The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ by J. B. Priestley, is a text that explores many social and moral messages which all become more evident as the play progresses and the plot advances. The play was written in 1947, this was just after the Second World War, but it was set in 1912. 1912 is only two years before the outbreak of the First World War; it was also a time when there was a particular divide between the simple social classes of poor and rich.
This is something that Priestley mainly disagreed with; he disliked the divide between people who are all of the same species, people who should all be looking out for each other because we are all one. Priestley’s aim in most of his plays was to educate the audience through the characters. Priestley was known to put across his thoughts and views in his plays as theatre is something all can relate to, ‘An Inspector Calls’ is one of those plays. In addition, all of the different messages are conveyed subtly in many different ways to make his views and ideas more effectual towards the audience more hard-hitting.
The more obvious messages and perhaps the most important messages aren’t hidden in the play; they are in fact said and shown by the mysterious Inspector Goole. Inspector Goole is the key character that gets the most noticeable and significant message across to the audience as clearly as possible. The Inspector is perhaps the most effective dramatic device used in the play, his authoritative nature and his ability to say what he wants, how he wants gives him the attributes to do this.
The central message of the play is perhaps the message that Priestley wanted to hit us hardest, as it refers to each person as an individual yet it also refers to all of us as one. The main point of ‘An Inspector Calls’ is that everyone is responsible for everyone else, that every decision we make has a consequence that will affect someone else so we must think very carefully about everything we do. As this is perhaps the central message of the play, it is conveyed by Inspector Goole himself very noticeably as he spends the entire duration of his time visiting the Birling’s trying to prove this.
This could be the only message that Inspector has actually come to tell the Birling Family, all the other ones are messages that are discovered within the family themselves. This message is conveyed in many diverse ways. The first way is actually telling the family straight out. ‘But remember this. Eva Smith has gone- but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with there lives… all intertwined with our lives… We are members of one body. ‘ The Inspector gives this speech once he has finished his ‘investigation’.
After this hard-hitting speech is given, the Inspector leaves without any hesitation or showing any signs of weakness. The Inspector doesn’t give the family the time to argue or try and justify themselves against this message. This speech is almost a monologue and is basically the climax of all the things he is trying to get across. This really emphasizes the idea that this moral message will not change with time and applies to all. The Birling family were written so that they cover all different types of people. They are in the middle class, also there are five people who represent society not in class but in type of person.
Mr Birling, the old business man, Mrs. Birling, the housewife, Sheila, the young girly girl who is about to be married, Eric, the drunk, the young man with charm and Gerald, the rich businessman. These kind of characters can relate to all walks of life that would perhaps enter the theatre as theatre in those days was viewed by the people who had the time and the money, people like the Birling family. This makes this message effective because the audience can put themselves into whoever’s life they feel fits in the play.
It also makes the message more effective because it shows that the moral message cannot escape any kind of person. Another message is joint with this message. This is that no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished or unrewarded. This is perhaps the most important message; joint with everyone is responsible for each other. The main way Priestley delivers this message is from the plot of the play itself. The play shows that everything you do has a consequence that has to be paid by someone, in the case of the play, Eva Smith.
Another way, Priestly conveys the same message above is by repeating his message in different ways. ‘Very awkward’ here the Inspector is referring to Mr. Birling, Mr. Birling has just said that if everybody was responsible for everyone they had anything to do with that it would be awkward. Without Mr. Birling realising he has said the thing that the Inspector wanted him to say so by saying very awkward, it shows his sarcasm towards. This is effective because he has got Mr. Birling to identify the main moral message without Mr. Birling agreeing to it or believing it.
He also refers to his central message ‘Often if it was me I wouldn’t know where to draw the line. ‘ Here he is once again highlighting his central as he is calling criminals and non-criminals one. He is saying there is no difference as they are all one. As well, as repetition the play as a performance could have portrayed this in an effectual way. The set-out of the play could have added to tension therefore making the play more effective and once again underlining the fact that no-one can escape for this cold, solid message.
When the Inspector enters Mr. Birling leaves the table and sits by the fireplace. The fire is roaring from the start and as the Inspector enters the fire should dim bit by surrounding the fireplace should be three armchairs and a sofa should be positioned in a circle like position and the Inspector’s chair should be facing the other three chairs in such away that no-one can escape anyone else’s gaze, making it very effective. A further message that perhaps comes from ‘An Inspector Calls’ is the simple message of taking the blame for what you have done and being repentant about it. This is expressed through the young ones of the play.
Priestly uses the youth to convey quite an adult-like quality of responsibility as only Sheila and Eric take full responsibility for what they’ve done. ‘now I feel a lot worse’ Sheila is the only person when told who feels truly sorry. It seems as if she’s very open with her emotions and being young means she has less of a barrier around her feelings. During the play Eric and Sheila seem to be allies with the Inspector. Eric continually uses the Inspector as an excuse to defy everything his father says. ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices.
