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At the crossroads between time and place: performing boxes in Priestley’s Dangerous Corner

Au carrefour du temps et de l’espace : le jeu des boîtes dans Dangerous Corner de Priestley
Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

Résumés

Dangerous Corner de J.B. Priestley fait jouer aux objets un rôle tout à fait singulier dans l’économie de la représentation théâtrale. La boîte à cigarettes musicale qui circule dans la pièce, en particulier, est placée au croisement des deux genres qui sont convoqués dans Dangerous Corner: celui de l’enquête policière, et celui du métathéâtre. Elle constitue un pivot pour la définition par le dramaturge de son art comme art du temps. Soumise à un processus de devenir-chose, la boîte se déréalise au cours de la pièce, perd son aspect objectif pour devenir un signifiant ambigu de la fictionnalité théâtrale. Elle permet aussi au spectateur de faire l’expérience simultanée de deux séquences temporelles irréconciliables: celle du temps chronologique de la reconstitution objective des faits passés qui se modélise sur le temps de l’Histoire, et celle du temps intensif de la création artistique tel qu’elle se trouve à l’œuvre dans la représentation fictionnelle. Ainsi, la boîte que Priestley met en scène dans Dangerous Corner joue sur scène le drame du sens comme actualisation d’une virtualité sous-jacente.

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1Dangerous Corner, one of Priestley’s most frequently performed “time plays”, begins as a whodunit triggered by the characters’ disagreement as to the whereabouts of a musical cigarette box. Like Pandora’s box, the cigarette box unleashes a series of questions which follow one another in logical order, to uncover the unsavoury truth that each of the members of the “snug little group” gathered on the occasion of a party has played a more or less active role in the murder of Martin Kaplan. In the final twist of the plot which goes back to the beginning of the play and repeats it until the moment when the box is proffered, the whole whodunit is exposed as a mere theatre broadcast, a work of fiction, and the play ends up in a dance. The twist of the plot which reveals the whodunit series as a play within the play, leaves it for the audience to decide whether they want to opt for one or the other of the two endings, the tragic one where Robert the husband commits suicide because he cannot take the “truth” any longer, or the conventional one where the characters are seen to be dancing gaily. Alternatively, the spectator may decide not to choose between the two endings, so as to welcome the experience of perceiving two irreconcilable time sequences simultaneously. Time is indeed central to the play, since the theatrical device of the double plot originated in Priestley’s own desire as a playwright to give the spectator access to another time dimension: “All that happens between the two blackouts in the play is neither an actual happening nor yet somebody’s dream, but a What-Might-Have-Been, a sudden excursion for all the people concerned into some other kind of time” (Innes 369).

2I would like to contend that the musical cigarette box in Dangerous Corner is the theatrical solution found by Priestley to make such an excursion possible. The disclosure that the box is not an accessory to the fact in a whodunit, but a fictitious prop in a mise en abyme, makes it unclear which ending of the play the reader should take as the “real” one. Should she consider the whodunit and its disclosure of social hypocrisy to be the main argument of the play, or the disclosure of its fictionality the final point the playwright wishes to make? And if the framing play is to be taken as the real play, what is to be thought of the eerie concluding scene of social harmony in a dance? At the crossroads between two different stories, two different interpretations of the playwright’s intent, two genres even, the box appears as a pivot in the dynamic movement of making sense of the play, a key element in the spectator’s understanding of what Dangerous Corner is about both as a “problem play” and as a “time play”. As the plot enfolds, the box undergoes transformation, even metamorphosis, from an object whose objectivity is held together by the generic economy of the whodunit, into a thing, a de-objectified object which forces us to reconsider the way the objective world may be engaged by drama. As the spectator’s belief in the actual being-there of the box on stage is shattered, and the fictionality of the box highlighted by the final plot twist, the box is submitted to an anamorphic process. ist meaning starts oscillating, demonstrating that meaning is never already there but “eventmental” in nature, the product of an “encounter” which takes place in time and even coincides with the enfolding of time since meaning is forcefully shown to be the product of the actualisation of a virtual dimension in the box. The cigarette box in Priestley’s play thus possesses a unique ontological status. It does not merely serve a metatheatrical function on top of its representational function, like other props in the play such as the radio which the characters keep fiddling with. Used as a kind of Pandorra’s box which releases fictionality, the cigarette box is made to enact the very temporal dimension of meaning.

