In 1945, J B Priestley was 51 and felt very strongly about the state of government in England at that time, and thought that people were being exploited in England, so had some very liberal views. He expressed many of these views to the public, in the form of a book, by the name of ‘inspector calls’. The basic plot of this book is that a, 1912, upper class family, the Birlings, is celebrating a higher point in their lives, when all of their hopes for the future are shattered by a string of concealed events being brought to light by a mysterious inspector intruding their dinner.
However after the sudden flipping of their reality, they realize that their foul deeds did not, in fact, lead to the death of a young woman and most of them return to their previous state of merriness, until the police ring informing them of a young woman dying and an inspector coming to ‘ask some questions’. In 1992 this play was adapted by Stephen Daldry’s, royal national theatre, stage production, which explores Priestley’s themes and ideas in a very detailed fashion.
One of Priestley’s themes, which is shown the 1992 stage production is how the characters portray different personalities which show how Priestley thought of the different classes of people, Birling portraying the stereotypical, upper class, leader of a co-operation. This is shown when Birling’s house falls down, as he realizes his future is looking very bleak, and that he won’t get his knighthood. However as he realizes that a woman hasn’t died and he still may get his knighthood, his house ‘rises from its ashes’. This corresponds with Birling’s feelings at the time.
This shows how Birling is selfish, as he does not care about what he has done as long as it doesn’t affect his life in a negative way. Sheila’s reaction is very different, as she takes off her dress, in the play, when she thinks that she is responsible, because it reminds her of everything that once was, but is no more. Sheila represents an upper class person who has seen the error of her ways and learnt her lesson. Sheila is disgusted by her parents’ attitude, when they act as if nothing has happened after they exposed the inspector. This view is shown when she says, “I behaved badly too.
I know I did. I’m ashamed of it. But now you’re beginning all over again to pretend that nothing much has happened-“. Shelia’s opinions were also shared by Eric, who learnt that the working class shouldn’t be exploited by the upper class and that Humans should help each other, or something bad would happen. However, these ideas were not shared by Birling, as he believed that everyone should look out for themselves and in the stage production and the book the inspectors entrance is timed directly as Birling is about to make a speech on how everyone should always look out for themselves above all others.
Birling’s speeches express his views very clearly, as he is not afraid to speak his thoughts, for example his speech, just as the inspector arrives, says how, “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself”. This shows how Birling was a very proud man, who did not feel responsible for anyone that he exploited and that he did not respect the people on the lower side of the social divide. It is then somewhat ironic that the inspector, a man who fights to narrow the social divide arrives at the exact time that Birling is arguing his case for the social divide.
In 1912, the year that the book was set, there was a lot of tension between the working and upper class, as wages were going down and prices were going up, after the miner’s strikes in the early 1900’s. This shows that Priestley was against people just looking out for themselves, as the inspector fights the people’s case to Birling throughout the play, almost at his throat. In the Inspector Calls book, there is a constant shroud of mystery around the inspector, as you never know who he is and why he is there. However the way he acts leaves hints to the answers of these questions.
For example, he could be Eva smith’s dead child if it had lived, trying to make the Birlings suffer for what they did and trying to make them realize what they did wrong or he could be a time traveler, who has traveled back to try and narrow the social divide, in an attempt to prevent the world wars from ever starting,”then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish! “, shows this. The latter of these, the inspector being a time traveler, is definitely the case in the 1992 stage production, because the inspector is dressed up in 1945 style clothing.
When the inspector is introduced in the stage production, he looks very sinister, as he is wearing a trench coat and a dark hat. He is also carrying two suitcases, showing that he is new to the area and is carrying everything he owns with him, making it seem as if he was there for good, at least in spirit. A long shadow is also over cast over the stage by the inspector, looming over the Birling house and prying into their lives. The inspector’s name, inspector Goole, also suggests that his character is quite sinister.
However Stephen Daldry, cleverly, revealed the inspectors character to the audience, when he is shown giving a working class boy an orange and talking to him. This showed how the inspector was on the side of the working class people right from the beginning. In the 1992 stage production, near the end of act 2, a lot of suspense had been built up, because of Mrs. Birling”s condemnation of her son going on while most of the audience have probably realized that Eric is who she is talking about. When the dramatic irony is finally broken, Mrs.
Birling is confronted by an audience forming round the inspector, as if they were an extension of him. However they were not really there to judge, but just to see what was happening and add to the drama of the scene. The set of the Stephen Daldry production is very important to that play, because it helps to convey to the audience some of the underlying themes of the story. One of these themes, which is shown by the set is how the Birlings look on themselves as if they are better than everyone else.
This is shown in the set by the Birling’s house being a cartoon like size, elevated on the top of a hill. Another set design is how, when the inspector prises open the Birling’s house for public inspection, the actual house opens on the stage, revealing the Birlings to the audience. There are also lots of special effects in the stage production, which are used to emphasise certain points, for example the smoke machines conceal the Birlings when Eric has been revealed for his part in the woman’s death.
In conclusion I believe that Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production of ‘inspector calls’ explores Priestley’s themes and ideas very well, as it includes all of the messages conveyed in the original text, such as the inspector’s purpose being to narrow the social divide, and it also adds in different interpretations, for example the play starting in 1945, with some working class children emerging from an air raid shelter and being intimidated yet intrigued by the Birling’s manor.