And I don’t see why she should have been sacked just because she’d a bit more spirit than the others. You said yourself she was a good worker. I’d have let her stay. ‘ This speech Eric says shows he is comparing himself and his father to their workers showing that he already has the concept of the message of the Inspector. Even before Eric knows the reason for the Inspector showing up Eric knows about all the things he has done and already feels guilty about what he has done.
This shows how sorry Eric really is because he realises what he has done and has taken the blame as guilt for everything that happened between him and Eva Smith. Here what do you mean? … Well, I don’t think it’s very funny’. His guilt is evident here; he knows he has done something wrong. This is effective because it confuses the audience and allows them to think. Priestley knows that using the young to show the idea of taking responsibility is very effective as everybody knows that the young are the future and by having another war it shows that although the young took their responsibilities they still did not learn. Priestley is suggesting that older people are less likely to change their views as they are more set in their ways than younger generations.
Sheila: You’re squiffy… Mrs. Birling: What an expression Sheila! Really the things you girls pick up these days. ‘ This shows how set in her ways she is. She is a woman of the time and doesn’t conform to trends; she just stays with what will always be the same in society. To add to this, another message is that socially correct things aren’t always morally correct. This is put across through the whole family and how socially aware they are. Mrs. Birling is perhaps the most socially aware of the whole family but her social awareness is conveyed subtly in the play. This is in contrast to Mr.
Birling who boasts and brags, which is ironic as Mr. Birling has married to a higher class than himself. ‘ Arthur you’re not supposed to say such things-‘ Here Mrs. Birling is correcting her husband for his lack of social decorum. She is saying that he shouldn’t talk to slaves as they are help and not company. Mrs. Birling is a woman of her time and therefore is very aware of what is traditionally acceptable and what isn’t. Priestly is trying to show that what Mrs. Birling is saying might seem as if she’s correcting her husband but in doing this she is doing the wrong thing.
Priestly is trying to ask ‘Why shouldn’t Arthur say such things? ‘ after all, moralistically, everyone is equal. Even though she isn’t out rightly saying that they are above the help in their home that is the impression she gives. On the other hand, Mr. Birling is very boastful in what he has achieved. ‘You see, I was Lord Mayor here two years ago when Royalty visited us. And I’ve always been regarded as a sound useful party man. ‘ He is here boosting his own confidence. He thinks himself a high class man and is therefore praising himself.
This is sardonic as he believes he is a man who deserves a Knightship yet he deliberately dismissed someone from work for a petty reason. This is extremely effective because work is something everyone understands and knows, everyone realises that a little bit more money does help. A character like Mr. Birling would have been quite insulting to watch. This is another way Priestley conveys this by giving the family a high class presence literally but the fact of the matter is that they are low class when it comes to moral matters.
Because this play is very realistic, another way Priestley communicates this message is by directly contradicting what the audience believes and knows. In this play Priestley is criticizing the British social system and of course those who are watching it will have the same views as the characters in the play. Priestley is making his message more effective by challenging what the audience knows and telling them that it isn’t correct. The last message is perhaps that love no longer exists in our capitalist society. That lies and deceit have taken its place. This is conveyed in a number of ways.
For example, it can be put across through the design of the setting of the play. At the beginning of the play, at the two ends of the table, Mr Birling and Mrs Birling are seated in these seats facing each other; this could symbolize the absence of love between them as the oldest couple have grown so apart. This is also so they are able to see every other person on the table. Next to Mr. Birling, on his right hand, is Gerald and across from Gerald is Sheila. Additionally on Mrs. Birling’s right hand side is Eric and the last space, opposite from Eric is empty.
This could show the absence of acceptance of Eric from his family in the play and when the Inspector sits next to Eric, this could symbolize the void of fatherly love being filled as the Inspector treats Eric very differently to Mr. Birling. Priestley shows that between one family there could be so many diverse messages showing that the conventional family of those days was torn apart with no love. Not only between the family but between the lovers in the play, Sheila and Gerald. Gerald and Sheila sit across from each other so that when it comes to a uptight part of the script, Sheila’s irritation is evident to Gerald. : Yes except for all last summer, when you never came near me and I wondered what had happened to you. ‘
At a time like here when you can sense that Sheila is suspicious of her fiance and one can imagine her staring down Gerald and Gerald trying to escape her gaze. It makes it tenser and more obvious if Sheila and Gerald have been placed directly in front of each other. This would increase the tension immensely, if Gerald was anywhere else on the table then he could easily escape her gaze or shrug it off but here he is directly in front of her.
Additionally Gerald is at the right hand of Mr. Birling, this symbolises him wanting to be the right hand of his business. Suggesting that Gerald’s in fact marrying into the family business instead of marrying Sheila. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, I insist upon being one of the family now. I’ve been trying long enough, haven’t I? Haven’t I? You know I have. ‘ Here would be a great place to show that he is in fact asking this question to prove not to Sheila but more to Mr. Birling. At this point you can imagine him looking at Mr.
Birling as he is answering the question Sheila hasn’t answered. All of the simple positioning of the characters symbolize many different things and portray the relationships between the characters in the play very well. This is effective because it forces the audience to read into it, you can’t see the real cracks in their family unto you read into the positioning and performance thoroughly. Up to now, all of the messages mentioned before have been conveyed by the Birling family and the understanding of the audience but one extremely important way Priestley shows his messages effectively is through Inspector Goole.
Inspector Goole is the most unexplained character in the whole play. He seems to be omnipresent and seems to be all knowing. He enters the Birling household knowing exactly what he needs to know. The Inspector seems to be there to show the Birlings about collective responsibility and consequences of their actions. As soon as the Inspector enters, there is an instant atmosphere. He is there to create an impression of ‘massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’ showing his power. It shows his authority over the play.
J. B. Priestly uses him as a voice of morality and conscience. Furthermore he is the route delivering moral to the audience and the family. ‘We are members of one body… are responsible for each other’. This is Priestley delivering the central message using Inspector Goole. He stresses we are all human, no one isn’t human except God therefore we are all equal. The Inspector’s entrance is straight after Birling has made his speech about looking out for oneself. This contrasts with his message that the Inspector is trying to deliver, the message that ‘we are all one body’.
The inspector portrays the third message spoken about by defying the so-called social importance of the Birling family. Mr. Birling and Mrs. Birling are used to being spoken with the highest of respect as they are upper-middle class, yet as the Inspector belittles them and they seem to let it go unspoken. This shows that the Inspector is some sort of superior being as he is beyond social class. He says it as it is and doesn’t care about the class of that person or their gender.
He doesn’t seem to be accusing what the family has done, he is accusing the fact that the family don’t learn after everything he says to them. That’s why he is a little more compassionate to Sheila and Eric, the youngest of the family, because they learn the errors of their ways. He seems to be from the future as he predicts the war ‘Blood, anguish and fire’ and predicts Eva Smith’s death as they are only told after he leaves that she is dead. The Inspector isn’t a real Police Inspector, he seems to be there to judge and punish them on a moral level and make them change their behaviour but because they don’t learn another Inspector turns up.
He is waiting for the confessions of the family, he already knows the answers, he just wants to make sure that they understand the severity of what they’ve done. All of the messages Priestley puts across in this play are all because of his views on society in those times. Priestley had very strong anti-capitalist views whilst writing this play. John Boynton Priestley was born in Bradford 1894. He joined the army on the outbreak of the First World War and this probably influenced him in ‘An Inspector Calls’, as war is a focal point.
After being injured in the war he probably looked back and wondered why the war had to happen. As he was growing up he inherited socialism from his family and always remembered a happy childhood. The ‘public-spirited’ socialism he inherited aided him in writing pieces with real meanings. He wrote mainly for the middle class audience, he always made an attempt to make sure that his work was accessible to the common people and was related to them. In the 1930’s Priestley became more concerned with the social problems in Britain.
The first book he reflected this in was ‘The English Journey’ in 1934; this was an account of his journeys through Britain. Priestley even made a socialist Common Wealth Party in 1941, their three main principles were common ownership, vital democracy and morality in politics. They really liked the idea of public ownership of land. All of these things allowed him to write a play like ‘An Inspector Calls’, not only was J. B. Priestly an author, he was an extreme socialist and he put these messages across in ‘An Inspector calls’ using a number of different methods.
The methods he uses on the play as a whole is the actual timing. The play lasts as long as the time we watch it. This emphasizes the realism of it. It shows how the play really could be a snip of real life, like it isn’t theatre but it’s real life. Priestley has also not included any intervals perhaps showing that this is real, and it is happening and there is really no escape from it. That one can’t take a break from the morality of the play and that it’s definite. Overall, Priestley shows many moral messages in the play ‘An Inspector calls’, there isn’t only one message.
But it seems as if the message that he has made really obvious and that he expects everyone to go away with is everyone is responsible for each other. Priestley tries to put across his views in the play in many ways but one he wants everyone to get the message form the most is the Inspector. Only the Inspector portrays nearly every moral message and only the Inspector believes the message from the beginning of the play. Priestley is extremely talented and is truly “the voice of the common people” by looking out for them in his writing and out of it.