TIME AND J.B. PRIESTLEY: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

It seems that I have started this academic year in a metaphysical vein, concerned about time. Now it’s the turn of John Boynton Priestley’s suggestive play I Have Been Here Before (1937), which I have just seen in La Perla29’s effective production. Directed by Sergi Belbel, using Martí Gallén’s very good Catalan version, Priestley’s play necessarily loses some nuances in translation, such as the distinctive Yorkshire accents of the rural inn where the action takes place. This is inevitable (happily, there was no question of adapting the setting to Catalonia) but I am a tad less happy with the title Això ja ho he viscut (‘I have lived this before’) because, if I am not mistaken, Priestley alludes to a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in his own original title. I mean ‘Sudden Light’, written possibly in 1854 but first published in 1863. Here it is:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turn’d so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

This is the exact topic of the play: the possibility that our lives are somehow lived again and again and what we call déjà vu may be a glimpse into another version of the same events.

J.B. Priestly (1894-1984), a native of Yorkshire, first became quite famous thanks to a quintessentially English novel, The Good Companions (1929), of which there are several stage, film, TV, and radio adaptations. He wrote many other novels though never as successfully, including some in collaboration. Beginning with Dangerous Corner (1932), Priestly also wrote about twenty plays, among which Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945) are considered to be his best. These three plays, together with I Have Been Here Before and some others such as Johnson over Jordan, are known collectively as the ‘Time Plays’ because of the centrality of this question in them. Priestley, a marvellous graphomaniac, also wrote plenty of essays, among which I would highlight The English (1973). For a short spell during World War II (before the advent of television and when radio was paramount), Priestley was the most popular BBC broadcaster after Winston Churchill. Rumour claims that Churchill grew jealous and managed to have Priestley’s Sunday evening series Postscripts (which ran for a few months in 1940) cancelled, on the grounds that the content was too left-wing.

I saw Time and the Conways in 1992, in the Catalan-language production directed by Mario Gas, later filmed and broadcast by TV3 (in 1993). I subsequently taught the play within our first-year introduction to 20th century English Literature, though I would agree that its melancholy tone is not something that eighteen-year-olds can easily enjoy. I loved it, anyway. In 2011 I saw another Catalan-language version of Priestly, this time An Inspector Calls, as Truca un inspector, with the great Josep Maria Pou as Inspector Goole (‘ghoul’ indeed…). Pou also directed this production. I saw then as well a 1982 version of the original play made for TV, which is still available on YouTube, and which I recommend very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuHvGPpq8TM. I was back then teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and published here a post speculating about whether the missing Eva in Priestley’s play could have been known to Eliza Doolittle, or be Eliza herself without Prof. Higgins (see https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/21/eva-and-eliza-mirror-images/).

Everyone who writes about the Time Plays necessarily mentions the two singular men who inspired Priestley with his own view of time. One was Russian-Ukranian esotericist Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii (better known as Peter D. Ouspensky). His volume A New Model of the Universe, originally written in Russian and translated in 1931 by R.R. Merton (for Routledge!), was an instant success. It caught Priestley’s attention and that of many other British readers. The text is here, if you care to take a peek: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.234054. Ouspensky (1878-1947) belongs in the same esoteric circles as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and his own master George Gurdjieff (1877?-1949), men inspired by the success of Madame Blavatsky’s (1831-91) Theosophical Society (founded 1875). The other main text that influenced Priestley was An Experiment with Time (1927) by J.B. Dunne (1875-1949), which seemingly describes Dunne’s own precognitive dreams and ‘serialism’, the theory of time that Priestley borrowed for I Have Been Here Before. Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and a philosopher, enjoyed a much higher credibility than occultist Ouspensky but his does not mean that his theories have been in any way validated by scientific research.

As I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, both Ouspensky and Dunne wrote their books following the development of Quantum Mechanics, from 1900 onward. Priestley may not have known about Niels Bohr, Max Planck, or Albert Einstein but he was shaping in his Time Plays a view of existence that is not so different from current views of the multiverse based on Quantum Theory. I must confess that I seem to be, like most of us, stuck in a backward Newtonian understanding of physics and have not managed to grasp Quantum Mechanics beyond what I read in science fiction. I think, however, that Priestley’s peculiar plays still work well in 2019 because, even though Ouspensky and Dunne mean nothing to contemporary audiences, we are increasingly familiar with the idea that ours is just one universe among many other versions of the multiverse.

In I Have Been Here Before Dr. Görtler, a German-Jewish refugee in Britain who has lost everything to persecution by his own university students (implicitly Nazi sympathisers), arrives in the inn I have mentioned expecting to meet three strangers whose lives are heading for disaster. Görtler has had a dream in which he has seen the dire consequences of the decisions these three persons are about to make, and he needs to divert them from that specific path so that they may take a better one. Görtler’s dream is not a prophecy but, following Dunne, a memory of the version of his life in which disaster strikes. Also following Dunne, Priestley considers the idea that if, like Görtler, you train yourself to pay heed to your dreams, perhaps life can be better understood, and its worst events avoided if not in this life at least next time around.

