”Even if you are not interested in politics,” wrote J B Priestley in 1945, “the fact remains that politics are interested in you, and indeed are busy already shaping your future. Remember that we are in history and not merely watching it stream past us . . .”
History has a way of sidelining people and then caricaturing, diminishing or forgetting them completely. I think that has happened to Priestley, one of the great popular philosophers of the 20th century.
This is a good time to look at him again. The Bradford riots this summer would not have surprised him. In the 1930s, there was large-scale social unrest in Bradford, and it proved something Priestley had long been articulating: if people are spiritually undernourished and socially neglected, they end up pushing the destruct button on their own lives and those of others.
For decades, we have chosen to see Priestley as the liberal, rather conventional and old-fashioned author of a number of West End hits, and a bit of a professional northerner. He was always caught between two factions, without a real following. The London intelligentsia liked to pigeonhole him as a northern tradesman artist. He never really cut the mustard with the Woolfs and the Bloomsbury set; they found him quite irksome. They disliked his popular, common touch, which they thought shallow – they thought his aesthetic wasn’t fine enough. On the other hand, the people of Yorkshire were also rather irritated by him, by his reluctance to stay among them and to hurl grenades over the metropolitan barricades. And Priestley was never a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. In every respect, he was a loner.
Priestley’s curiosity regarding human actions never dimmed. He smiled at minor human folly, ridiculed medium-sized folly and exposed major hypocrisy, all along imagining that the reader is just an ordinary person trying to live a decent life. Sometimes he reminds me of a more radical Alistair Cooke.
His essays are biting. He tears into modern society without being conservative or regressive, bitter or cynical. A man of the theatre first and foremost, Priestley was dedicated to constant debate about its role as a vital part of modern life.
He believed that people need to feel they matter to each other and to society, and that financial stability alone is not enough. If Priestley were living in Bradford in 2001, he would see that there are second- and third-generation British Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who, despite having invested so much energy, suffer discrimination when it comes to jobs and educational opportunities. He would think this disables us all. Indeed, it mirrors the plight of the white working-class families he saw in the 1930s who had nobody bothering to give them a hand up or even thinking it mattered: “As well as being a member of a community,” he wrote, “a man is also a person, a unique individual, and it is . . . the business of the community not simply to glorify itself but to produce better persons.”
In the middle of the 20th century, great avant-garde artists such as Bacon or Beckett shied away from any overriding credo. They represented the idea that one should eschew all bonds with any kind of civic conscience, and that art should be free of moral statement or prejudice. Priestley thought differently.
It has been voguish to deny that theatre has a direct emotional relationship with communities, an idea to which Priestley was committed above all else. He believed in fine art and also in touching the lives of ordinary people, although he didn’t allow that ever to dilute artistic experiment.
You can see this in his plays. Johnson Over Jordan – which launches a Priestley season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – is the most experimental of all his work. It is political, but not partisan. The play rests on the premise that each human being’s action has a knock-on effect on someone else. Yet he satirises political correctness and, indeed, all kinds of political dogma.
In this same play, he explores redemption and self-forgiveness, and he journeys through a secular metaphysics, raising questions about death as the universal human experience. The cheap seats for the play were full every night in the late 1930s, but the intelligentsia didn’t like it. Priestley wrote: “Though the ‘fashionables’ who keep West End plays going in the early weeks of a run were absent, the box office was besieged and we played to packed and enthusiastic houses.” The play was rarely performed after this first run; our production this autumn is its first major revival in 50 years. In my view, it is long overdue.
Jude Kelly is artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. For more information on the productions of Johnson Over Jordan, Dangerous Corner and Eden End, see http://www.wyp.co.uk