Alan Cox as Jim Cornelius

Alan Cox as Jim Cornelius

People may become obsolete before they become dead. Lear “but usurped his life,” and Willie Loman opined “you end up worth more dead than alive.” This is the problem facing Jim Cornelius (played with seductive charm by Alan Cox), the eponymous hero of J. B. Priestley’s 1935 play, Cornelius, on now at 59E59 Theatre. He is the junior partner in the aluminum import firm of Briggs and Murrison, which is facing hard times. Mr. Cornelius must hold the company’s creditors at bay until Bob Murrison (Jamie Newall) returns from a tour of northern England in hopes of scaring up more business. If Mr. Murrison fails to find more revenue, the small office of six people will go under, and what was once a sustaining enterprise will expire.

The revival of this play, which hasn’t been produced for seventy-eight years, is rightly being touted by both English and American critics as a lost gem newly recovered. Priestly, whose socialism earned him a place on “Orwell’s List” of possible communist sympathizers, was a best-selling novelist by the time Cornelius was first produced. In 1935, the nadir of the Great Depression in England, there was little to inspire hope and a lot to worry about. Hitler and Mussolini were bloviating ominously on the continent, global capitalism continued to sputter, and technological innovation was turning predictable rhythms of life inside out.

In short, human beings were suffering from the first — but not the last — great crisis of Modernity. Any history book will tell you that Bretton Woods, Glass-Steagall and the welfare state were reactions to the social, political and economic turbulence of the 1930s. And as Reinhart and Rogoff argued in their book 2010 book This Time Is Different, crises like the Great Depression are not anomalies, but regular features of advanced capitalism exacerbated by social and technological innovation. The question is, do human beings — can human beings — transcend the churning of institutionalized revolution, or are we just random bits of flotsam and jetsam tossed on a hurricane of change we have unleashed but don’t understand and can’t fully control?

Priestley’s play argues through the person of Jim Cornelius that we can transcend this self-made chaos, that, in fact, it is a moral imperative to transcend it. At times, this makes the play feel more like a cross between a Medieval morality play and a preachy 70s sitcom than a work of social realism from the Great Depression, perhaps because most of the characters appear more like types than like fully fleshed-out individuals. Lawrence (David Ellis) is a tech geek. At nineteen, he’s worked as a clerk for five years copying company documents by hand, and he’s sick of it. He loves wireless technology (like radio) and wants to open his own, original Radio Shack. Biddle (Col Farrell), the company accountant, is an amateur platonist, loyal company man, and 19th century relic. Two secretaries (Judy Evison and Pandora Colin), one older and one younger, represent women under capitalism.

Mr. Murrison, the elder partner, frayed to the breaking point by the global depression, sees the writing on the wall. An old man who has spent his entire life in one line of business, he feels he can’t adapt to the new world brought into being by the Depression. Mr. Murrison’s suicidal thoughts come from understanding that the spirit of capitalism is constant, institutionalized revolution, or as Brooks Stevens put it in the 1950s, planned obsolescence. This idea doesn’t just apply to things, like the tabletop computer you may be reading this review on, or your phone, or tablet computer, but to people as well. As Paul Krugman points out in his recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Sympathy for the Luddites,” sometimes technological innovation means making skills that took a lot of time to acquire, like four very expensive years of medical school, irrelevant.

When Cornelius complains to the meeting of his firm’s creditors that global capitalism makes doing a bit of useful business into a “lunatic’s race,” and when young Lawrence goes on about his fascination with radio and his hatred of doing things the old, time-consuming way, we recognize these types from our own age. Cornelius does not take the next step and conclude that the shortages, redundancies and human suffering created by capitalism is a social (rather than a natural) problem, however, because to do so would be to accept the truly radical, socialist proposition that we have a moral responsibility to redistribute wealth when it becomes concentrated by unchecked capital flows. Instead, Mr. Cornelius retreats into a fantasy of personal transcendence, a pseudo-Christian faith that he will find his personal promised land (in this case, Incan Peru) in the wilds of his Romantic imagination. And this is, sadly, the most resonant aspect of this revival — our continuing unwillingness to see the recent financial crisis and continuing employment crisis as the outcome of man-made policies.

Paradoxically, Alan Cox’s great success in portraying Jim Cornelius as an inspiring, intelligent, witty survivor militates against Cornelius’s success as a play of social protest. At the end of the play when Cornelius “chooses life,” it is possible to understand this as a victory of social darwinism. With his inner struggle against depression and nihilism resolved through force of will and the power of positive thinking, Cornelius strides back into the cutthroat world as a conqueror. Certainly, we may imagine someone as well-spoken, passionate and charismatic as Alan Cox will land on his feet no matter what happens. But that emotional truth, which takes its narrative force from the classic “hero’s journey,” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when compared with the numbers of equally talented, passionate, and well-spoken men who end up like Mr. Murrison — not because they were weak, but because the government chose to take the creditors’ side over the debtors’.

At 59E59 Theatres through June 30th