This note provides an insight into J B Priestley’s thoughts on An Inspector Calls, and the play’s impact since its premiere in 1945/46. It was written by Priestley for the programme to accompany the 1972 Mermaid Theatre production.

Priestley highlights the play’s popularity around the world, noting that audiences’ reactions were ‘almost always exactly the same’. The play’s success is due largely to its finely balanced combination of social comment on the one hand, and mystery and suspense on the other. Priestley received ‘innumerable letters’ from students demanding to know ‘who or what the Inspector was’.

Who is the Inspector?

The powerful warning at the heart of the play is magnified by the mystery of who the Inspector is. His name, ‘Goole’, suggests he could be a ghost, or perhaps he is a manifestation of our guilt. Of the second inspector, who is on his way to the house at the end of the play, Priestley says, ‘this is not simply a dramatic twist, but really the key to the play’.

Priestley was fascinated with circularity, and the play ends as it begins, with a police inspector turning up to investigate the death of a young woman. There is a sense that events will repeat themselves, but also that the characters can choose to act differently and change the future for the better. However, apart from Eric and Sheila, the characters have not learnt that their actions have consequences for others – and that if they continue to live selfishly, their actions will lead to the deaths of many more Eva and John Smiths.

Why was the play set in 1912?

In this note, Priestley writes: ‘the particular year in which the action is supposed to be happening was not chosen at random: it is significant and is indeed another key to the play’.

Set in 1912, shortly before the First World War, An Inspector Calls was a powerful warning to a 1945/46 audience still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War. Just as the Birlings come face-to-face with their future at the end of the play, the present-day audience are faced with the mistakes of their past and can also choose to act differently to create a fairer, safer world. This message is brought home by the Inspector’s words, which warn of violence and destruction: ‘If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’.

Priestley was preoccupied with time, and studied the theories of P D Ouspensky, who believed that all the happenings in our lives are theoretically repeatable, and of J W Dunne, who suggested that we can see forward in time, through our dreams. Priestley draws on these ideas in An Inspector Calls.