Time and the Conways

Dunne’s Theory of Time

Posted on: September 27th, 2017 by Nick Mecikalski


Time and the Conways playwright J. B. Priestley was famous for his fascination with theories of time and consciousness. Conways came to be known as one of Priestley’s six “Time Plays,” which also included Johnson Over Jordan, Dangerous Corner, and the international hit An Inspector Calls. In each “Time Play,” Priestley explored a different philosophy of time, most notable among them John William Dunne’s theory of Serialism, threads of which make an appearance in Time and the Conways itself. Serialism postulates that each person’s consciousness exists in multiple dimensions of time simultaneously and, often during sleep, one can access the future and past, thereby unwittingly predicting events to come.


John William Dunne

John William Dunne (1875–1949) was a British aeronautical engineer, philosopher, and soldier. His explorations of Serialism began one night in 1898, when he had a dream that his watch had stopped at half past four in the morning. Dunne awoke from this dream in the middle of the night to find that the time was, in fact, just minutes after 4:30 A.M., and that his watch, which was sitting on a dresser on the opposite side of the room, had quite literally stopped minutes earlier while he was asleep, at exactly half past four. In the months and years following, Dunne experienced further moments of “clairvoyance” in his dreams. One night in 1902, for example, Dunne dreamt that he was trying to save an island of people from a volcanic disaster; later that week, Dunne learned of the eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pele, which buried the city of Saint Pierre. Dunne’s dreams went on to seemingly foretell a factory fire in Paris, a train derailment in Scotland, and even an incident in which he and his brother, while on a fishing trip, had to outrun an erratic horse that had escaped its enclosure.

After years of observing these kinds of occurrences in himself and, anecdotally, in friends, Dunne decided to run tests to determine whether others shared this kind of foresight and whether “clairvoyance” was a property of only some dreams or of all dreams. In efforts to maximize the number of dreams that any given experimenter would remember, Dunne developed a precise method for recording dream activity in the moments immediately after waking. The process worked. With his dreams written down in notebooks, Dunne started matching daytime experiences not only to clairvoyant dreams that he remembered having, but also to dreams that he had forgotten but had made note of in the first seconds of his day. As the other subjects in his experiment encountered many similar “psychic” incidents, Dunne became convinced that precognition during sleep was actually a normal human experience that was often just forgotten or dismissed as wild coincidence. It appeared that most, if not all, dreams provided windows to the future. Dunne then set out to determine what about our relationship to time made this kind of precognition possible.

The theory of time that Dunne developed out of these experiments rests on an understanding of the dimensions of space. Dimension zero, of course, is just a point; it has no length, width, or height. Each subsequent dimension “extends” at a right angle from all lower dimensions. The first dimension is a line with only length; the second dimension extends at a right angle from the first to form a plane. The third dimension, most familiar to us, extends at a right angle from the second to form a space with length, width, and height. The fourth dimension, then, in Dunne’s hypothesis, extends at a right angle from the third. A fourth dimension is not something that we can exactly visualize, but Dunne, alongside many other theorists of the time, proposed that the fourth dimension is, in fact, time. In the same way that a 1-D line is a cross-section of a 2-D square and a 2-D square is a cross-section of a 3-D cube, a cube at any given instant in time, Dunne suggested, is only a cross-section of that cube’s entire existence, from beginning to end, in time. A four-dimensional representation of a person, therefore, would be an entity that would encompass that person’s entire life all at once (see figure 1). A cross-section of that object would be a three-dimensional person at any instant in time, living as we do -- instant to instant, with only a memory of the past and guesses about the future.

Figure 1. Depiction of a theoretical four-dimensional person -- every moment of their lives contained in one entity.


