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An introduction to An Inspector Calls

Chris Power introduces An Inspector Calls as a morality play that denounces the hypocrisy and callousness of capitalism and argues that a just society can only be achieved if all individuals feel a sense of social responsibility.

J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, first performed in 1945, is a morality play disguised as a detective thriller. The morality play is a very old theatrical form, going back to the medieval period, which sought to instruct audiences about virtue and evil. Priestley’s play revolves around a central mystery, the death of a young woman, but whereas a traditional detective story involves the narrowing down of suspects from several to one, An Inspector Calls inverts this process as, one by one, nearly all the characters in the play are found to be guilty. In this way, Priestley makes his larger point that society is guilty of neglecting and abusing its most vulnerable members. A just society, he states through his mysterious Inspector, is one that respects and exercises social responsibility.

Photographs from the 1992 production of An Inspector Calls directed by Stephen Daldry

Photographs from the 1992 production of An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is set in a large suburban house belonging to a wealthy family. This photograph is of the set from the 1992 production at the National Theatre, directed by Stephen Daldry.

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Usage terms: © Philip Carter. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

What is social responsibility?

Social responsibility is the idea that a society’s poorer members should be helped by those who have more than them. Priestley was a socialist, and his political beliefs are woven through his work. There are many different types and degrees of socialism, but a general definition is as follows: an ideal socialist society is one that is egalitarian – in other words, its citizens have equal rights and the same opportunities are available to everybody; resources are shared out fairly, and the means of production (the facilities and resources for producing goods) are communally owned.

Therefore, socialism stands in opposition to a capitalist society, such as ours, where trade and industry is mostly controlled by private owners, and these individuals or companies keep the profits made by their businesses, rather than distributing them evenly between the workers whose labour produced them.

It is precisely this difference between a socialist and a capitalist society that Arthur Birling is discussing in Act 1 when Inspector Goole arrives:

But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – a man has to mind his own business and look after himself…

The Inspector’s arrival cuts Arthur Birling off mid-sentence, enacting in miniature the clash between two ideological positions that unfolds throughout the rest of the play.

The play’s structure and setting

An Inspector Calls is a three-act play with one setting: the dining room of ‘a fairly large suburban house belonging to a fairly prosperous manufacturer’. The year is 1912, and we are in the home of the Birling family in the fictional industrial city of Brumley in the North Midlands. In the dining room five people are finishing their dinner: four members of the Birling family and one guest. Arthur Birling is a factory owner; his wife Sibyl is on the committee of a charity, and is usually scolding someone for a social mistake. Their adult children are Sheila and Eric, and their guest is Gerald Croft, Sheila’s fiancé, who is from a wealthier manufacturing family than the Birlings. One other person is present: Edna the maid, who is going back and forth to the sideboard with dirty plates and glasses.

Photographs of An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley (1946 London premiere)

Photographs of An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley (1946 London premiere)

An Inspector Calls is set in a large suburban house belonging to a wealthy family. This photograph is from the 1946 production at the New Theatre, London, directed by Basil Dean and starring Ralph Richardson as the Inspector,

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Priestley’s description of the set at the beginning of the play script stresses the solidity of the Birlings' dining room: ‘It is a solidly built room, with good solid furniture of the period’. But a later section of this scene-setting – on the walls are ‘imposing but tasteless pictures and engravings’, and the ‘general effect is substantial and comfortable and old-fashioned but not cosy and homelike’ – suggests that although the Birling’s have wealth and social standing, they are not loving to one another or compassionate to others. The setting of the play in a single room also suggests their self-absorption, and disconnectedness from the wider world.

Priestley establishes each of the characters in this opening scene. Arthur Birling is a capitalist businessman through and through, entirely focussed on profit even when discussing the marriage of his daughter:

I’m sure you’ll make her happy. You’re just the kind of son-in-law I’ve always wanted. Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now – though Crofts Limited are both older and bigger than Birling and Company – and now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices.

His wife Sibyl scolds him, telling him it isn’t the occasion for that kind of talk, establishing her as someone primarily interested in doing things properly and conforming to established social rules. Sheila, at this stage in the play, seems to be preoccupied by the thought of her marriage to Gerald, a privileged and deeply conservative man of 30, while the youngest Birling, Eric, appears more interested in the port going around the table than anything anyone is saying.