The Box as Object

3A critical topos in Priestleyan studies consists in saying that Priestley’s plays waver between a naturalistic and an expressionistic stance. Until its final twist of the plot which deflates the spectator’s illusion of reality, Dangerous Corner seems to belong to the former category. The musical cigarette box which appears at the beginning of the play and reappears after the second blackout contributes to this impression, since it anchors the play in the referential social reality of a bourgeois party in the English society between the wars. Until the second blackout, the box plays the role of a naturalistic device inviting the spectator’s entrance into the kind of bourgeois setting that is depicted. It is used in accordance with its utility value, as it is being proferred and opened whenever the characters wish to smoke, the act of smoking being itself presented as a contribution to the social harmony which the whodunit uncovers as hypocritical. The music the box plays also contributes to its identification as the type of curio that may be exhibited on such a social occasion. Even the title of the song the box plays, “the wedding March”, contributes to the naturalistic illusion, since it underlines the hypocrisy which the whodunit reveals—the characters’ taste for country cottages as a perfect setting for their dirty little secrets, the “pattern” of “adoring husbands and wives” (Priestley 17) which they seem to follow but which they all depart from, their smooth social relations which are explicitly surreal, “too good to be true” (Priestley 17). All the stereotypes of a bourgeois society built around the importance of matrimony and harmonious social relations are denoted by the cigarette box which appears as a means for the playwright to anchor his play in the reality of his subject-matter. Indeed, before the play’s alternative second ending, the box seems to be performing to the letter the kind of referential role it is given in the tradition of detective fiction. Presented as an accessory to the murder which is investigated into, the box appears as a means of identifying the time and conditions of the victim’s death. It also leads to the discovery of the culprit, Olwen, who has murdered Martin Kaplan as he was attempting to rape her. The way the whodunit enfolds follows the traditional pattern of an inquest: much as in a judicial enquiry, the identification of the box proceeds according to that of its whereabouts. For instance, when the box triggers remembrance in Olwen: “O, I remember that box. It plays a tune at you, doesn’t it? I remember the tune. Yes, it’s the Wedding March, isn’t it?” (Priestley 22), this interpretation is substantiated by the fact that, when Olwen opens the box, it plays the tune. Reciprocally, Freda, who maintains that Olwen can’t have seen the box, insists on the temporal and spatial positionings of the box as crucial to a truthful reconstruction of reality: “It can’t have been this box you remember. This is the first time I’ve had it out. It belonged to—someone else” (22). As in a police investigation, the box is perceived as a piece of evidence in the identification of the person who last saw the victim: it constitutes a clue to the facts in the case. Thus, the box is made to appear as an objective correlative around which the generic identity of the whodunit can coalesce. It is represented as the “object out there” which provides the whodunit with its force of conviction and its liveliness at the source of our willing suspension of disbelief. ist role as an objective token of referentiality even makes it appears as fodder for fiction making, a detail a novelist would immediately want to seize upon: “[Miss Mockridge the novelist]’ll embroider that cigarette box story and have it all round London within a week. . . She’ll probably start a new novel in the morning and we’ll all be in it” (Priestley 31). The box contributes to our impression that the whodunit is the “real” play in Dangerous Corner and that the final revelation of the plot twist is not important dramatically, an impression that is borne out by the sense of eeriness conveyed by the final harmonious dance scene, which brings together characters who have been witnessed to be at each other’s throats in the preceding scene. Indeed, the box appears as an objective prop in a play, which requires from us a willing suspension of disbelief according to which we hold the prop as a fragment of reality.

4Interestingly, the box as a means of anchoring the play in the detective genre appears as spatial: a concrete token of referentiality, something the spectator can see, a three-dimensional object the characters touch and manipulate, an object whose being-there is not questionable. The fact that the box is physically present in the space of representation makes it appear as a by-product of the spatiality of theatre, confirming it as an object which donates its meaning directly and immediately because visible in its spatial dimension. In that sense, the box in the whodunit designates theatre as an art of space, based on the capacity to transcend the two- dimensional flatness of the written text thanks to the volume of its material reality.

