The Linden Tree

The Linden Tree was the last of Priestley’s solo plays to achieve both a critical and commercial success. It ran in London’s West End for no fewer than 422 performances.

Like some of Priestley’s other major plays The Linden Tree features a solidly middle-class family. Its head is Professor Robert Linden, who holds the Chair of Modern History at the provincial University of Burmanley. As the play opens the family is assembling to celebrate his 65th birthday, the official age of retirement. But the professor does not wish to retire, much to the dismay of his wife, Isabel, who badly wants to leave Burmanley and enjoy life in their remaining years together. This sets off a family crisis, into which the other members of the family are drawn: the son, Rex, who has successfully, and cynically, worked the stock market and has no intention of getting married and settling down; the eldest daughter Jean, an overworked hospital doctor going though a messy love affair, who very much believes in a ‘disciplined scientific society’; her younger sister Marion, who has married a Frenchman, enjoys an easeful life and embraced Catholicism; and the baby of the family, 18-year-old Dinah, who plays the cello and is full of life and hope. Priestley’s sympathies – for his voice can be clearly heard through that of Linden – appear to lie very much with the latter, who has a traditional view of what constitutes a proper higher education and believes he still has something to offer; with Dinah; and with Mrs Cotton, the grumbling but devoted housekeeper. These are the three characters who Priestley seems to see as epitomising the sort of people who are the best hope for a war-ravished, austerity Britain trying to forge a new way of life for itself.

The themes of The Linden Tree are various, serious and, in some cases, timeless: life under a (new and reforming) Labour government during a period of privations which in some ways are as bad as those during the war; religious belief versus science and atheism; the morality, immorality or amorality, according to individual opinion, of making ‘easy money’; the special kinship between youth and old age; and the different views on higher education.

This very human, humane and strongly characterised play may be Priestley’s finest contribution to the stage. In his important and fascinating book State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945, published in 2007, the distinguished theatre critic Michael Billington singles it out for special praise as a key work in the immediate post-war theatre. Yet it has been strangely neglected : in recent years there have been only two professional productions and those only by smaller theatres in the Greater London area, whilst amateur productions are quite rare. It is worth mentioning, however, that when the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond revived it in 2006 it was both a commercial and a (considerable) critical success, reflecting its original production. It stands ready to be given a major revival, either by a national company or one of the principal regional theatres.

The J B Priestley Society has published a critical guide to the play, A Family In Crisis, which is available for sale in hard copy or download.

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