More »