But this raises some questions: why does it seem that we move through time in only one direction? What is pushing us through time? And how fast are we moving? As a solution to these questions, Dunne theorized that there must be a fifth dimension, extending at a right angle from the fourth. A cross-section of this dimension would be a fourth-dimensional object -- which, as Dunne already defined, represents the entire existence of that object in time. Just as a three-dimensional person can take a mental picture and observe a two-dimensional slice of their world, so can a four-dimensional person observe a three-dimensional cross-section of their world--i.e., one three-dimensional instant. Therefore, a fifth-dimensional person can observe their fourth-dimensional self (that is, their entire existence in time) as a single snapshot. (See Figure 2 for an analogy.) Dunne went on to suggest that this “series” of time dimensions extends infinitely, and each person’s consciousness exists in this infinite series of dimensions at once -- hence the term “Serialism.”

Figure 2. The third, fourth, and fifth dimensions can be thought of as the different components of a smartphone video, like the one below that tracks across a computer keyboard. A third-dimensional observer is analogous to a still image captured at any instant that the video is paused. The fourth-dimensional observer is like the scroll bar at the bottom of the screen, which contains every moment of the video in one entity. The fifth-dimensional observer is akin to the smartphone user, who can jump between moments on the scroll bar and watch the video forwards or backwards. The fifth-dimensional observer’s point of attention is symbolized by the blue line on the scroll bar, which tells the smartphone user where in the “life” of the video they are watching.


Even though, as Dunne postulated, each person has access to all of these dimensions at any time, he determined that a person’s consciousness habitually follows their third-dimensional perspective instant-to-instant through time while the third-dimensional self is awake. When the third-dimensional self is asleep, though, attention wanders, and the person’s consciousness in the fifth dimension (or higher) focuses on different moments in the fourth dimension -- in other words, different moments in the entirety of a person’s lifetime. Dreams, then, according to Dunne, are our consciousnesses observing our lives from higher dimensions and exploring our past and future experiences. With this, Dunne had devised an explanation for his and his subjects’ nighttime “clairvoyance.”

Dunne’s theory was not ultimately embraced by the larger scientific community. In the time since Dunne proposed Serialism, Einstein’s theory of relativity has shown to be a much more accurate descriptor of the nature and behavior of spacetime. But Dunne’s theories surely sparked the imaginations of his contemporaries and served as an important step in the path toward a deeper understanding of our universe.


Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on September 14, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways

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Rebecca Taichman, director of TIME AND THE CONWAYS

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Rebecca Taichman:   I was born in Madison, Wisconsin to two amazing Canadian-hippie-leftists: my father, at the time a young scientist, and my mother, on her way to becoming a social worker specializing in poverty law. I have one sister, Laura, who did her best to protect me from all the dangers in life then – and still now. We moved to Long Island when I was about five, and I grew up there. I went to McGill University in Montreal for undergrad and then many years later to the Yale School of Drama for an MFA in directing. As far as teachers are concerned, the list is long -- to just name a few: Ming Cho Lee, Elinor Fuchs, so many of my colleagues, Sam Gold, Simon McBurney, Mary Zimmerman, Julie Taymor, and on and on. I've also been very lucky to be part of the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute. As part of the fellowship, 20 leaders from various fields are put through a two-year series of seminars on the ethics of leadership and social responsibility. The Crown Fellowship has been the single greatest learning experience of my life. Some of my greatest teachers were in that group: the 19 other fellows and the leaders Peter Reiling, Skip Battle, Tonya Hinch, and Ben Dunlap.

TS: You directed a revival of Time and the Conways in 2014 for the Old Globe in San Diego. Why did you choose to direct this play?

RT: The play came to me through Barry Edelstein, Artistic Director of the Old Globe. He called me several years ago and said, "There is this extraordinary play by J.B. Priestley called Time and the Conways. I would like to produce it, and I think you are the right director for it.” I read the play that night - and couldn't put it down. I remember reaching out to Barry the next morning and saying, “I’m in. Just tell me when and I'll be there.” I think Priestley a genius and the play a neglected masterpiece -- at least in the U.S. As soon as the Globe production opened, I hoped to do it again. I pitched the idea to Todd Haimes, Artistic Director at Roundabout, and he said yes.