Meeting notes about the set and staging of An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre, 1992

Meeting notes about the set and staging of An Inspector Calls 1992

These notes show the process of developing the set and staging which made Stephen Daldry’s 1992 show radically different from earlier productions of An Inspector Calls.

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Usage terms: © PW Productions. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Priestley has some fun using this opening section to show how wrong Arthur Birling’s opinions are, thus positioning the play as anti-capitalist. He does this through the use of dramatic irony, having Arthur state opinions that the audience, with the advantage of hindsight, knows to be incorrect. When Eric mentions the likelihood of war – remember that the play is set two years before the outbreak of World War One – but was written and first performed 30 years later – Arthur cuts him off:

… you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks! The Germans don’t want war. Nobody wants war, except some half-civilised folks in the Balkans. And why? There’s too much at stake these days. Everything to lose and nothing to gain by war.

He goes on to describe an ocean liner that is clearly meant to be the Titanic (which sank in April 1912) as ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’, and suggests that in time, ‘let’s say, in the forties’, ‘all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares’ will be long forgotten. In fact, as audiences in 1945 would have been keenly aware, the period between 1912 and 1945 saw a huge number of strikes, including the monumental General Strike of 1926, and not one but two global conflicts, the second of which had only recently ended.

Dramatic irony is rarely a subtle technique, but Priestley’s use of it is exceptionally blunt. This could be considered clumsy, but it underlines the fact that An Inspector Calls is a play with a point to make, and a character whose sole job is to make it.

The Inspector

When Inspector Goole arrives everything changes. He tells the Birlings and Gerald that a young woman, Eva Smith, has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant, and he has questions about the case. Over the course of the next two acts he will lay responsibility for Eva Smith’s death at the feet of each of the Birlings and Gerald Croft, showing how their indifference to social responsibility has contributed to the death of this young woman. Or is it young women? He shows each person an identifying photograph of the dead woman one by one, leading Gerald to later suspect they were all shown photographs of different women.

Programme for An Inspector Calls, together with a review

Programme for An Inspector Calls, together with a review

This programme cover is from the 1993 National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls at the Aldwych Theatre, directed by Stephen Daldry.

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Usage terms: © The Estate of J.B. Priestley. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Michael Billington: © Michael Billington. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Henrietta Butler: © Henrietta Butler / ArenaPAL www.arenapal.com © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

But who is the Inspector? In the play’s penultimate twist, he is revealed not to be a police inspector at all, yet, as Eric states, ‘He was our Police Inspector, all right’. Details about him are scant. He says he is newly posted to Brumley, and he is impervious to Arthur Birling’s threats about his close relationship with the chief constable ‘I don’t play golf’, he tells Birling. ‘I didn’t suppose you did’, the industrialist replies: a brief exchange that makes a clear point about class, and the battle between egalitarianism and privilege. Beyond these sparse biographical details, the Inspector seems less like a person and more like a moral force, one which mercilessly pursues the wrongs committed by the Birlings and Gerald, demanding that they face up to the consequences of their actions. His investigation culminates in a speech that is a direct expression of Priestley’s own view of how a just society should operate, and is the exact antithesis of the speech Arthur Birling made in Act 1:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. We don’t live alone. Good night.

Programme note by J B Priestley about An Inspector Calls

Programme note by J B Priestley about An Inspector Calls

Priestley wrote this note to accompany the 1972 Mermaid Theatre production. In it he mentions the mystery of the Inspector’s identity and the significance of the period when the play is set.

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Usage terms: © The Estate of J.B. Priestley. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

© J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

J B Priestley's scrapbook containing programmes and reviews for An Inspector Calls

J B Priestley's scrapbook containing programmes and reviews for An Inspector Calls

‘POLICEMAN INTO ANGEL’: Reviews of the 1946 London premiere praised Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of the Inspector. Many read the character as an ‘angel in disguise’.

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Usage terms: J B Priestley: © The Estate of J.B. Priestley. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Programme for An Inspector Calls, 1946: © The Old Vic Theatre. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivatives Licence. Alan Dent: © Alan Dent / Associated Newspapers Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Vicky [Victor Weisz]: © Vicky / Associated Newspapers Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Stephen Potter: © Originally published in the New Statesman. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivatives Licence. J C Trewin: © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2016. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. W A Darlington: © Telegraph Media Group Limited. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Hypocrisy

Throughout the course of the Inspector’s investigation, and the testimony of Gerald and each of the Birlings, the supposedly respectable city of Brumley is revealed to be a place of deep class divisions and hypocrisy. As Arthur Birling’s behaviour towards Eva makes clear, it is a place where factory owners exploit their workers as a matter of course – part of his ‘a man has to look after himself’ philosophy. Eric accuses his father of hypocrisy for sacking the dead girl after she asked for higher wages, because the Birling firm always seeks to sell their products at the highest possible prices.

