January 12, 2002: Priestley, Dangerous Corner
Priestley’s first solo play (he collaborated on the stage revision of Good Companions). Opened in London in May 1932. A New York production opened five months later with a somewhat rewritten text (see the essay in the program on the text of the present production by the director, Lori Sansour). The production originated at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, about which good things are frequently heard.
The keynote of this play is the proverbial phrase “Let sleeping dogs lie,” reiterated by more than one member of the dramatis personae. A firestorm of mutual accusations, manifestations of truth, and uncovering of lies begins to occur as this party of publishers and an author attempting to deal with the death of Martin, a brother, brother-in-law, lover, friend, and enemy of one or another of them. At a certain point early in Act I, when some unsettling facts begin to emerge, someone suggests that it would be better just “to let sleeping dogs lie.” They fail to take this advice, with the resulting uncovering of dark secrets, and all that follows. The author, Maud Mockridge, an American and a rather weird person, takes the hint and leaves, allowing the others, isolated in this large-windowed contemporary house in the woods (part of Sansour’s careful updating of the play to our own period), free reign to pursue the truth. Martin, it turns out, did not kill himself, as the inquest on his death concluded; he was accidentally killed in a scuffle with Olwen Peel, a lovelorn young woman who went to his isolated cottage to ask him if he had really taken the money… The details of the intrigue are very skillfully plotted out by the author but are too involved to summarize here. The play is structured as follows. End of Act I: Olwen suddenly admits she killed Martin (intermission here); end of Act II: all the secrets are finally out, but at the heavy cost of destroyed marriages, wrecked friendships, and a publishing firm likely to go under. Act III: a revisiting of the opening sequence of Act I; when we get to the point where the proverbial advice is forthcoming, this time it is followed; the secrets, lies, hidden guilt, and all the rest of it stay secret, and this inbred society of young adults remains intact.
The program note written by Priestley’s son, Tom, explains that Priestly had a long-term interest in experimenting with “Time,” “splitting it into two to show what might’ve happened.” What he doesn’t explain is the mordant social commentary that arises out of this climactic revisiting of the situation. We are to understand, it seems, that it is the resolute glossing over, or downright refashioning, of the truths of human relationships that provides the adhesive that holds a fragile, threatened society together. The program for another play I’ve seen this week quotes T. S. Eliot as saying, “Human beings cannot bear very much reality.” Disallowing the context in which Eliot made that observation (whatever it was; I don’t remember), the observation could be handily applied to Priestley’s somber view of the fragile social fabric of contemporary life.
A concerted effort by the various creative artists associated with the production to make the play feel quite contemporary for us, the audience, is evident — in the setting, costumes, and the text itself. Never having read this play in its first version, I can’t really judge, but I heard nothing in the dialogue that was anachronistic, nor anything neologistic either. Sansour says he and the cast were very careful to remain as true as possible to what Priestley wrote. They seem to have succeeded.
They also succeeded in conveying a consistent tone of anxiety, a sense of nameless threat that hovers over the proceedings. Priestley, evidently not a man for half-measures, gives us a chilling visual analogy for this pervasive sense of unease: when the distraught Robert Coplan goes offstage in search of a gun, and his wife — and we — fear he is going to do away with himself, a shot is heard; the large central window upstage center seems to shatter in a thousand pieces, and at that instant a spectral, semi-transparent white owl flies down out of the dark woods, and for a terrible moment we think it is going to fly into the room. It is the best special effect I’ve seen in the London theatre in many a day. The lights come back up and the vision is gone as swiftly as it arrived — even the window is now, somehow, intact again. Oh, that owl! What is it, what does it mean? Is it just a hokey way of scaring the pants off an audience that, very likely, gets a good deal of pleasure out of being thoroughly well scared? Or is it Priestley’s way (assuming it’s in the original text of the play) of adding a dimension of dread, of naming it, as it were, in an indefinable visual correlative (there’s Eliot again) of the fear, the anxiety, the sudden sense of the loss of social moorings caused by a perverse (or, at least, ill-considered) pursuit of the truth?
Whatever the answer, the production really worked, really held the audience. I came away sensing that, in this first play, Priestley had found a way to combine a first-rate mystery drama — a genre usually impervious to serious thought — with an extended reflection on what lies underneath, and beyond, the surface. It’s noteworthy that we find out who did it by the end of Act I, while also discovering that the rest of the play, far from being anti-climactic, serves the purpose of endowing the conventional search for the whole truth with a deeply troubling sense of discomfort at what the significance of that truth may be for the way we lead our lives.
I hope this is the beginning of a Priestley revival to match the Coward revival that has been going on in the London theatre for the last several years.