The “Thingnification” of the Box

5A radical change in paradigms takes place after the second blackout in the play when Olwen, who is in love with Robert, starts a second time series by declaring, while the stage remains in the dark, that Robert’s suicide “can’t happen. It shan’t happen”. At this point, the play goes back to the opening scene where the characters were seen and heard to be commenting on the theatre broadcast they’d been listening to on the radio. This device makes the whodunit appear as a play within the play, as a fiction of a “real” play. Like in the first scene of the play, the box is brought forth in the final scene, but it fails to arouse controversy. Instead, the spectator’s attention is diverted from the box to the radio which Gordon has been fiddling with. The tune the radio starts playing, which is ironically entitled “can’t we talk it over” sets the characters dancing and the play ends on a eerily harmonious scene.

6What does the plot twist change in the play and in our ways of apprehending it? As it reveals that the whodunit was mere fiction, it blurs the frontiers between genres, so that the box ceases to appear as the objective correlative around which the detective story was made to coalesce. Instead, the box becomes an opaque thing, a kernel of resistance to interpretation, a pivot of fictionality within the fiction of the play, depending on whether one considers the second ending of the play to be the “real” ending of the play, for all its unlikeliness, and the whodunit as the fictitious element in the play, or whether one prefers to opt for the thrilling inquest into the murder and its tragic ending as the expressions of the dramatic intent of the playwright. Indeed, the device of the mise en abyme de-realizes and de-objectifies the box, turns it into a thing, that is to say into an object whose objectivity has become problematic. As a consequence, the box loses its spatial dimension, its concrete nature as a three-dimensional object in space. ist disclosure as a fictional device makes it appear as ontologically ambiguous, a flickering signifier traversed by the time of interpretation more than a solid token of theatrical referentiality.

7Thanks to its repeated appearance on stage according to two different regimes of meaning, that of referentiality and that of fictionality, the box enacts the reality of meaning as becoming. A means of. repeating two different time series with variations, an embodiment of the playwright’s own philosophy of time, the box performs in time as well as in space. It is revealed as an open field of possibilities, a matrix of virtual fiction that may or may not be actualized, a means with which to flatter or shatter our theatrical illusions, depending on whether we opt for one or the other of the two endings to the play. Simultaneously, the box moves to the centre of the creative process, since its fictionality signals its investment by the reader’s or the spectator’s imagination, and its pivotal role in the creation of alternate fictional worlds.

8By the same token, when the naturalistic veneer of the play is scratched, and the whodunit appears as a play within the play, the reconstruction of history it was based on appears as fictional too. As the box is de-objectified, the temporal linearity of the process of examination and cross-examination in the whodunit has to be revised, since it is based on the possibility of an objective reconstruction of past events that is deflated by the play. Dematerialized, the box ceases to be a springboard for the objective reconstruction of the past. By this means, Dangerous Corner produces a dramatic staging of history, or reconstructed past, as a simulacrum in an economy of simulacra, as a play within the play. The cigarette box releasing fictionality is thus a perfect embodiment of the specific economy of the simulacrum on stage. The objectivity of chronological history is questioned when that of the box starts vacillating, our access to something not unlike the objective truth of the past being fraught with impossibility. If Dangerous Corner can be read as one of Priestley’s unveiling plays, where the coverings that conceal the truth are stripped away piece by piece, what those coverings uncover is that there is nothing like the naked truth of objects or events, nothing but a screen of smoke. Thus, the play defines truth as what one can or cannot talk over, (and), according to the time structure one adopts the music which the box is heard to be playing is certainly programmatic in that respect. As the characters declare, the truth is not even wanted, what is interesting is the way the stripping is performed. No longer an objective and chronological means to have access to the reality of past events, time identifies with the performance of meaning.

Performing the time of Art

9At the crossroads between referentiality and fictionality, poised between two economies of representation, the box questions both regimes of meaning. It is not just solidly there, motionlessly waiting for us to identify it as an object, it is also dynamic in its critical questioning of our ways of apprehending time. It challenges conceptions of representation where the truthfulness of things reigns supreme. Beyond the question of representation, Dangerous Corner addresses the problem of phenomenological time. It suggests a possibility of moving from the representation of the discursive conditions to reach the truth, at the centre of the whodunit as a genre, to the temporal dimension of meaning as a process of making sense. Dangerous Corner stages the idea that meaning is “eventmental”, or traversed by the event, in so far as it depends on our decisions to actualize the virtual of meaning.

