J B Priestly was born in 1894, his main passion in life was writing and this dream he achieved being very successful, his first novel being The Good Companions, written in 1929. Five years later in 1934 Priestly wrote An Inspector Calls, which he set in 1912.
The play is about an upper class family consisting of:
Arthur Birling (a heavy looking portentous man in his mid fifties.)
Sybil Birling (wife of Arthur.)
Sheila Birling (daughter of Sybil and Arthur, in her early twenties.)
Eric Birling (Sheila’s brother also in his early twenties.)
Also Gerald Croft (Sheila’s respectable fiance of about thirty.)
All of the characters are dressed in the dress of the period and the whole play is based in the Birlings living room.
The family are celebrating in the dining room until the doorbell rings and an inspector enters. He informs the family that a young girl, Eva Smith had just committed suicide and the Birling family agree to answer any questions he asks, believing that a respectable family such as theirs could never be involved in such a tragedy. The Inspector begins by questioning Birling, who two years ago sacked Eva Smith from his factory because she had been campaigning for higher wages for the workers. Birling argued that although he did sack her he was not to blame for her death.
Next The Inspector goes on to question Sheila, unfolding a story in which Sheila had Eva sacked from her job in a clothes store, Milwards. Sheila was trying a dress on which did not suit her, she was upset to find that the pretty girl suited it more than she did so she got her sacked. Sheila breaks down and feels totally responsible for the death of the girl.
Eva changed her name to Daisy Renton and this upsets Gerald. Six months previously Gerald met Sheila at the Palace Bar where ‘the women of the town’ go. He got talking to her and finding she had no home offered her a place to stay, he visited her often and kept her, later he explained to her that he had to leave and, therefore, she would have to leave.
The Inspector moves on to Mrs Birling where we learn of how Mrs Birling refused Eva help when she most needed it. Eva was alone, friendless, almost penniless and desperate and of course pregnant, Mrs Birling took a dislike to the girl and turned her away denying her of the help she desperately needed.
Next The Inspector turns onto Eric who turns out to be the father of the child. He met her in the Palace Bar and bought her drinks and slept with her, she became pregnant and Eric stole money from his father to support her, but she refused the money believing it to be stolen.
The Inspector then leaves, the family then find out that there is no inspector on the force by the name of Goole and Gerald calls the infirmary and finds that there is no-one by the name of Eva Smith in the hospital who committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. The family argue for a while Mr and Mrs Birling relieved that he was a fake, then the phone rings and they find that a girl had just been brought in dead, from drinking disinfectant.
There are many valid suggestions for who The Inspector is:
A spirit, an avenging angel, a time traveller, a Dickinson ghost or a collective conscience.
I believe that Inspector Goole was an Avenging Angel sent by God to make these people realise that they had done wrong and to warn them of what was to come.
At the beginning there is no reason to suggest that the Inspector is anything but a police inspector. He behaves quite like you would expect a police inspector to saying things like “No, thankyou, Mrs Birling I’m on duty.” And “It’s the way I like to work. One person and one line of enquiry at a time. Otherwise there’s a muddle.”
You begin to think there’s something more to The Inspector when he mentions his name ‘Goole.’ Also he starts to be quite off with the family talking back to Birling. The Inspector is always talking about the horror of her death repeatedly saying things like: “She wasn’t very pretty today, but she had been pretty, very pretty,” “The girl’s dead though,” and “Yes, but you can’t. It’s too late. She’s dead.” I believe this is to maximise the effect The Inspector has on the characters to make them feel more guilty and as they are feeling such guilt make them, very cleverly not think about what he is doing.
Inspector: “(dryly) I’ve had the notion myself from time to time. In fact, I’ve thought that it would do us all abit of a good sometimes we tried to put ourselves in the place of these young women counting their pennies in their dingy little back bedrooms.”
If I was the a director wanting to produce this play I’d have The Inspector wearing a long coat to add to the mystery of his character, a black bowler hat and polished black shoes. The actor would be quite pale skinned and be bald except for a line of grey hair from ear to ear. I would dress him in this way to show respect to Eva and to show that he is a respectable man and that he is nothing but a police inspector. He would be pale skinned to show that he is ghost like and not fully human. He would be bald to show his age and the line of grey hair adds mystery to his character.
The Inspector would be standing by the window casting his eyes over towards the poor area of the town. The lights would be down with a candle burning brightly on the windowsill casting an eerie glow across The Inspector’s face, again showing mystery. We hear nothing except for the nervous shuffling of the other characters feet and slow music playing lowly in the background. We can vaguely see The Inspector’s face glowing in the window, a painful look fleetingly flashes across his usually cool expression, which quickly returns to normal.
