May I suggest that while J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways (1937) is not the only play to rearrange time’s arrow, it may be the best?
Its rivals on this front include the 1934 Kaufman and Hart comedy, Merrily We Roll Along (not to be confused with the 1981 Sondheim and Furth musical that’s based on it), in which the clock is reversed so that we see the bitter ruins of a triangular friendship first, and its dewy-eyed origins last. But neither Hart nor Kaufman seemed able to manage the formal demands of such a piece or, for that matter, the characters and their relationships.
That same device of the backwards scroll was later employed to somewhat more pointed effect in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal — here the dying embers of a love affair give way to its red hot moment of ignition. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is set in a singular Derbyshire country home, but shuttles back and forth between Regency and Thatcherite England while its characters contemplate chaos theory. In Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies’ supremely elegant consideration of the personal, professional, and political minefields in the commercial art world, time caroms about like a puck on some very slippery ice. The pattern is so (seemingly) random that you never know what’s coming next, yet it packs an emotional wallop that we normally associate with more conventional narratives.
But all these plays disorient the audience and the audience alone. The characters have no idea that time has been disrupted. They carry on ignorant (sometimes blissfully so, sometimes not) of the jumble their playwright has made of the fourth dimension and the manipulation of time is a matter for the audience alone to consider.
Not so in Time and the Conways. Here, one of the characters, Kay Conway, becomes keenly aware that there seems to be — to borrow a word from modern-day physics — a wormhole through which one can travel forward and backward in time. She’s disturbed, perhaps even horrified by this insight, and among the last words in the play are those of Kay begging her brother to “comfort me”.
Priestley makes Kay’s peculiar insight clear through various means. Early in the evening, she already seems to possess some sort of meta-sensitivity. She explains why, at a party like the one that is being held tonight in the Conway home, she might suddenly want to go off into the corner and be quiet: “you feel, quite suddenly, that it isn’t real enough — and you want something to be real.” Their own father, she says, behaved just the same when he was alive, and she wonders aloud whether their father too could “see round the corner — into the future.” Including, perhaps, his own death.
Priestley also provides careful stage directions, notably at the beginnings and ends of acts, which portray Kay’s state of mind, suggest her point of view, and tell us subtly but unambiguously that we are meant to see this play through her eyes.
Imagine, then my consternation at seeing the new Roundabout production directed by Rebecca Taichman, which opened tonight at their 42nd Street location. (I’d name the theatre but I don’t do free advertisements for corporations.) For reasons that are beyond my hopelessly text-based brain, Ms. Taichman has elected to eliminate these directions, and replace them with a highly provocative, visually startling bit of stagecraft, the singular drawback of which is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the play. In fact it sometimes contradicts Priestley’s obvious intentions, which are what distinguish the play from others that manipulate time. Time and the Conways does so not just as a formal device, but as a way of describing the character’s experience.
But the set was impressive and apparently that’s more important.
Much of Time and the Conways reads as a conventional, mid-century, British domestic drama, a story of 20-something siblings who are all beginning their lives — falling in love, deciding to marry, pursuing professions, chasing dreams. For the first act, it’s a hopeful, slightly anodyne little play elevated by Priestley’s exquisite attention to detail and to his effortless sense of dramaturgy. He knows how to bring characters on and off stage like nobody’s business. This is harder than you think. He cunningly arranges that a charades party is taking place off stage in a much larger public room of the house, while setting the play in a small anteroom that serves as a staging ground for finding costumes and props, and for brainstorming scenarios for the game. (English charades in the early 20th C. was considerably more involved than today’s version.) Hence, while a guest at the actual party would presume that all the real action was out there, we understand that the real action occurs here.
What follows is a mostly conventional second act, a bit darker than some perhaps, and haunted — when the director chooses the author’s script over her lovely set — by the knowledge that Kay is having an experience that is not quite, shall we say, linear. Act II is also set much later than most second acts. It’s 20 years on now, and the family has come to a very bitter pass indeed. Dreams have died, as have people. Bottles have been taken to, comeuppances have been gotten, and nothing at all has worked out the way it was supposed to.
And there’s another hint that something mysterious, perhaps even metaphysical is afoot. The oldest son, Alan — a quiet, reserved man, the only Conway who, thanks to his incorrigible dullness, seems to have escaped disaster — tries to reassure Kay that life is not so bad as she and all the other Conways think. He offers to give her a book that proposes the theory that at any one moment “we’re only a cross section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time …” Of course this means much to us if we’ve been permitted to see the play that Priestley wrote: we realize that Alan is inadvertently addressing the precise source of Kay’s anxiety. Otherwise it falls rather flat. I speak from experience.
There is a third act, but what it is, and how it works, and what the stage directions tell us at the top of the act, and what happens in it, I won’t describe except to say that it is one of the most perfect, simple, devastatingly effective coups de theatre that I know. The characters know nothing of this coup, except of course Kay. And even she has only a vague idea of it. A glimpse of it has passed before her eyes, and she clutches at it like she might clutch at a dream after waking. Was it real? It felt so real. And yet, here she is awake, and not even sure of the dream’s details, much less what it all means.
But Kay knows that something has happened. It wasn’t just a dream, or if it was, it was a dream that was more real than life. For by the third act, Kay has glimpsed infinity, and she has understood that infinity is not something that stretches out in front of us forever like a road disappearing over the horizon. Infinity is always here, and it is always now. And it is the terrible burden of that knowledge — made real to Kay through whatever metaphysical explanation suits you, and made real to us in the audience through the genius of J. B. Priestley.
And I must confess that after two and a half hours of Rebecca Taichman and her misguided attempts to improve a perfect play, she staged the final moments of the play exquisitely. This too involved some stagecraft and an acrobatic set, but now the effect was subtle and haunting, like the play itself. Better still it supported the meaning of the play, expanded upon it, illuminated it, and made it graphic in a single unforgettable image.
Was that so much to ask?
Stuart Spencer is a playwright and novelist. He teaches playwriting, dramaturgy, and theatre history at Sarah Lawrence College, and is the author of The Playwright’s Guidebook: an Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing published by Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can follow him on Facebook.