This exploitation is not limited to the factories. In the testimony of Gerald, and later Eric, the Palace Theatre emerges as a place where prostitutes gather, and where the supposedly great and good of the town go to meet them. When Gerald first met Eva, as he describes it, she was trapped in a corner by ‘Old Joe Meggarty, half-drunk and goggle-eyed’. Sibyl Birling, scandalised, asks ‘surely you don’t mean Alderman Meggarty?’ An unsurprised Sheila tells her mother ‘horrible old Meggarty’ has a reputation for groping young women: the younger characters are either more knowledgeable or frank about the dark secrets of the city, whereas the older Birlings live in a dream world of respectability, or hypocritically turn a blind eye to any disreputable behaviour by supposedly respectable people.

The play begins with the characters’ corrupt, unpleasant natures safely hidden away (a respectable group in a respectable home, enjoying that most respectable event, an engagement party); it ends with naked displays of hypocrisy. When it is confirmed that Goole is not really a policeman, Arthur, Sibyl and Gerald immediately regain an unjustified sense of outrage. ‘Then look at the way he talked to me’, Arthur Birling complains. ‘He must have known I was an ex-Lord Mayor and a magistrate and so forth’. Once it is confirmed, in the play’s penultimate twist, that there is no suicide lying on a mortuary slab, they forget the immoral, uncharitable behaviour they were recently accused of – things, remember, that they undoubtedly did – and begin talking about getting away with things.

Photographs of An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley (1946 London premiere)

Photographs of An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley (1946 London premiere)

Inspector Goole (Ralph Richardson) shows Sheila Birling (Margaret Leighton) a photograph of Daisy Renton in the 1946 production of An Inspector Calls at the New Theatre, London.

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Only Sheila and Eric recognise and resist this hypocritical behaviour. ‘I suppose we’re all nice people now!’ Sheila remarks sarcastically. Earlier she broke off her engagement to Gerald, telling him ‘You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here’. Likewise, Eric angrily accuses his father of ‘beginning to pretend now that nothing’s really happened at all’. Priestley’s vision is cautiously optimistic insofar as the youngest characters are changed by the Inspector’s visit, while the older Birlings and Gerald appear to be too set in their beliefs to change them.

Eva Smith: Everywoman

The play leaves open the question of whether Eva Smith is a real woman (who sometimes uses different names, including Daisy Renton), or multiple people the Inspector pretends are one. There is no right answer here, and in terms of Priestley’s message it is beside the point: because his socialist principles demand that everyone should be treated the same, in his opinion abusing one working-class woman is equivalent to abusing all working-class women. Eva Smith is, therefore, not an individual victim, but a universal one.

Poster for An Inspector Calls at the Leningrad Comedy Theatre, 1945

Poster for An Inspector Calls at the Leningrad Comedy Theatre, 1945

The striking poster for the Moscow premiere of An Inspector Calls shows the figure of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton against a backdrop of an industrial town, suggesting the wronged young woman is at the centre of the story.

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This helps explain the effectiveness of the play’s final twist. Having discovered that Inspector Goole is not a real policeman, and that there is no dead woman called Eva Smith at the Brumley morgue, a phone call announces that a woman has killed herself, and an inspector is on his way to question the Birlings. The invented story Inspector Goole related has now come true. This seems a bizarre coincidence with which to end the play, but if we consider An Inspector Calls as a moral fable, and not as naturalistic theatre, it begins to seem much more like a logical, even inevitable, conclusion. The characters have been confronted with the error of their ways; some have repented, some have not. Now is the time for judgement, and for the watching audience to ask themselves, according to Priestley’s design, are any of these people like me?

  • Chris Power
  • Chris Power’s Brief Survey of the Short Story has featured in the Guardian since 2007. He reviews books for that paper and the New Statesman. His fiction has appeared in the White Review, the Stinging Fly and elsewhere. He has written a collection of short stories Mothers (Faber, March 2018).

     

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