In 1945, J.B. Priestley was 51 and felt very strongly about the state of government in England at that moment in time and thought that people were being exploited in England, so he had some very liberal views. He expressed many of these views to the public in the form of a book called, ‘An Inspector Calls’.
The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written by J.B. Priestley, in 1945 but was set in 1912. The play takes place in the Birling household on one evening after a family celebration. The celebration is of the engagement of Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft. It is just after dinner when an inspector visits their house investigating the suicide of a young woman. As the play unravels we see that all members of the family are somehow involved in the suicide.
For many reasons, an audience may consider this play a detective story and nothing else. It fits with the stereotypical detective story format in a number of ways. Firstly it is generally about conducting an inquiry into the suicide of a young, working-class woman. “Two hours ago a young woman died in the Infirmary. She’d been taken there this afternoon because she’d swallowed some strong disinfectant.” This sentence also means that the death is announced very close to the beginning of the play, another trademark of detective stories. From the beginning it appears to be a mystery story but ironically we find out that they are all responsible. It seems that the initial purpose of this play is to make people pay for their actions and realise their wrongs. Other factors that make this a traditional detective story are the fact that there is evidence.
Although there are many reasons we could observe ‘An Inspector Calls’ as purely a detective story, there are also reasons why it is not your average detective story. The Inspector already has proof of the events leading to the suicide in the form of the diary. His manner of inquiry is somewhat unusual because throughout he appears quite rude to the Birling family, “You have no hope of not discussing it”. This shows that the Inspector has no need for courteous chitchat, he wants to get straight to business and he does not want to be distracted from the subject even for a second. Another difference from the common detective story is that the play does not end with an arrest. This is because no one has committed an act against the law, just immoral acts. The Inspector is not afraid to put the family down, to reprimand them. Also as we get further into the play, we begin to see even more suspects whereas in a normal detective story the number of suspects gets reduced. Finally, the characters do not immediately know who the victim is, “I seem to remember hearing that name, Eva Smith, somewhere. But it doesn’t convey anything to me.”
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It is noticeable from many of the Inspector’s speeches that he is determined to reform society. This is one of the main indicators that this play has a lot of basis as a social evaluation. One of his main messages is to do with everyone being responsible for one another, “We are responsible for each other, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”. This quotation shows how seriously the Inspector feels about this, the fire, blood and anguish portrays war and hell. The death of Eva Smith shows the Birling family and Gerald the true extent of their responsibility. Sheila and Eric learn from the mistakes highlighted to them by the Inspector, which shows us how we are supposed to reform ourselves as a result of the play. J.B. Priestley wants us to learn from the sentiments of his play and to be aware of the impact of our actions upon others. Other aspects of society that the Inspector feels strongly about are class, dignity and equality. The play teaches us not to prejudge people by their class or job. For example, as Mr Birling thought Eva Smith was scum and assumed when she was sacked that she would go straight onto the streets.
In the play, the Inspector plays various roles. He plays a socialist as he is against capitalist views and because he is not just looking out for himself but others as well. The Inspector plays as a ghost as we find out he is not real. Additionally he plays a fraud because he is not a real Inspector, but he does act as a real Inspector. The Inspector adds a great deal of tension and drama to the play. J.B. Priestley does this for the reason that he brings tension between the younger generation consisting of Sheila and Eric and the older generation consisting of Mr Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald, due to the Inspector’s actions. J.B. Priestley uses the Inspector as a substitute of him self in a way, to put his socialist points across.
Just as the themes in, “An Inspector Calls” develop from unawareness to knowledge, and not only for the audience but also for the characters themselves, the style develops from at first a detective thriller, to a mystery story with the Inspector seemingly unscrambling the past of Eva Smith, to being informative and a morality play. The representation of Inspector Goole, was in doubt as to whether he was a realistic straightforward police inspector, a hoaxer or a phantom, which is implied by his name, Goole, which rhymes with ghoul, a synonym for ghost. Other arguments for the supernatural nature of Inspector Goole include that he already seems to know everything the suspects tell him when interrogated, even though, as it is later discovered, that he is not an Inspector at all. He predicts the suicide of Eva Smith by “swallowing a lot of strong disinfectant,” and that who and what he is purposely left unanswered by Priestly. Similarities can be drawn between Inspector Goole in “An Inspector Calls” and the assortment of ghosts who visit Scrooge in the play ‘A Christmas Carol’. Although the reality of the Inspector is debateable, it helps to create an informative theme by teaching those who have done wrong the consequences of their actions and the errors in their morals.
Just before the Inspector enters the household, the Birlings are having dinner to celebrate the forth-coming engagement of their daughter, Shelia, to Gerald Croft. Mr Birling is telling Gerald Croft how he is hoping for a knighthood when after Eric, Mr Birling’s son enters the room, the doorbell rings and Edna the maid, announces the arrival of Inspector Goole. A man who at once creates an impression of solidity and determination, also he has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking. The Inspector’s arrival interrupts the conversation between Mr Birling, Eric along with Gerald and puts the whole family in dismay because the Inspector has not come to see them for the reason that they thought, which was to do with some trouble about a warrant. Therefore, the entire family becomes very distressed when they discover that the Inspector has in fact come to question them about Eva Smith’s suicide. The Inspector is very blunt to all the characters that try to change the subject and does not allow the topic to be avoided. He only shows a picture of Eva Smith to the person he is interviewing in the order in which they saw Eva Smith to try to help them to recollect her and he creates suspense by doing this. This happens with the exception of Eric Birling as Eric’s mother, Sybil Birling comments that the father of Eva Smith’s child should be exposed and made an example of. Although unknown to Sybil Birling at the time her son, Eric Birling is the father of the child, the Inspector leaves interrogating Eric until after Sybil Birling has finished her speech so that he can teach her the dangers of prejudice and social snobbery, both of which she had expressed towards Eva Smith. For example, when she referred to Eva Smith as, “girls of that class”.
