The economic prescience of J.B. Priestley

“Time and the Conways,” the first revival of the new Broadway season, is a play by British writer J.B. Priestley that hasn’t been staged on Broadway since 1938, a year after it was written.

The time-shifting play, being staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in New York, chronicles the declining fortunes of Mrs. Conway, a widow of a moneyed Yorkshire family played by Elizabeth McGovern of Countess of Grantham, “Downton Abbey” fame, and her six children between WWI and WWII.

Influenced by the writings of philosopher John William Dunne, J.B. Priestley flips back between 1919 and 1937 to show how reality cruelly supplies the antithesis of the hopes and aspirations expressed by the family at the earliest point in the play.

Mrs. Conway burns through the family fortune squandering her children’s inheritance and preparing to sell the family’s ancestral home. Her daughter Madge ends up disillusioned by her fervent socialist ideals.

Ernest, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur of lower social class looked down upon by the family in 1919, marries and destroys Hazel, another of Mrs. Conway’s daughters. Kay, another daughter who possessed grand literary ambitions in 1919, winds up penning exaggerated journalistic puff pieces about Hollywood stars, having just come out of an unhappy, decade-long relationship with a married man.

In this era of fake news, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and growing backlash against the elites, it all feels eerily resonant.

Elizabeth McGovern told MarketWatch, “It’s very timely because a lot of people think we’re in a black period with everything going on in the world. This play explores the darkness of life but gives us something to hang on to give us hope…it’s the same era as ‘Downton Abbey’ but its ambitions are different.”

McGovern gets a kick out of the fact that Priestley, who died in 1984, and whose plays and novels about politics and finance include “An Inspector Calls,” “Cornelius” and “Angel Pavement,” remains timely.

“His themes on the overvaluing of money and the superficial accoutrements of success at the expense of inner peace are all relevant,” she says. “That’s what exciting about theater — someone could have written something so long ago and it still strikes a chord today.”

“Pitch Perfect” star Anna Camp, who plays Hazel, notes: “At such a heated political time with class wars [happening], I don’t think people really realize that the things we do now in the present truly affect what happens in our future. J.B. Priestley laid that into his play as a lesson and a warning.”

“Time and the Conways’’ Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman notes class parallels between now and then. “The play is painfully and eerily relevant. It’s about a bourgeoisie upper middle class that’s blind to their own greed and their own narcissism and the pain that it’s causing and the ruin that it’s foretelling for them.”

“They’re also blind to the rage of the working class on the other side of that who feel they are rendered invisible and irrelevant by the upper middle class. They are seeking to destroy that class,” she said.

Reached in London, J.B. Priestley’s 85-year-old youngest son Tom Priestley said: “Money and economics are the setting but he was creating drama…my father always felt after the First World War, that when things should have changed, they didn’t and we plunged into turmoil.”

“He was very fiercely insistent that after the Second World War was our last chance to really make good and to change things which happened. Unfortunately in recent years a lot of those changes have been unpicked. We’re now at a moment when people are looking for changes again,” he said.

Actor Gabriel Ebert, who plays the family’s inert eldest son Alan, said the plight of the Conways reminded him of America today. “This play is strangely topical,” he says. “The ruling class of a nation that has ruled the world is coming to grips with the fact that it might not be able to do that quite anymore and realizes that the priorities they’ve taught their children are coming back to bite them in the ass. It’s something we could all take a hard look at, especially in this country.”

Above all, there’s the time-honored notion that while not having money causes tremendous anxiety, wealth also generates its fair share of unhappiness.

“My character Hazel marries this really rich jerk and is completely miserable and you see what happens to someone who is driven by greed,” says Camp. “It’s not about money, position and titles- it’s about living life to the fullest without all of that stuff. Don’t do what my character does!”

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