“An Inspector Calls” by J.B. Priestley was written in post-world war II Britain but is set in 1912, a point in time of great innovation and progress, but also political instability and great threat. With “Titanic” about to make its maiden voyage and trouble in the Balkans about to immerse the rest of Europe, it is a fitting time for Priestley to take advantage of his audience’s benefit of hindsight and use the inspector as a vessel for his socialist views.
The opening dialogue of the play is conducted around an extremely large table with which Priestley intends to show that although the characters were a family, they weren’t close, and instead were more formal, even while celebrating with each other. The stage directions at the beginning portray them as being very ‘pleased with themselves,’ making a good cover for the deceit and corruption hidden behind the silk cravats and elaborate gowns. The first scene sets the mood that Priestley wanted to linger throughout the whole play. For example “The general effect is substantial and heavily comfortable, but not cosy and home like.”
The Inspector arrives at a crucial point, just after Birling has been setting out his views of life: that every man must only look out for himself. The Inspector’s poignant appearance is to show that this is not the case. His sombre appearance and the news he brings are a contrast with the happy and elegant air of celebration on stage. His name, Goole, gives him a mysterious, disturbing quality, perhaps meant as a deliberate homonym – a ghoul is an evil spirit which sucks life from corpses -, and as the Inspector turns up for an unknown reason it’s conceivable that the Inspector’s existence is a direct result of the girl’s death.
When the Inspector enters the scene, the stage directions describe him as giving “an impression of massiveness, solidity, and purposefulness.” Throughout the play he is described as pointed, cold, and sharp, words often associated with being aware or attuned to reality – in this case Priestley’s Socialist reality. His ‘disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before speaking,’ gives the impression that he sees through appearances and first impressions to the real person beneath. It also gives him a thoughtfulness that contrasts with the rash thoughtlessness of each character’s dealings with the girl.
His role in the play is not simply to confront each character with the truth, but to force each character to admit the truth they already know. He works methodically through the characters present one at a time, partly because he recognizes that “otherwise, there’s a muddle”, and partly because, given the chance, the characters are all quick to defend and justify each other, or to call upon outside help in order to avoid accepting the responsibility of what he suggests.
The Inspectors employs Germanic efficiency in controlling the conversation throughout the play, using words and phrases such as “stop”, and, “I don’t want”. Stage directions like “sharply” and “harshly” help to show this. For example Sheila tells Gerald: ‘somehow he makes you’. He does not, however control their reactions – he only uses his information about the girl’s life and character: a letter, her diary, her photograph, and constant reminders of the horrific death she has suffered, to create the possibility for others to face up to what they have done. When Inspector Goole repeatedly talks about the girl lying dead on the mortuary slab it is supposed to create strong emotions of remorse and sadness to any human with a soul. However Arthur Birling actually says: ” I would pay thousands, thousands …” Money cannot buy you everything, it simply cannot turn back time. The Inspector points this out by saying “you’re offering money at the wrong time Mr. Birling.”
Priestley captivates the audience by the use of climaxes, the slow unravelling of the plot and use of the detective-whodunit style before capitalising with a shocking revelation. As the tension increases, so does the passion. The Inspector is anything but plain and regimented in his investigation, treating all characters equally, showing them no special deference because of their social status. The Inspector has a moral outlook, making him different from an ordinary Inspector in that he is more concerned with right and wrong than with what is legal. He coolly tells Birling, for example, that ‘it’s better to ask for the earth (as workers might do) than to take it (implying Mr Birling does)’.
The snobbish dialogue, between the two Inspectors visits, confronts Goole’s irregularities, and possible supernatural origins, “it’s queer, very queer.” but is then forgotten – reflecting the confident English upper-class values of English-defined normality. The Inspector also tells the characters that ‘if you’re easy with me, I’m easy with you’ – he has compassion for those who are willing to accept their responsibility, but not forgiveness, because, after all, ‘the girl’s dead’.