The Life of J.B. Priestley

Posted on: November 23rd, 2017 by Ryan Dumas

Before he was known as “The Last Great Man of English Letters” and hailed as one of England’s greatest dramatists, John Priestley was born in the village of Bradford in Yorkshire, England on September 13, 1894. Priestley had what he described as a “golden adolescence” in Bradford, despite the fact that his mother died while he was young—he had a kind stepmother and a pleasant childhood. As a young man, Priestley decided against entering the world of academia, and he instead got a job with a wool firm.

As World War I began, Priestley joined the British Army and was sent to the Front. He was seriously injured in battle and returned home, only to heal and be sent back to the Front a second time, where he was this time gassed. He spent the remainder of the war in administrative work. After the war, Priestley returned to academia, studying English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge University.

Upon graduation, he began writing almost exclusively fiction, and his novel The Good Companion won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1929. However, much of Priestley’s other writing took a bent toward social commentary and activism. According to one biography, in 1933 Priestley “was invited by Victor Gollancz to undertake a journey round the country to experience at firsthand the life of people in the industrial areas.” The result of this journey was the non-fiction work English Journey, which explored the social climate of England and its people and “established [Priestley’s] reputation as a social commentator.”

It was around this time that Priestley also began to experiment with writing plays, shifting into the form that, according to the J.B. Priestley Society, “many have considered best suited to his great talents.” His plays (including Time and the Conways) are often set prior to World War I and include experimentation with form and an examination of time. His most famous play, An Inspector Calls, premiered in 1945 in the Soviet Union and in 1946 in the UK. The National Theatre revival production of An Inspector Calls, directed by Stephen Daldry, premiered in 1992 and has been revived several times, running almost constantly somewhere across England ever since, including a run in the West End that ended in April of this year.

Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Parry, and Anna Baryshikov in TIME AND THE CONWAYS. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Priestley’s activism did not end with his writing. As he made his English Journey, Priestley became (according to the BBC) “very concerned about the consequences of social inequality in Britain.” To fight injustice, Priestley helped set up a new political party, the Common Wealth Party, which “argued for public ownership of land, greater democracy, and a new ‘morality’ in politics.” Even though this party merged with the Labour Party in 1945, Priestley continued his work with government and arts advocacy, lecturing on the need for “a properly organised Theatre.” He also broadcast a weekly radio show during World War II, arguing for progressive social and political policies. The show became wildly popular, though it rankled Winston Churchill enough to be prematurely cancelled.

Priestley died in 1984, leaving behind great works of literature, theatre, activism, and his legacy as “The Last Great Man of English Letters.”

Time and the Conways plays at the American Airlines theatre through November 26, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways

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