Sheila would be near Gerald looking calm until you look deep into her eyes where you can see fright and apprehension, wondering what will this man spring onto them next. She would be fiddling with her fingers nervously realising that life is not what she believes it to be, but that there are many people homeless and starving people in the world.
Gerald would be looking slightly towards Sheila, casting a worrying eye on the usually happy fun-loving girl that he loves.
Birling would be staring towards the audience near to Sheila and Gerald the cold hard expression softened by The Inspector’s words. However he is worried about his family showed by the deep furrows in his forehead.
Inspector: “You mean you don’t choose to do so, Mrs Birling.”
Mrs Birling: “(angrily) I meant what I said.”
Inspector: “You’re not telling me the truth.”
Mrs Birling: “I beg your pardon!”
Birling: “(angrily to inspector) Look here, I’m not going to have this, Inspector. You’ll apologise at once.”
Inspector: “Apologise for what – doing my duty?”
Birling: “No for being so offensive about it. I’m a public man – ”
In this part I’d have the characters looking hatefully into each other’s eyes as the say each word with total distaste, spitting each word out. Birling would be red faced, puffing out his chest to show that he’s above everyone in the room, emphasising each word he says individually. All three characters would be stood near each other Mr and Mrs Birling near each other and The Inspector on the other side of the table, showing that class and beliefs split them up, a pale red light shining on the table highlighting the three characters. Sheila would be standing near the wall on The Inspector’s side, showing that she’s on his side.
After him making her feel so low and helpless she feels that she should support him and she realises that her mother is next. Sheila would be stood out of the main light, which is focusing on the two Birlings and The Inspector. Mrs Birling would be expressionless as she coolly tries to pass off that she knows the girl in the photograph. Although somewhere we can sense that she knows what is about to happen to her and that somehow she was involved in the death. The rest of the lighting would be dim. The music is similar to before except it’s slightly louder portraying the anger the characters are feeling.
Inspector: “(taking charge, masterfully) Stop! (They are all suddenly quiet staring at him.) And be quiet for a moment and listen to me. I don’t need to know any more. Neither do you. This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it.
There is lots of noise and arguing before The Inspector intervenes loudly and pompously taking charge, they all immediately look up at him quietly. Eric and Sheila are fuming staring at each other, Eric has his fists clenched. We hear a clock chiming as The Inspector says stop. He is looking at them all individually staring at them intently, he is standing up straight to show power. There is no sound at all apart from the ticking and The Inspector’s smooth voice. The lighting is soft, focusing on The Inspector. Mrs Birling, Birling, Eric and Sheila stare upwards towards the man who is momentarily controlling their lives.
Inspector: “But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire, blood and anguish. Goodnight.”
As this long final speech is being made many things are happening in the room. In the large, grand fire burning in the room we vaguely can see first Eva Smith’s face, which fades and changes to a mystical figure, which is replaced by a war scene. The fire is behind The Inspector, casting his silhouette eerily on the wall at the back of the theatre. The lighting is red and powerfully focusing on The Inspector as he says his lines.
The sky outside the window turns a mysterious dark colour before we hear a rumble of thunder followed by a clap of lighting filling the room with a bright white light, then it starts raining heavily. At the front of the stage is The Inspector slightly turned towards the family but staring out into the audience, a totally cold expression on his face, looking deep into his eyes you can see the pain that this is causing him. His voice is full of expression stressing all the relevant words, he is staring towards the audience his eyes red pools of anger.
Sheila is sitting in an armchair at the other side of the room crying quietly but taking in every single word the inspector is saying. Mrs Birling is near Sheila on another chair, also crying. Eric is in the background still trying to get over the shock and staring at The Inspector watching his every move.
Birling is standing nearest The Inspector looking into the fire and at the same time watching The Inspector. Casting a glance over towards his whimpering family the audience sees the pain and realisation crossing his face. There is silence in the room and we hear The Inspector’s voice ringing out coolly, the fire crackling, the thunder rumbling and the music emphasising the words of The Inspector and the feeling in the room as it rises and falls with the mood. The Inspector turns around quickly and seems to vanish under his long coat then through the door and we hear a loud bang.
I think that Priestly wrote this story to teach people that your sins may one day catch up with you and change your life forever. I think that he meant for The Inspector to be an Embodiment of Societies Conscience, this is because in The Inspector’s last words he says, “We don’t all live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”