What reaction/s does Priestley intend the audience to have to the content of the play? How does he set about achieving them? Do you think he is successful in achieving his intentions? The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written by J. B. Priestley in 1945. However, it is set in 1912; the Edwardian era, in which conservative forces continually portrayed the working classes as a threat to capitalism, and capitalists such as Arthur Birling, who is the archetype of a wealthy industrialist.
Due to this, the reactionary government resisted making any reforms to help the working classes, many of whom were, according to a contemporary account, ‘underfed, under-housed and insufficiently clothed… their health is undermined’. Tax records of 1911-1913 show that 87 percent of Britain’s total personal wealth was concentrated among 5 percent of the population; thus, as one historian put it, ‘Class differences were never so acutely felt as by the Edwardians’.
1945, contrastingly, was a time of great optimism for a ‘brave new world’ and of a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past – since 1914 there had been two world wars and a terrible Depression. Social barriers had been blurred by the wars; everyone was forced to pull together and support their country. By setting the play in 1912 Priestley is reminding a 1945 audience of an era long gone, that should never be returned to. The strong socialist message of the play (‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body.
We are responsible for each other’, says the eponymous Inspector) is Priestley’s way of conveying his support for socialist principles; they were the way forward, towards a ‘brave new world’ in 1945. The play begins with a seemingly normal scene from Brumley, a fictional industrial city, in 1912: an upper-middle-class family, the Birlings, are celebrating their daughter Sheila’s engagement to the wealthy Gerald Croft. However, there are several hints of unease: Mrs. Birling, ‘her husband’s social superior’ (Priestley’s stage directions) reproaches Mr.
Birling after he slips up by complimenting his own food. This emphasises Mrs. Birling’s regard for upper-class rigid formality, her slight discomfort and embarrassment at being married to a man of a lower social status than she was, and thus her coldness and snobbishness as a person. Priestly intends the audience to obtain hints as to what will happen as the play progresses by Sheila, ‘half serious, half playful’, teasing Gerald about ‘all last summer, when you never came near me’, and Birling’s treatment of his son, Eric, which shows his disappointment and irritation at him: ‘Just let me finish, Eric.
You’ve a lot to learn yet’. While Mrs. Birling alienates an audience from a society with blurred class distinctions by her upper-class coldness, Mr. Birling does this in a more obvious way. Priestley achieves this by having him make long speeches, including comments such as, ‘you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable… fiddlesticks! ‘ (this would be particularly ironic to a 1945 audience; perhaps war had been inevitable to cause a shift in the emphasis of society, away from conservative capitalists and towards ordinary working people), ‘the Titanic…
unsinkable’ (the Titanic, which sank, was a symbol of opulence and of belief in the greatness of man, much like Mr. Birling), ‘the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else’ (from 1945 and beyond it would have seemed palpable that human beings have some responsibility for their actions towards each other). At this stage the audience feels superior to Mr. Birling; the events he dismisses are easily recognisable, and the dramatic irony used displays him in an injudicious light. It is also easier to criticise a previous era.