Johnson Over Jordan: The second coming of Priestley

Johnson Over Jordan had a disastrous first run on its opening in 1939. Now, says Paul Taylor, this grandly ambitious play about life after death spearheads a much needed re-appraisal of J B Priestley's work
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JB Priestley described his 1939 play Johnson Over Jordan as "an adventure in theatre". It turned out to be an adventure offstage as well as on. The piece was both his most searchingly experimental stage work and – in its original production starring Ralph Richardson – his most high-profile flop. In an effort to survive, the show even switched venues, with much re-writing en route. As Priestley later summed it up: "The fate of the play was as fantastic as its form." It takes the most ordinary of men (a manager who began his career as a humble clerk) and catapults him into the strangest of situations. Dying of pneumonia at 51, Robert Johnson re-engages with the life he had apparently wasted in a jumbled, posthumous dream of memories, fears, secret longings, hopes and regrets – an experience which owes something to the Tibetan concept of the bardo, or prolonged intermediate state between physical death and ultimate release.

Tonight the play opens in its first revival for over 50 years at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where it forms the centrepiece of a major and much-needed Priestley retrospective. It's true that his stock rose in the 1990s thanks to Stephen Daldry's celebrated Expressionist makeover of An Inspector Calls. But the suspicion lingers that this startling production flatters Priestley, when in fact Daldry's staging is a shrewd and imaginative response to what is already radical (both formally and politically) in the work.

It might surprise many attending Inspector to learn that Bradford-born Priestley, often deprecated as "Jolly Jack" and as a pipe-puffing middlebrow, had made his own experiments with Expressionism. Virginia Woolf typified the Modernists' snobbish disdain when she dismissed him as "one of the tradesmen of letters". But her put-down looks ironic when you consider that Priestley's 1938 play Music At Night – an attempt to dramatise the subjective responses of a group of people listening to the first performance of a violin sonata – is the nearest equivalent in the drama of the period to Woolf's own explorations of collective consciousness in novels like The Waves. Priestley's offence was to believe that expanding the possibilities of art did not involve shrinking the audience to a highbrow coterie. He wanted to take the people with him, and it's significant that in the original run of Johnson, the cheaper seats were packed: it was the so-called élite who cold-shouldered it. Arguably the sneering toffs still set the agenda on Priestley – restricting our perception of him, to this day, to that of the author of a couple of trusty war-horses and a handful of regularly revived "time" plays.

Such considerations have inspired Jude Kelly, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to mount a wide-ranging re-examination of this voluminously prolific dramatist, novelist, screenwriter, critic, essayist, broadcaster, producer and con-troversialist. The choice of Johnson Over Jordan as the nucleus of the season arose partly because the play offers the most bracing challenge of any piece in the canon, and partly because Kelly wanted to work again with Patrick Stewart, who, before he took over the helm of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, was one of our foremost classical actors. This current project brings the actor back to his native Yorkshire in a part that poses a peculiar tech- nical challenge. For while Johnson is the dominant central character and never offstage, the role consists largely in reacting to the subjective world that the rest of the cast embody and drive forward.

Here I must declare an interest. I went on sabbatical leave from The Independent this summer in order to work, at Jude Kelly's invitation, as the dramaturg on Johnson. My function was to do background research and offer advice on the reshaping and (at points) rewriting of the material. It's an experience that has taken me to (among other places) the Priestley Archive in Austin, Texas and the main rehearsal room at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. And on one occasion (I'm ashamed to say), it drove me to a boorish tantrum that the young John McEnroe might have envied.

But then, Reviving Johnson Over Jordan is a tricky business. The overall effect of the piece is deeply stirring; the writing, though, is decidedly uneven. The published text is, as it were, a snapshot of a staging that Priestley came to see was misconceived. Making a false equation between largeness of theme and scale of production, he and his producer, Basil Dean had seized on the play as the chance to deploy all the resources of theatre. Hence the huge cast, the 20-strong orchestra, the two composers (one the young Benjamin Britten), the irrelevant ballets and the grotes-que masks. The critics were unanimous in their praise of the sublime final sequence where Ralph Richardson's Johnson – a forlorn figure, picked out against the immensity of the heavens – walked, with his bowler hat and briefcase, towards the stars. But the human significance of Johnson's journey up to that point was swamped by the overblown production values.

With a cast of just 10 and a score for two pianos, Kelly's revival aims to put that significance back at the centre of the proceedings. The various adjustments it makes are designed to heighten a sense of the unusualness and generosity of what Priestley was attempting here. The Modernists would have derided Robert Johnson as a "hollow man", one of those tepid souls who fail to qualify for either bliss or damnation, because they lack the spiritual range. But the fact that Johnson is a fool who has always been too anxious and inhibited to grab hold of his life, rather than a wicked man, is precisely what elicits Priestley's creative sympathies. Though it makes use of the Christian burial service, the play strikingly dispenses with any conventional religious framework. It does not present Johnson with a series of penitential tasks or a purgatorial sentence. What is required of him is hauntingly passive: a recognition of all the inadequacies of communication and attentiveness that have left him hovering nervously on the threshold of his existence.

Not that the bardo state allows him to cross over that threshold with any confident final flourish. The moments where human connections are at long last made are piercingly poignant, because they are so fugitive and incomplete. The figures in his past never assemble for a group photograph of smiling forgiveness. There are no major chords. This is the not at all the same as in the analogous 1946 movie, It's A Wonderful Life, where the Jimmy Stewart character is redeemed from his sense of unfulfilment by the knowledge of how much good his self-sacrifice has achieved. Through the Kafkaesque nightmare of the Universal Assurance Offices, to a sordid, bestial nightclub and then to the recuperative Inn at the End of the World, Johnson's journey is less sentimental: its goal is to arrive at a point where he can see his life for what it has – and has not – been, and then move on into the unknown.

Priestley was an intriguing mix of the journalist and the visionary – a man who could simultaneously write an excellent account of England in the Depression (English Journey), and pour forth speculations about time, dreams and the imaginative inadequacy of a four-dimensional model of reality. In this play, the mundane and the mystical are brought into particularly affecting relation. In the Texas archive, I came across a fan letter sent to him by the great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung: "Your one face is so much turned to the world that one is surprised again and again to meet another face which is turned to the great abyss of things... I want to let you know how much I appreciate this superhuman faculty of looking at things with a straight and an inverted eye." It's a tribute that certainly fits the author of Johnson Over Jordan.

'Johnson Over Jordan' opens tonight at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds and runs to 29 Sept (0113-213 7700)

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