Why would a black actor want to play in a Priestley play, anyway?

As Emsworth noted in an earlier post, certain factions have been lobbying the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) to hire more actors of color and to cast them in lead roles. Why wasn’t a black actor considered for the lead in An Inspector Calls, they ask, referring to the J. B. Priestley play that was at the Shaw in 2008? (See Emsworth’s review in this post.)

j-b-priestleyWe’re just not sure Priestley himself would have returned the compliment. We’ve been reading Priestley in recent weeks, and just as we were annoyed by the hard-left politics of An Inspector Calls when we saw it on stage at the Shaw last spring, we bristled at the casual racism we found in the old lefty’s books.

Not that the three Priestley books we read (two novels and his travel book, English Journey) actually had anything to do with race.  The novels don’t have any black characters, and Priestley apparently failed to meet any black people during the several-month tour of England that he took in 1933 to gather material for English Journey.

good-companionsNo, the references to race in these books of Priestley’s are entirely random and gratuitous. It’s not just that Priestley’s fictional characters have a habit of dropping the “n” word from time to time — including characters who are presumably speaking Priestley’s own mind. It’s also offensive passages like this one, from the sixth chapter of The Good Companions, Priestley’s successful 1929 novel. One of his characters, Inigo Jollifant, walking near a train station, is surprised to hear someone playing the banjo:

Tired as he was, Inigo found that his feet itched to break into a double shuffle. If the station had been crammed with grinning coons, buried under melons and cotton blossoms, he would not have been surprised.

Or this telling passage from the Lancashire chapter of English Journey, in which Priestley describes his visit to a school in a Liverpool slum quarter for mostly mixed-race children. Most of the girls, the vicar at the school told him, would probably become prostitutes, “following the female family tradition of the quarter.”

I suggested that some of them, especially those with negro blood in them, might prove to have theatrical talent, like the “high yallers” of Harlem; but he replied that in his experience they had never shown any signs of possessing such talent. (But have they ever been given a chance? I doubt it.)

Sadly, this talented playwright, this supposedly progressive thinker who was one of Britain’s leading intellectuals, was also one of those people who felt compelled to pigeon-hole people. To Priestley, what black people were good at was pickin’ and grinnin’.


Eddie Anderson was Donald in You Can't Take It With You. Anderson also worked with Jack Benny as "Rochester."

What a strange pathology! But it was widely shared in his era. I saw another random example of it over the holidays in the Academy-Award-winning movie You Can’t Take It With You. Toward the end of the movie, the eccentric Vanderhoof family is packing up to move from Manhattan to Connecticut, and there’s a quick exchange in the kitchen between Rheba, the household cook, and Donald, the handyman, who are black.

Donald tells Rheba he’s worried about having to move — what if they don’t have “relief” in Connecticut? Assured by Rheba that they have “relief” everywhere, Donald gives a wide smile and relaxes. (This cringe-making scene cannot be blamed on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the original Broadway hit play; it appears only in the movie and must therefore be blamed on Frank Capra.)

That was in 1938. But public stereotyping of black people was still going on in the United States in 1959, when Bob Gibson, one of the heroes of my youth, was coming up with the St. Louis Cardinals. In his fine autobiography, Stranger to the Game, which we just finished, the Hall of Fame pitcher tells how he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 1959 during spring training.

I felt reasonably good about the interview. When the magazine came out, there was a forgettable short story accompanied by a photograph with an unforgettable caption that said something like: “I don’t do no thinkin’ about pitchin’. I just hum dat pea.”


Gibson's 1961 Topps baseball card

Gibson was a college graduate and an articulate man who certainly did not talk like Uncle Remus. Gibson resented the “quote” (he never said any such thing, let alone in dialect) and boycotted the magazine for decades.

How might a black actor feel about speaking the lines of a playwright who thought about black people as J. B. Priestley did? Well, the plays themselves — we’ve read several besides Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls, which we’ve seen — don’t get into race. Presumably Priestley was careful to keep it out of his plays, and if he hadn’t, we suppose that a Shaw Festival director would make cuts and alterations.

The actors at Shaw Festival have no qualms about the works of Bernard Shaw, despite his appalling enthusiasm for the vicious, ruthless, totalitarian Soviet Union, next to which Priestley’s off-handed racism hardly seems worth mentioning. So bring on an all-black cast for the next production of An Inspector Calls!


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