Account for the success and popularity of ‘An Inspector Calls’ over fifty-eight years. Refer to one or two scenes in your answer. Priestley wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1945. The play is set in the year 1912 and is at first sight a ‘straightforward detective thriller’ as Tim Bezant says in his Introduction. Mysteries appeal to everybody. This may be because there is a lot of suspense, causing tension. If ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a very popular play, this is probably one of the main reasons. This work also explores the changes that take place – or not, as the case may be – in human beings when their consciences are affected. It is, above all, a play with a message.
At the very beginning the author introduces all the characters and establishes the idea of a happy and united family looking forward to the future with a degree of confidence. As this is a typical family the audience is engrossed in the play because we are fascinated with gossip and what events occur in other people’s lives. An example of this is in the soap opera, ‘Eastenders’. This is one of the most popular soap operas today due to the dramas and conflicts that occur in a few families.
In retrospect, there are a number of hints that all is not as it seems but these are not particularly obvious until later in the play. There is nothing to warn us of the shock of the Inspector’s visit. Priestley also shows the relationships between each character. These are universal themes that apply to human beings at any time and at any place. An example of a universal theme is the relationship between Mr and Mrs Birling. Mrs Birling evidently knows more about social matters then Mr Birling because her husband does not know how to host a party and she tells him off.
‘Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things.’ Mrs Birling says this after Mr Birling has complimented the cook on the dinner, when he is supposed to be the host of the party. An audience at any period would laugh at this comment because it shows a typical argument between couples. A few lines later Mrs Birling says to Sheila: “When you are married you’ll realize that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had.”
This shows the relationship between middle class men and women in 1912. The men worked and brought money into the house whereas women stayed at home and supervised the house and children, with servants to do the actual physical work. Today, both women and men can get jobs but we still live in a male dominated world, where even if a woman goes out to work she will still usually be the one who is mainly responsible for the home and children. Priestley gives us a symbol of separation between male and female just after Gerald has given Sheila her engagement ring. Sheila and Mrs Birling go from the room whilst the men have a private chat and drink port.
This was a custom in 1912, but one which has become quite rare these days. Nevertheless, men still like getting together for all-male sessions. As we live in the twenty-first century, the audience would find this play interesting and engaging because we can see how society has changed. The rivalries between the two siblings, Sheila and Eric, are another example of a universal theme, making the audience able to recognise the characters and enjoy the play. Every person who has a sibling must have at least had an argument with them at least once in their lives, so the audience would be engrossed in the play and acknowledge that this is a typical family.
Mr Birling is having an enjoyable family celebration, which he is dominating with his speeches and predictions. The atmosphere is relaxed making the play even more shocking later on. He is full of pompous pronouncements, such as “The Titanic – absolutely unsinkable”. Priestley uses dramatic irony in this example to show how out-of-touch Birling is, and how arrogant. When Birling makes these unrealistic predictions, the audience are in a good mood because we feel superior. By making the audience feel greater than Mr Birling, Priestley has made his play very fascinating. We know that Mr Birling is wrong and are secretly laughing within ourselves. All his faith is in business and greed, and this partly explains his pleasure in the evening since “Crofts and Birling will be brought together to work in harmony”. His obsessive faith in the individual, in progress and capitalism is the kind of selfish attitude that has led to Eva Smith’s downfall. This is what the Inspector comes to teach him about.
From the very moment the Inspector starts to interrogate the family there is tension and surprise among the audience. Our first impression of Mr Birling has been that he is a civilised and respectable man. However we soon realise that he does hold some responsibility for Eva Smith’s death. This scene is particularly interesting because it deals with relationships between employers and employees. “Well, it’s its my duty to keeps labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we’d have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs.”
The year in this scene is supposed to be in 1912; however this argument is exactly the same as the one employers use today to the unions when they are demanding a pay rise. Employees do get more protection these days than Eva Smith had. Nevertheless, employees are still at a disadvantage. An example of this in the twenty-first century is when the UK fire fighters were in dispute with their employers over pay. They reached an agreement with their employers, but the government ruined the deal, by saying that the pay increase had to be funded by modernisation of their terms and conditions. Knowing this, the audience feels sympathy for Eva Smith losing her job, and creates a relationship with Eva Smith’s character.