Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Priestley, J B

Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1894-1984) UK playwright, man of letters and author, in active service throughout World War One, being wounded more than once: the War to him was a "deep, unhealing wound", and he retained his anger at the British "officer class" for the rest of his life. After some journalism from around 1913, and a whimsical volume of poetry The Chapman of Rhymes (coll 1918 chap) [later withdrawn], the savage (if slightly precious) Satirical fables assembled as Brief Diversions: Being Tales Travesties and Epigrams (coll 1922 chap) unmistakably convey a sense of aftermath. Priestley remained formidably productive from this point until about 1980; he wrote over seventy plays, many extremely popular in their day, and as many books, being now remembered chiefly for The Good Companions (1929), a huge picaresque novel in praise of the English. He was married to Jacquetta Hawkes from 1953 until his death.

A surprising amount of his work makes use of sf or fantasy themes and devices, as with Albert Goes Through (1933 chap), whose eponymous hero's experiences in an absurd cinematic universe are explained as a fever-dream. But sf concerns do to some extent propel Adam in Moonshine (1927), featuring a Ruritanian-flavoured conspiracy (with echoes of G K Chesterton) to restore monarchical rule to the UK, and Benighted (1927; vt The Old Dark House 1928) – both assembled as Benighted and Adam in Moonshine (omni 1932). Faraway (1932) depicts a Fantastic Voyage through a South Pacific Archipelago in search of a new Power Source. In The Doomsday Men (1938; vt The Doomsday Men: A Thriller of the Atomic Age 1949), three religious fanatics including a Mad Scientist have housed a doomsday Weapon in a tower in Los Angeles (see California) which is intended to bring about the End of the World; mention is made of the Physics whereby matter is transformed into "light" or vice-versa; the plot is thwarted almost by happenstance. Benighted was filmed as The Old Dark House (1932), directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff.

Later work of relevance includes: some of the stories about Time (a recurring theme) in The Other Place and Other Stories of the Same Sort (coll 1953); The Magicians (1954), Priestley's closest approach to a full-fledged sf novel – thematically based on his "The Grey Ones" (April-May 1953 Lilliput) – a vision of bureaucratic Entropy whose victim is saved by the eponymous mages who embody the time theories of J W Dunne – featuring the use of a wonder Drug to spiritually invade the mind of a tycoon; Low Notes on a High Level: A Frolic (1954), about the Dobbophone and other self-consciously daft sub-bass instruments of Music; Saturn Over the Water [for subtitle see Checklist] (1961), a thriller with sf overtones; The Thirty-First of June: A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress, in the Arthurian and Ad-Atomic Ages (1961), a comic fantasy for Young Adult readers, with some incidental Satire on Advertising and Television; The Shapes of Sleep (1962), which posits the use of the title's compulsively evocative shapes in Advertising (see Basilisks; Media Landscape; Meme), expanding here on the concept of "Admass" – a term he created in Journey Down a Rainbow (1955) with Jacquetta Hawkes – in his argument that culture was increasingly permeated and controlled by advertising; and a juvenile, Snoggle: A Story for Anybody Between 9 and 90 (1971), in which three children and an old man save an engaging Alien pet from bigoted Wiltshire locals and are thanked for their troubles by its masters, advanced beings in a flying saucer (see UFOs). At least three of Priestley's teleplays are of genre interest: "Doomsday for Dyson" (1958), about atomic Holocaust, "Level 7" (1966) – adapting Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald for the Out of the Unknown anthology series – and "Linda at Pulteney's" (1969), a fantasy.

All the same, Priestley never showed much aptitude for the traditional sf tale, and in much of his sf work the bluff energy that endeared him to generations seems to have been dissipated. His ideas about the nature of the genre, however, though unkindly, seem prescient. In "They Come from Inner Space" (5 December 1953 New Statesman) – later assembled in Thoughts in the Wilderness (coll 1957), which also contains an sf story, "The Hesperides Conference" – he makes what may be the first use of the term Inner Space (which see) in print, arguing further that:

Behind all these topical tales, fables and legends ... are deep feelings of anxiety, fear, and guilt. The Unconscious is protesting against the cheap conceit and false optimism of the conscious mind. Having ruined this planet, we take destruction to other planets ... a move, undertaken in secret despair, in the wrong direction.

Fittingly, of Priestley's considerable sf output, the most interesting titles are those tales and plays which derive their motor impulse from the consolatory time theories of J W Dunne, who felt that various moments in time – whose relationships to one another were, in a sense, geographical – could, in that sense, be visited. Plays like Time and the Conways (performed 1937; 1937) and I Have Been Here Before (performed 1937; 1937), both assembled as Two Time-Plays (omni 1937), along with Dangerous Corner (performed 1932; 1932) – whose title refers to a conversational Jonbar Point leading to increasingly disastrous revelations, with the play ultimately starting again where it had begun and following a changed timeline where the dangerous turn is not taken – all assembled as Three Time-Plays (omni 1947), made extensive use of Dunne's theories, including the notion of Timeslips; a later drama, Ever Since Paradise: An Entertainment, Chiefly Referring to Love and Marriage (performed 1947; in The Plays of J B Priestley, Vol II, omni 1949), cites Dunne to explain the time-shifting perspectives in the action.

There are as well several further plays of genre interest. The posthumous hero of Johnson over Jordan: The Play, and All About It (an Essay) (performed 1939; 1939) is required to prepare himself for Heaven. The lives of the small cast of The Long Mirror (performed 1940; 1947) are transformed through Precognition. In what has become his best-remembered play, An Inspector Calls (performed 1945; 1947 chap), a mysterious police "inspector" exposes in April 1912 the philistine hypocrisies of a bourgeois family morally responsible for the death of a working girl; the inspector's seemingly supernatural intuitions, and his prophecy of the "fire and blood and anguish" attendant upon the inevitable outbreak of World War One, are underlined in the first film version, An Inspector Calls (1954) directed by Guy Hamilton, where the Mysterious Stranger vanishes from a locked room after he has finished his interrogation, like an angel whose work is done. The Olympians: Opera in Three Acts (performed 1949; 1949 chap), music by Arthur Bliss, is a midsummer-night fantasy in which the gods of Olympia, caught in a Brigadoon-like Time Loop, reappear once a century, taking over their mortal stand-ins, a group of strolling players, for the night. Summer Day's Dream (performed 1949; in the Plays of J B Priestley, Vol III, omni 1950), is set after World War Three has transformed Britain into a ruralized Zone threatened by rapacious entrepreneurs from America, the Soviet Union, and India. And in The Glass Cage (performed 1957; 1958 chap), the anarchic triplets, half-white half-Native-American, who disrupt a strait-laced Canadian family demanding return of a stolen birthright, convey a strong sense that their Mysterious Stranger "antics" are supernaturally sourced.

In the nonfiction Man and Time (1964) and the essays in Over the Long High Wall (1972) Priestley meditated speculatively on the themes of his "Time-Plays". In the end, perhaps surprisingly for a writer so otherwise aggressive, sf served not as a technique to mount challenges but as a form of adjustment. [JC]

see also: History in SF; Theatre; Time Travel.

John Boynton Priestley

born Bradford, Yorkshire: 13 September 1894

died Stratford-upon-Avon, 14 August 1984

works (selected)




about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies