Responsibility – ‘looking after a person or thing and having to take the blame if something goes wrong’ or ‘causing something, His carelessness was responsible for their deaths’ – Oxford Dictionary. In the year of 1912 the nation hadn’t experienced the repugnance of either of the World Wars. Society was categorised into capitalist and poverty stricken classes, each disunited with the opposing group. Neither class bared responsibility for the other, nor did they cooperate. Priestley was a committed socialist: he believed that the wealth of the country should be shared proportionately through society. Priestley vented his political notions through his play, using the Inspector as a vehicle for his social diatribe.
The Inspector’s function in the play is to put across Priestley’s socialist beliefs. He wants the audience to feel ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’ about the Inspector, as he would have them think about his own opinions. The Inspector speaks with ‘calm authority’, not feeling threatened at all by the Birlings and their helpless efforts to intimidate him. He doesn’t get averted by Mr Birling’s exceptional endeavour to hospitality when offering him a glass of port or whisky. He gets straight to the point he’s trying to make, ‘cutting in massively’ when appropriate.
He queries the family, probing them harder when he doesn’t receive an adequate response, ‘coolly looking hard at’ them. Never at any point in the play does he let his guard down, unlike all of the other characters, as if it was socialism tackling capitalism in a head-on duel. The Inspector makes both the family and the audience remember Eva Smith, and makes speeches about how she died. When he looked at her he told himself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ He breaks Sheila down by commenting on how pretty Eva Smith was: ‘she wasn’t pretty when I saw her today, but she had been pretty.’ He says this to Sheila to make her empathise and connect with the girl.
However, because Sheila is shallow at first, she can only relate to the fact that the girl was pretty like her, rather than anything deeper. Because Sheila sympathised with the girl, the Inspector can break her down effortlessly. Along with Eric, she comes to terms a lot more readily than any of the other characters and accepts responsibility even when the Inspector has departed. This shows that people can change. Through the Inspector, Preistley highlights the fact that unlike Sheila and Eric, Mr and Mrs Birling’s attitudes are wrong. They are egocentric capitalists who accept no responsibility. They typify society in 1912.
He uncovers the lack of responsibility the Birlings show towards Eva Smith by getting the individual he is questioning to deny as much as possible. He then comes back at them with the knockout punch piece of evidence, ending their desperate web of lies and deceit in an abrupt degrading surge of embarrassment and exposure. The structure of the play is very effective dramatically. It is performed in three continuous acts. There is no jump in time as it is set in the same afternoon. There are no changes in props, no scenery changes. The audience’s response is sustained by an engaging storyline – nothing is ever tied up – there are always loose ends and each character’s story crosses and intertwines. The Inspector sums up evidence at regular intervals to avert the audience from confusion, and also to reinforce the fact that each member of the family was responsible for the death of Eva Smith.
There are two temporal perspectives in the play as it is set in 1912 but written in 1942. The audience has the benefit of hindsight – they have experienced both World Wars. Priestley can show through this play what was wrong with society, and help the audience accept that the nation had united in the two World Wars but that there were still people like this in society (and you could argue that there still are in 2003). The ending of the play was to show that if you don’t accept responsibility, history is condemned to repeat itself, a message widely accepted after the World Wars. He also engages the audience. They want to know if the characters will accept responsibility a second time around.
Lighting is a valuable dramatic device. In the stage directions it states that ‘the lighting should be pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder.’ This pink light symbolises the lack of responsibility. The family are sat around their expensive materialistic abode unaware of what grief they have caused Eva Smith. The harder brighter light that comes when the Inspector arrives takes the phrase ‘shedding light on the matter’ literally.