All playwrights have forgotten works. For J.B. Priestly, best known as author of An Inspector Calls, that work is Cornelius, a 1935 drama about the perils of capitalism that ran for under two months on London's West End. In 2012, London's Finborough Theatre revived the work as part of their season of rediscoveries. An acclaimed, sold-out run subsequently followed. Now, it has transferred to 59E59 as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival where it similarly received rave reviews. At the center of the production is Alan Cox's titanic performance in the title role. We recently spoke with Cox about his run in the play, which concludes June 30. An edited version of the conversation is as follows.
How would you say the run is going?
Very nicely. We're picking up some good houses. The generally positive reviews have been very helpful. It's always good to play to a full house.
Do you read reviews?
I have them read to me. My mother and my sister have been in town and they've read them.
There's nothing to be afraid of — these are all universally positive.
I'm not gonna give you any leads but that's not entirely true. The ones I remember are the negative ones. If a tramp calls you an asshole, you think someone's been talking to him.
Did you know Cornelius before you started?
No, I didn't. I knew J.B. Priestly through An Inspector Calls, the Time Plays, and Dangerous Corner. I'd never heard of it. [Director] Sam Yates was given the play by Neil McPherson, who's the artistic director of the Finborough [where the production originated]. He had a collection of plays from the 1930s, sort of neglected classics. Sam had a hit with an Irish play called Mixed Marriage, and then Neil suggested he have a read of Cornelius, and then he sent it to me. We met through a mutual connection: Michael Grandage. I was here in New York doing The Caretaker and I read the play on my iPad on a bench in Central Park.
Was a New York transfer part of the package when you started?
Not at all. I think, basically, what happened was the Finborough had come over to Brits Off Broadway before, and there was some buzz around Sam. They're always looking for the new messiah of the theater, and I think Sam is attaining to that status. So both Peter Tear and Elysabeth Kleinhans [of 59E59] saw the show very early on in the run and said this would be perfect.
Why does the play resonate now?
I think because it's to do with gentlemanly conduct in a kind of materialistic world. J.B. Priestly was a self-proclaimed liberal socialist, but also a humanist. He didn't have much luck with organized religion, but he had a strong ethical sense…[He wanted to write about] the ethics of capitalism and exploring it. Is it possible to be a decent man in a high-pressured environment? He was very much writing the role of Cornelius for his friend, Ralph Richardson, who had a similarly earthbound nature.
Is it intimidating to follow in the footsteps of a titan like Richardson?
Not really. Sadly, he's not really current in popular memory. He certainly is in my trade. My father [Brian Cox] is an actor, and he had worked with Sir Ralph, so he was always a personality in my consciousness.
How different are the American audiences compared to the British ones?
I think the audiences here haven't been corrupted by European avant-garde-ism. The popular playwrights here have found a popular audience. That's not to say the Becketts and Pinters in this world haven't found their audiences. There's an austerity that crept into the [British] drama after World War II. You have the August Wilsons and Arthur Millers and Eugene O'Neills and Tennessee Williamses that have an epic poetic dimension, and are good old-fashioned entertainment. The American audiences are much more into the play as entertainment with a debate within it. They get the laughs. English audiences can be a bit stiff. In my experiences, American audiences are much more participatory.
What do you want them to take away from this play?
You want the audience to feel that they participated in a shared experience. That sounds goody-goody, but there it is.