J.B.Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls

J.B.Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls’ is a play about ideas, it contains thought provoking
material the aim of which is social reform.

But the Whole Thing’s Different Now
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‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play about ideas, it contains thought
provoking material the aim of which is social reform.

At the start of the play this rich, middle class family think
themselves “a nice, well behaved family”, “respectable citizens” but
some of their views are changed by a mysterious inspector who uncovers
some disturbing truths about their lives.

The inspector shows how each member of the household has contributed
to the suicide of a young working class girl. This play highlights the
problems and flaws in attitudes just after the turn of the century and
that people can be wrong about many things including the future,
themselves and their beliefs and prejudices. By doing so this play
promotes the utopian ideals of liberty and equality and follows in the
footsteps of the French and Russian revolutions.

Set in between these two events it reminds us that people will always
strive for a better quality of life and that history will repeat
itself until we live in a perfect society. This play has a timeless
quality about it and the problems of society that it raises are still
present in today’s society. It seems we as nation, or as a species for
that matter, have still not learnt from our mistakes. We continue to
ignore mistakes, fail to concede we are wrong and pretend it is not
our fault or responsibility. We are a too alike to Mrs Birling and can
not accept change easily. It is still the younger generation who lead
the drive for social reform and changes in attitude, eco-warriors for
example.

This is a very socialist play but is not directly insulting of the
richer classes, just critical of their ignorance. The play was first
performed in Stalin’s Communist Russia by the Kamery and Leningrad
theatre companies in Moscow, August 1945. World War Two had just been
ended by the atom bomb and throughout allied Europe soldiers began to
come back home to a hero’s welcome for the second time in half a
century. They had saved the world and did not want to return to a life
of virtual slave labour. Workers and unions were demanding more rights
and the years of war had weakened the class system. A change was
required. Though not as violent as the Bolshevik revolution people
were fighting old ideas and embracing new ones. They did not want
another war.

National patriotism had brought communities closer together. The Blitz
and rationing had put everybody in the same boat and people looked out

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for each other.

The play is set in 1912, before any of this had happened and the
aristocratic value that “a man has to mind his own business and look
after himself and his own” dominated. Mr Birling believes “a man has
to make his own way” and that socialists are “cranks” and community
“nonsense”. And in the words of Eric “then one of those cranks walked
in”, “just after father had said that”. This irony is present
throughout the play and can be exaggerated to great effect if the play
is staged with this in mind. Stephen Daldry’s production that I went
to see had Inspector Goole walk onto the stage (but not the house) and
is present to over hear Mr Birling’s little speech. This is not
written in the script but his presence builds up anticipation and adds
poignancy to the scene.

Mr Birling begins as a pillar of the community, a successful,
self-made businessman with an impeccable reputation. He has been an
alderman, Lord Mayor and is “on the bench”. He also has the most to
lose and with each revelation of their secret lives, instead of owning
up or facing facts his only concern is “I’ve got to cover this up as
soon as I can”.

He is selfish and only cares about his reputation and the fast
diminishing prospect of a knighthood, “who here will suffer more than
I will?”. He completely misses the point that Daisy Renton had
suffered more than he could imagine. His little imagination and small
mindedness, limited by lifelong held beliefs prevent him from
accepting, let alone admitting he had done wrong. “We’re respectable
citizens and not criminals”. He is uneducated and his unbroadened mind
attempts to blame others for its mistake, “I can’t accept any
responsibility”, as does Mrs Birling, “I accept no blame for it all”,
“I blame the young man”, “It’s due to him”.

But that “young man” is her own son Eric and she still can not take it
in. “There must be some mistake”, “you’re not the type - you don’t get
drunk”. She still shows no sign of compassion or regret. It takes
Eric, “(almost at breaking point)” to hammer home the message “You
killed her”, “your own grandchild”. She even then never says the
simple words “I’m sorry”, just the feeble excuse “I didn’t
understand”. That phrase sums up her whole character. As soon as the
inspector leaves so does any remorse she had in her “In the morning
they’ll be as amused as we are” and relapses into a state of isolation
from the real world.

Mr Birling also briefly displays a similar pattern of behaviour. He
appears to regret his actions “Look inspector - I’d give thousands -
yes thousands” but it is too late. After the inspector departs he
begins clutching desperately at the hope that it may not have been a
real police inspector and that it was a hoax. When he finds out from
the morgue that there is no body he regresses to “they can’t even take
a joke”.

They go on “pretending everything’s just as it was before”, “ready to
go on in the same old way”. “They don’t seem to understand” that
“Every we said had happened”. “You began to learn something. And now
you’ve stopped”.

The dramatic irony reaches its most intense at the point where Mr
Birling say the word “joke”, because no sooner has the syllable left
his lips than the telephone’s shrill rings piece the air. The audience
can sense what is coming. Fate is playing a cruel joke on the Birling
and it has the last laugh, because “A girl has just died”....“After
drinking some disinfectant”. Now a very real police inspector is on
his way, all they can do is “stare guilty and dumbfounded” as the
lights go down.

At the play I saw the final destruction of the household’s reputation
and good name is accompanied by the house coming apart at the seems,
the walls swing back again and then curtain fell, and went on falling
down to the floor till the tab bar supporting the curtain was almost
touching the crumpled drape of material in a heap on the stage.

This graphic symbolism of the down fall of the family is employed
elsewhere in the play. As the scandal unfolds so does the house, its
walls swing back to reveal its interior, and so the interior of the
people that live in it. The house changes as the characters do. With
the discovery that Eric was the father to Daisy’s unborn child the
floor slopes forward, the table over turns sending crockery shattering
onto the cobbles below. This is possible because the house stands on
tall stilt like joists, as if above the rest of society, in the middle
of a cobbled road which stretches back, up the raked stage. The
cobbles scale down further away from the audience and a miniature
building can be seen at the very back, giving the impression of
distance. The cobbles around the house have been torn up as though a
bomb has exploded beneath the house. The play in fact started with an
air raid siren. The front of the stage planked liked an expensive
floor, as though an extension of the house and the boards are bent and
splintered stage right over the orchestra pit. Clouds on the back
curtain are reflected in the wall of mirrors built along the entirety
of stage left’s wings. This gives the visual effect that the house
stands out on its own. It is isolated and set apart from the rest of
society.

The second world war theme is continued in the staging, a warning of
what was approaching in the years following the play, in the over
turned old radio and red telephone box, set at an angle and partially
off stage.

Sheila and Eric find it easier to see what they have done and can
change their out look. They are younger, have not had their beliefs
ingrained so deeply into their minds, their ideology and way of life
and can bend to take account of new perspectives while their parents
are not as flexible. From the very first few pages of the play we can
tell they are different from their mother and farther, “these girls
aren’t just cheap labour - they’re people” , “Why shouldn’t they try
for higher wages?”. They think differently from Arthur and Sybil and
express more emotion with the unfolding of the play.

Both realise the mistakes they have made and admit they did things
which they should not have “I know I’m to blame”, “My God I’m not
likely to forget it”, “I’m ashamed of it”, “I behaved badly too”.

They both were open minded and Eric’s question “What about war” was
stonewalled by his disapproving father, who like Sybil ignores things
they cant understand and are outside their compression, not that they
remotely try.

And today this backwards attitude can still be found, not in remote
isolated out of the way places, but at the heart of our country. Upper
class ignorance and their attempt to distance themselves from
suffering because it can not be their fault of course. “There is no
such thing as society. These are individual men and women, and there
are families.” Margaret Thatcher, 1987. Just one example of a modern
day Sybil Birling, “But the whole thing’s different now”, isn’t it?
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