An Inspector Calls (1945) overview
An Inspector Calls is J B Priestley’s most performed play. It’s set in the household of a prosperous northern manufacturer, Arthur Birling. It’s 1912 and the Birling family are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila, when a stranger, who introduces himself as Inspector Goole, shows up at their door. He’s there to question them about the death of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith, who killed herself by drinking disinfectant. As Goole interrogates the family – Birling, his wife Sybil, his son Eric, Sheila and her fiancé Gerald – it comes to light that they have all, to some extent, been responsible for the young woman's decline in circumstances. They may not have killed her, but through action – and inaction – they all played a role in the events that led to her death. Arthur dismissed her from her job at his mill, Sheila contrived to have her fired from her new post in a department store, both Gerald and Eric slept with her and Sybil denied her charity when she came to her in desperation.
After Goole departs, Birling becomes suspicious and calls the chief constable. He discovers that there is no Inspector Goole and there have been no recent suicides. Birling and his wife see this as cause for celebration, but their children are more chastened by the night’s events. The ending twists things further, concluding with a phone call to the Birlings telling them that the police are on their way to talk to them about the death of a young woman in a suspected case of suicide.
An Inspector Calls is scathing in its criticism of middle-class hypocrisy. The play gives voice to Priestley’s strong socialist principles, and carries a clear moral message, stressing the importance of social responsibility: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other’.
Key productions of An Inspector Calls
The play was first performed in Leningrad in 1945, before being produced in the UK in 1946. The role of Inspector Goole was written for Ralph Richardson, who starred in the original London production.
The play fell out of fashion for a while in the latter half of the 20th century. This changed in 1992, with Stephen Daldry’s lauded and award-winning revival for the National Theatre which has itself become iconic thanks to Ian McNeill’s ingenious stage design. Instead of the more familiar Edwardian interior, his set placed a miniature house in a desolate, war-ravaged landscape. Daldry’s production is often credited with generating a renewed interest in Priestley’s work.