J. 111. Priestley's
very material immortality intimations of
Johnson over Jordan
THESE are Mr J. B. Priestley's I intimations of immortality.
That a playwright of to-day should even believe enough in the theatre to give his audience a solemn-themed play is a phenomenon to thank the gods for, fasting. And yet Mr Priestley's effort
at what he terms a modern morality play is too starved of spirituality, too starved even of imagination, to encourage us to step hard on the gratitude.
Johnson is the man-in-the-street, that mythological, bowler-hatted, be-fan:Lined suburbia inmate without characteristic to distinguish him from the next man in the 9.30 train to the city. At 51 he dies of pneumonia and begins a pilgrimage into eternity. Begins it still clinging to his earthly interests, still clamouring after E s. d., still believing himself officebound and alive in the planetary sense.
AFTER death in S.W. then Johnson's transitional Jordania experiences which Prieetley prefers to call Bardo after the Tibetans, instead of Purgatory after the Christians—but the idea has the same roots.
In the first stage of Bardo, Johnson clamours for his worldly possessions and is dispossessed of the ambition of them only by a distracting promise of pleasure unlimited in a nightmarish night club.
Purged by his experiences here Johnson reaches his last earthly outpost —the higher delights of mortality as envisaged by J.B. These consist of the pleasing discovery of the arts, of reading in particular—out pop from a side window Sinbad, Pickwick, Falstaff and Dor_ Quixote. Then the love of family, of brother, of children, and of wife—all these warm human things in which Mr Johnson believed—come back to him.
Finally, in the last stage of Bardo, these too are removed. Nothing but the symbolic bowler hat accompanies Johnson into a milky-way eternity, of which no one, not even guide, philosopher and friend Death is able to give the pilgrim reassurance.
AND into that gauzy azure disappears Mr Johnson. And I, for one, was worried for his unprotected solitude. He seemed to me peculiarly ill-suited to a journey into a spiritual infinity—he, whose author had given him no inkling of spiritual understanding in life. A foolish man, perhaps; a good man as far as he knew how—but a man so limited by the standards of this world that anything more than a perfect earthly other-world would be superfluous to him.
Because of this complete lack of spiritual values, "Johnson over Jordan" just vulgarises a great theme. It also , upsets the whole balance; instead of a great surge upwards and towards the spiritual culmination of Johnson's pilgrimage when he faces the Intimate, the play runs steeply backwards like an unwinding spring from the lively first art to the sterile, petrified curtain at the last.
Ralph Richardson, who is beginning, middle and end of Johnson Over Jordan, cannot be overrated. Had this play the poetry of a modern Murder in the Cathedra/ and the spiritual perception of a medieval Everyman, surely such a part would have raised him to the immortals. As, it is he is not to blame for cold, inflexible, insensitive material.
The Doctor's Dilemma
A MAN who can make exquisite pictures is dying of tuberculosis; SO Is a man who ean relieve a little of the physical suffering of people. Both men are poor; but the artist can leave for succeeding generations beautiful and lasting things: the doctor, only empty medicine bottles whose medicine was of doubtful efficacy. The artist thieves and deceives everyone, including his wife, who loves him to distraction (his perfidy is not, however, so complete as to be evident in the things he makes); the doctor is painstakingly honest (almost he is a myth in Shaw's conception of the medical profession).
Only one man can be saved in time. Which ?
Sir Colenso Ridgeon, disgustingly prosperous discoverer of a cure for tuberculosis which does sometimes work, has to make the decision, His judgment is not made easier by the fact that he falls in love with the artist's wife. However, he does make his decision; he condemns the artist to death by the extremely effective method of handing him over to the care of a royal physician.
THE play has scarcely dated, for there is a Cronin being at this moment as angry and bitter about the incompetence of Harley Street as Shaw was cynical and amusing.
The indignation about the artist's promiscuity may sound a little remote in these days when the outside world— and indeed the artist's world also—are chiefly concerned whether the artist is Right or Left; but I should imagine that annoyance at unpaid debts is still pretty general, even though the fault is branded as " anti-social " instead of " immoral."
The fierce irony of the play is in the attitude of the doctors to the artist's rottenness. They, pompous chiseller& as Shaw inches them., sit in judgment and deplore, and feel edified by their own sentiments.
The talk of the doctors, insatiably complacent and conceited, is amusing, and though B.B., the physician who kills the artist, does make us aware that he is a bore, we are compensated by hie very funny ineffectualness; just as we are irritated by the depressing ineffectualness of the general practitioner who lives on by the death of the artist.
DLENKINSOP is this doctor's name; D it is a fitting name. There is something nauseating about his so bright air of martyrdom. He asks his rich friend for old clothes and refuses their money. He smiles each time they enquire about his health, or his practice, or his ambition, with a saccharine
patience that would make a saint wince.
He goes through life carrying dust bins full of coals of fire to heap upon those who try to help him. Possibly he is Shaw's epitome of sanctity; but what sanctity there is in the character went sour long ago.
The goodness of Blonkinsop is entirely negative; it arises from refusal to have the things of life that are there for him to take. It would be right if he accepted this refusal and lived by it. But he does noi ; in every patient smile there is reproach to existence for being so hard. In the end there is no goodness for, in mind at least, he refuses lift itself.
Perhaps Ronald Simpson made Blenkinsop more bogus than Shaw had written him; he certainly Seemed a person less clean than the openly outrageous artist; whose outrageousness, however, came less from his jejune repudiation of traditional morality than from his sentimental attempts to erect a philosophy on a mere personal recognition of the advantages, probably transitory, of being unmoral. His
unmorality was not consistent in itself, that was his outrageousness.
AVERY splendid cast did justice to the provocative, amusing play. Stephen Haggard, who has had quite a lot of experience in portraying young men of genius misunderstood, makes the artist quite a pleasant scoundrel.
Max Adrian has the sinecure of playing B.B. He makes a very good job of his part, though it be a sinecure. The artist's wife is Ruth Lodge, and she makes the Beene in which she states her whole belief in the artist live poignantly.
All the way through the play, except perhaps at the end of the last act, when she tends to over-emphasis, she is direct and moving. It is her work to bring into the play some poetry, some intenser emotion than amusing argument —she does her work fully. Barry Jones, with elastic walk, eyebrows raised in mild surprise and a gentle shrug of his shoulders, gives us truly the courteous Inhumanity of Sir Colenso Ridgeon.