10If according to Husserl, “to feel is to experience the original consciousness of time” (Ricœur 48), then Dangerous Corner takes issue with Husserlian phenomenology, since it allows us to experience two contradictory modes of time simultaneously, the reconstructed chronological time of the inquest and the intensive time of dramatic creation. The play’s blurring of the distinction between reality and fiction does not lead to any hierarchy between the two: there is no precedence of the real play over the fictitious play, no superior truth with which to measure the simulacrum. Indeed, the musical box may equally be interpreted as an objective correlative and as an opener of fictionality. Not only are the series de-hierarchized, but they are also interchangeable: we may revert from one to the other. Like Wittgenstein’s famous example of the anamorphic duck-rabbit, the mode of becoming of the musical cigarette box is anamorphic: it is made to appear alternatively as a thing whose opacity gives birth to a fictitious whodunit, and as a point of anchorage into the referential reality. This anamorphic ambiguity of the box shows that things on stage may perform meaning as much as characters do. Indeed, in Dangerous Corner, it is not so much signs that force us to think, but things that wink at us for us to try and grasp their mysterious indeterminacy. Oscillating between fictionality and objectivity, the musical cigarette box is literally made to enact the discourse it produces on the historicity of our perceptions and representations.

11If the box in Dangerous Corner is a talkative thing, a chatterbox producing reflexive discourse, then it is also a performing artist. ist anamorphic form is the theatrical solution Priestley comes up with to stage his conception of the theatre as an art of time. The cigarette box is a flickering, winking thing performing the event of meaning and its intermittency in its very movement of oscillation between referentiality and fictionality. Oscillating between time and space, at the crossroads between the embedded play and the framing play, the box enacts before our very eyes the fact that the artistic event is the product of a decision to actualize the virtual of meaning. It is not merely received passively by the spectator but must be made to happen.

12Critics have often considered that Dangerous Corner was something of a failure: Priestley’s desire to experiment with time was considered as an obstacle to the aesthetic value of the play. And it is true that to a certain extent, Dangerous Corner is an attempt to put to the test a theory of time which Priestley found in J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time and the Serial Universe, according to which there can be splits in the time process from which two alternative series of events can be set in motion. But my contention is that Priestley’s experiment with time does not mar the play. On the contrary, it develops an intuition as to the nature of the time of art. The transformation of the box from an object into a thing enables the spectator to jump on a time-shuttle that is going back and forth between objective time and the intensive time of fiction. As the ambiguity of the representational status of the box allows for the possibility of imaginary investment and fiction making, it deconstructs our phenomenological illusions of the immediacy of the perception of objects. By the same token, our epistemological grids of reading the object are replaced by “eventmental” modes of encountering things and incorporating them into our own fictions. Contrary to John Osborne’s assertion in the mid-50’s that Priestley’s theatre is “casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable disenfranchised wilderness” (Osborne 8), Dangerous Corner is quite innovative, not so much in style as in the performance of its musical cigarette box. Priestley himself dismissed Dangerous Corner as a “mere box of tricks”, in his introduction to the 1962 edition of the play. For my part, I think the tricks played by the box in Dangerous Corner deserve due consideration. The process of “thingnification” which the box undergoes in the play enables the spectator to experience alternatives to the inescapable “conveyor belt to extinction” that is linear chronological time. We are made to embark on a different time-shuttle, that of fiction making which is of an intensive and affective nature. Yet, as the play’s double structure makes it possible for the spectator to view the box both as a mute object and as a fictional device, the spectator is also allowed a unique type of temporal experience, whereby he is immersed in two contradictory temporal schemes simultaneously. The process of becoming in time which the musical cigarette box enacts is the very movement of the event of meaning on stage. An ever renewed actualization of the virtual, it is of the essence of theatrical performance.

13There is no final interpretative key in Dangerous Corner, no hermeneutic tin opener to the meaning of the play. Maybe just a “thing” opener that unleashes the performance of “thingnifiance”. In that, the attention the play pays to its representation of objects is very modern: it displays a desire to move away from the purely linguistic, into the non-linguistic, into performance. The box as physical performance of the becoming of meaning suspends time or rather multiplies it, points to its intermittency as well as to its presence; it performs duration on stage—not too bad a trick for a box!

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, « At the crossroads between time and place: performing boxes in Priestley’s Dangerous Corner »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2019, consulté le 04 décembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/5973; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.5973

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

Université Lille 2

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