Both Dunne and Görtler suppose that life is serial, that is to say, that you (or your soul if you prefer) are playing out a script that is repeated again and again each time you are born, and, hopefully, improved on. Not so in the case of dark souls bent on destructive ways. This is not quite the same as the idea of the multiverse, which supposes that infinite versions of the existing universe, including our own personal life, are happening simultaneously though with variations. Both theories make me extremely nervous, even more than Christian Heaven and Hell, but what I like about the Time Plays is that they invite me to think about the possibility that there is indeed a (loose) script in our lives, which might explain recognition. Let me explain…

In the play itself, Dr Görtler refers to déjà vu as an effect caused by the temporary dissociation of the two hemispheres of the brain. Current science still goes in that direction, connecting besides this phenomenon with forgotten memories recalled from dreams. What I am arguing is that science has insufficient knowledge of both dreams and déjà vu. Typically, all kinds of esoteric nonsense step in whenever science makes insufficiently convincing claims, trying to mask its ignorance, but I am not backing here the paranormal. Priestley forces me to think about events that are strange but that do happen in our lives, mainly that clear impression that you already know some person you have just met. Or the chill you get when you know that the words which you’re about to say will introduce a turning point in your own life or that of your interlocutor. As for dreams, I do not believe that they have prophetic value in a magical sense, or even in the far more ordinary sense that Dunne defended (as if they were a preview of the next episode in your life). What I do know is that Freud was very wrong about how they work and that finding symbolic language in them is nonsense. Dreams process everyday life at another level. Or perhaps the other way around. Some mornings I wake up thinking that maybe dreams are the real deal and our waking lives just the secondary part of our existence.

At a scene at the end of act I in I Have Been Here Before Dr Görtler explains that he has been studying his own dreams in the hopes of answering two questions: ‘what we are supposed to be doing here?’ and ‘what the Devil this is all about?’ Religion offers, of course, a ready-made answer: God knows, even though we don’t. For us, atheists, the problem is that science is somehow an obstacle to investigate other answers beyond ‘we’re the result of a random series of events’. This lazy answer allows the cult of the paranormal to grow with no rational check so that some individuals end up acting more absurdly than if they were believers. I am not saying that we should grow as obsessed as Dr Görtler with our own dreams and with the alleged seriality of time, nor that we should be paralyzed by the fear that strikes if you stop to consider why we are alive at all. What I mean is that, now and then, we should acknowledge that life is a very strange affair and that we, Homo Sapiens, are very odd creatures, dominated by that bizarre need for sleep and dream.

That’s what I enjoy most about Priestley’s Time Plays: the bold proposition that if we really tried to explain what life is about, we might reach unexpected conclusions. It is a bit scary but, then, the idea of life is scary in its weirdness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

4 comentarios en “TIME AND J.B. PRIESTLEY: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

  1. I wouldn’t say that science’s view on humans is merely that «we are just a random series of events.» There are many levels and forms of order, both strict and partial, to go through before we reach ultimate randomness. And many sciences too, it doesn’t come as a bulk sale! Likewise, as regards the symbolism of dreams, I would argue that there IS a symbolism in them all right, only it is not «our symbolism», I mean not the symbolism that our waking selves would choose to use or recognize. Of course there are transactional translations between that symbolism and our own, e.g. Freud’s, which may feel unsatisfactory to other dreamers and other interpreters, but we cannot leave it at dreams being chaotic or meaningless and that’s it, we need to interpret them, and then what becomes really more symbolic for our systems to manage is the narrative of the dream, i.e. the dream once it has been modified, retold and adapted for our waking consumption. Which is not quite the same thing as the dream…

  2. Hi José Ángel,
    Thanks for the comment. I meant that some, not all, scientists and many lay people believe that life is the result of random choices, not that this is the general direction of science. The Big Bang theory has always sound to me very much like a myth of creation, on the other hand. As for the symbolism of dreams I don’t mean that dreams are random and chaotic, what I mean is that they connect very closely with events in our life which are not hidden in the subconscious – how often have you dreamed of an exam you needed to take next day? Not, say, of a fish you need to catch (as a symbol for the exam).
    Thanks, once more, for the message and for reading my random thoughts 🙂
    Sara

  3. Francis Spufford explores the time-haunted world that obsessed J.B.Priestley and a host of other writers through the inter-war years. In 1927 a slim volume, An Experiment with Time, first appeared. Its author, J.W. Dunne, had been a genius of early aircraft design and a soldier in the Boer War but now he offered a vision of time that the British public found deeply appealing.

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