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.
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.Read More »