TS: Does the play have personal resonance for you? What do you think the play is about?

RT: Time and the Conways is about so much. On one level, it’s the story of an upper middle class British family just as the upper classes were about to tumble and how, over time, they are hurt by their own greed and narcissism. They are characters from another time and place but feel oddly familiar, and their story feels important and resonant to us in the United States today.

On another level, the play is about our perception of time. With this play, and in many of his plays, J. B. Priestley is challenging our perception of time as a linear arrow, shooting ever forward. Time and the Conways suggests an alternate view of time, one in which the past, present, and future are available all at once. It's a hard thing to wrap one's mind around, but Priestley was writing at a time when time and space were being redefined by new breakthroughs in science and technology – much like our own sense of the world is being transformed by the internet and social media. In Time and the Conways, Priestley proposes that the past, present, and even future are coexistent with each other. I think that Priestley was proposing a sharpened sense of the wholeness of our lives, offering his audience an invitation to release themselves from the panic of being “on a sinking ship,” moving ever closer to death. This was a social awakening as much as an aesthetic one. Theatre, Priestley understood, was the perfect medium in which to communicate this idea – being a place in which, as he once wrote, “Everything still exists: that life of the voice, that gesture, that look, they are still there. [Theatre is able to] recapture the past that has not really vanished at all.” Priestly manages to marry these streams – the story of a family in Great Britain and his ruminations on what he called the “time problem” in the most theatrical of ways. The form of the play and its content are so brilliantly entwined that they reveal and release each other.


Rebecca Taichman in rehearsal for TIME AND THE CONWAYS- Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: Can you give us some insight into your process as a director? How did you prepare to direct this play? What kind of research did you have to do?

RT: When I directed the play at the Old Globe, I did an enormous amount of research and of course was greatly aided by the dramaturg there: Danielle Mages Amato. Right now I am working with a wonderful dramaturg, Drew Lichtenberg, who is again teaching me so much. I am still trying to understand the context of the play as deeply and intimately as I possibly can. Also, and this is true for anything I direct, I read the play over and over and over until I think I know it on the cellular and the cosmic levels. With a play like this, I also like to ask the company to share in the research. In this case, for example, I have asked Gabe Ebert, who plays Alan, to research the theory of time in the play and share what he learned with us in his own way. Each actor is researching a topic that relates intimately to the character they are playing. I find it is a wonderful way to get the whole room engaged in the research together and bring the world of the play to life. I first heard about this idea from Mark Wing-Davey, and I love doing it.

TS: How do you understand the characters of Kay and her elder brother, Alan, at this point in your process?

RT: Kay and Alan are privileged with sight in the play, and capable in some ways of moving from past to present and back again. Alan is partially the voice of Priestley. In the middle of this story of corrosive classism, Priestley creates this humble, unambitious, beautiful character who offers an alternative view, a way of looking at life that unspools the greed and narcissism that infects this family. Alan is the tender-hearted, surprising hero of the play. He envisions a world driven by love, rather than panic and fear.

Ultimately, the play warns against a life of greed, and Alan sees it all most clearly. Kay has glimpses of understanding and struggles to see the larger picture Alan seems to perceive so easily. Many of the play’s ideas relate to what is happening in this country now. We are grappling with greed overtaking the country, with a 1% who can’t seem to see past themselves and an enraged working class that feels it has been rendered invisible. All sense of larger community is broken, and we are divided.  Priestley writes about this in Time and the Conways and sees the same basic dynamic unfolding in Great Britain during the years between the first and second World Wars. Despite containing what sounds like the classic ingredients for a tragedy, I feel the play is full of hope. That hope is personified in the characters of Alan and Kay. The fact that they can sense another path for the future invites us to believe that we can, too.

TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits do you need?

RT: Actors who have a tremendous facility with language and can make the language feel visceral and real -- not distant -- so that the action is deeply lived and alive. We also need actors capable of great emotional complexity and range. In the play, they age 20 years. They have to be able to access two sides of one character with grace and dexterity. Not easy, needless to say.

Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Camp, Matthew James Thomas and Elizabeth McGovern in rehearsal for TIME AND THE CONWAYS- photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: How are you collaborating with your design team? 

RT: Working with such extraordinary designers is a thrill. It’s a very collaborative process that is iterative. I ask lots of questions – that lead to more questions. Designers this good bring exceptional ideas to the table, and I respond.

TS: Are you using original music?

RT: There’s a piece of music by Dustin O’Halloran that we are using. It exists on one of his records, which I listen to obsessively – especially when I am dreaming about the play. Somehow it takes me to the center of the play every time I hear it. Matt Hubbs, our sound designer, found it and brought it to me. What a gift.

TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to be theatre directors?

RT: Being a director for the stage is a very hard life. I believe that if you can do anything else and be happy: do it. For a lot of people there really is no choice. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the lens through which I see the world. So, if directing is something you absolutely must do, then my advice is: fight for it with everything you’ve got and don’t give up, even when it seems impossible. It’s a complex journey with all kinds of twists and turns. Go, go, go, and don’t allow yourself to be driven by fear, but rather by faith or hope.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

RT: As a director, I think you are a vessel through which a story flows. You’re translating that story onto the stage. I view my job as ever searching for the most evocative, theatrical, moving, and honest way to tell the story of the play. The story for me is the inspiration and guides every choice. As long as the story truly compels and moves me, that’s all the inspiration I really need. I have been very lucky to tell stories that I believe are important and deeply moving, like the one in Time and the Conways.

Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on September 14. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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

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This will be the first-ever Broadway revival of Priestley’s masterful play, 80 years after its original Broadway production in 1937. Over the decades, Priestley has secured his rightful place in the theatrical canon with such international hits as his 1945 thriller An Inspector Calls, the 1992 production of which in London earned the title of longest-running revival of all time. Time and the Conways, though just as revolutionary in structure and gripping in story, hasn't been met with quite the same amount of attention as some of Priestley’s other works. Yet the act of “rediscovering” lesser-known but deserving classics by masters such as Priestley and bringing them back to Broadway stages is, I believe, a core component of Roundabout’s mission. I am thrilled to present Priestley’s story to an entirely new generation of audiences with this incredibly talented cast, director, and design team.

Priestley became famous during the 1930s and 1940s for the inspiration he drew from alternative theories of time, perhaps most famously the hypotheses of British engineer and philosopher John William Dunne. Dunne conjectured that a person’s dreams open their consciousness to higher dimensions of observation and thereby provide them glimpses of future events. From this philosophy Priestley developed his concept for Time and the Conways, which soon became known as one of his famous “Time Plays,” the ranks of which also included An Inspector Calls and his less famous dramas Dangerous Corner and I Have Been Here Before. While the validity of Dunne’s theory of time has since been largely discounted by the scientific community, the possibilities that it unlocked in the imaginations of a generation of readers and artists are monumental in scope.

In Time and the Conways, Priestley employs Dunne’s theory as a lens into the lives of one upper middle class family in post-World War I Britain. With trademark nuance and depth, Priestley delves into the Conways’ most personal aspirations, shortcomings, and fears, and as their story unravels, he examines those life-altering moments that put dreams at odds with destiny. What begins as a theatrical exploration into a theory of perception and the subconscious becomes a piercing look at the consequences of greed and the worship of status. At a time when issues of economic disparity and upward mobility in our country are wrenchingly urgent, Priestley’s drama is a more prescient piece of writing than ever.

I am so excited for you to experience this revitalized classic, presented by such a superb creative team. This is such a meaningful and vital play, and I am thrilled by the work of Rebecca and her fantastic cast in bringing it back to a Broadway stage. As always, I am eager to hear your reactions to the show, so please continue to email me at with your thoughts. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director/CEO

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2017-2018 Season, From Todd Haimes, Time and the Conways

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