When the Inspector cross examines the characters, he is very sharp and precise and keeps reminding them how Eva Smith looked in the infirmary, “she wasn’t pretty when I saw her today,” so as to help them recall her. The Inspector creates a split between the family by dividing the younger and older generations and making them angry at each other. Furthermore, Gerald and Sheila will not get married because of the Inspector's visit. Also Mr Birling may not get his knighthood as the Inspector’s visit may possibly create a scandal. All these things are the effects of the Inspector's visit. All J.B. Priestley is trying to do is make everyone take responsibility for their actions.
The Inspector also tries to turn the family against each other, to get the truth and to persuade them see that what they have done is wrong, something that Mr And Mrs Birling find quite hard to do. “I can’t accept any responsibility”, Mr Birling says and “I accept no blame for it at all”, Mrs Birling states. The Inspector makes the younger generation see sense and realise their part in making Eva Smith commit suicide, though this is not the case for the older generation for they feel little remorse, if any. This is shown as Mr Birling is only made angry by the Inspector until he is about to leave and the rather cold Mrs Birling remains unmoved by the Inspector’s questioning until she finds out that the Eva Smith’s child is her son’s, whereas Sheila cries from shock and grief when the Inspector is able to make her understand the consequences of her action. Eric reacts in a similar way to his sister and Gerald, who has an easy manner, becomes distressed when he learns of his part in Eva’s death. However, the Inspector claims that although Mr Birling had started it, they are all to blame for Eva Smith’s death.
At the end of the interrogation period, the audience learn that the Inspector is not a real Inspector, and it seems that he was sent to teach them the consequences of their actions as the events that had been discussed had happened. However, Eva Smith had not died until after the Inspector had left. It is through the reactions to the news that the Inspector was a phoney and only Sheila and Eric have fully acknowledged their part in Eva’s death due to the impact and impression of the Inspector. Whereas Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald still believe they have done no wrong.
At the beginning of the play, Mr. Birling is talking about the good things to come, “We’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity. People say war is inevitable. I say fiddlesticks to that! Look at the progress we’re making, why the Titanic is unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.” These comments are all very ironic and the audience might sense that just as those events were to fail, that could be mirrored in the events that were to take place in the Birling household. These remarks also contrast with the way they have treated Eva and the Inspector says that they have taken away Eva Smith’s life, but that “there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us.”
The Inspector makes the audience feel rather pity and anguish for Eva Smith and makes the audience think about the pain and hard times she had to go through, for example, when she got dismissed from her job for trying to get a pay rise and after just settling in and when she got turned down for help when she asked a committee to support her with her baby. Therefore, through Eva, the Inspector also makes the audience think about those like Eva in the world.
The Inspector is used in the story as someone who is supposed to be like J.B. Priestley. He is like a substitute for J.B. Priestly and they are linked as the Inspector is being used to put across his messages. The Inspector is in the story to make the Birling's have responsibility for their actions. He is trying to make people think about what they do before they do it. The Inspector is trying to say that people should all be treated equally. All these messages are aimed at the audience as well as the Birlings. This is how Priestley gets his points out to us, through the link between him and the Inspector. I think his main message is that we are all part of one community, not individual people and we are connected one way or another so we have to care for each other and look after each other. For example, 'We are responsible for each other,' said the Inspector. This shows us the Inspector has socialist views and does care about others apart from himself, precisely like J.B. Priestly.
The Inspector has many hidden messages in the play. He plays so many different roles and in a way makes himself the whole story. He composes you to think and puts across his socialist messages, which to me is the main point of the play. He is additionally, very effective and adds a great deal of drama.
In 1992 this play was adapted by Stephen Daldry’s, royal national theatre, stage production, which explores Priestley’s themes and ideas in a very detailed fashion. In the ‘An Inspector Calls’ book, there is a constant covering of mystery around the Inspector, as you never know who he is and why he is there. However, the way he acts leaves hints to the answers of these questions. For example, he could be Eva smith’s dead child if it had lived, trying to make the Birlings suffer for what they did and trying to make them realise what they did wrong or he could be a time traveller, who has travelled back to try and narrow the social classes, in an attempt to prevent the World Wars from ever starting, “then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish!” The Inspector being a time traveller is definitely the case in the 1992 stage production, because the Inspector is dressed up in 1945 style clothing. When the Inspector is introduced in the stage production, he looks very sinister, as he is wearing a trench coat and a dark hat.
In conclusion, I believe that Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production of ‘An Inspector Calls’ explores Priestley’s themes and ideas very well, as it includes all of the messages conveyed in the original text, such as the Inspector’s purpose being to narrow the social classes.