The Inspector is the major device that Priestley uses to entertain and educate his audience. He uses him as a mouthpiece to portray his socialist philosophy to the audience. This is particularly shown when the Inspector delivers a final speech, which is rather like a sermon, before he departs. He states that ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us,’ indicating that there are many people like her who will need help.
The use of common name ‘Smith’ implies that the Christian ethics of ‘Love thy neighbour’ applies to every person. He also lectures not only the family but also the audience that ‘we are members of one body’ and ‘we are responsible for each other’, highlighting the central theme of responsibility. However, if this lesson is not learnt, then ‘they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.’ This preaching from the Inspector contrasts with Mr. Birling’s speech at the beginning, when he foolishly educates Gerald and Eric ‘that a man has to mind his own business’ and we are not part of a ‘community and all that nonsense.’ Priestley cleverly structured these two speeches so that both the audience today and in 1945 would respond to the Inspector’s socialist views, making Mr. Birling seem selfish and arrogant.
Another way in which Priestley’s message is expressed to the modern audience is through the other interpretations as shown in the play. As Priestley is interested in the concept of time, the ‘Priestley Shorts’ production applies this idea by shifting the play between the modern times and the Edwardian period to show that the message is as relevant today as it was in 1946. The director uses matters that are present in the modern society, such as ambulances and colloquial language, to allow the audience to be able to relate to the play.
When the Inspector leaves, they start to speculate whether the Inspector is real, making Mr. and Mrs. Birling ‘rather excited’ and hoping that a scandal can be avoided. However, for Sheila and Eric ‘it doesn’t make any real difference.’ Sheila even attempts to argue against her parents about them ‘being childish-not trying to face the facts.’ Her assertive attitude suggests she might have been influenced by the Suffragette Movement, which was a political movement in 1912 that demanded the right for women to vote and be respected equally by society. Through this, Priestley educates his audience to build a better society, with no gender or class divisions.
A successful method that Priestley uses to educate his audience is by means of dividing the generations in the play. The family’s suspicions about the Inspector are confirmed when Gerald returns to the house and they gradually discover that he was a ‘hoax’ and ‘no girl has died’, releasing some of the tension and making Gerald and Mr. and Mrs. Birling become relaxed and begin to celebrate ‘triumphantly.’ However, Sheila and Eric retain their fixed belief that ‘everything we said had happened really had happened.’
Throughout the course of the play, the younger members of the family show that they are aware of the consequences of their action by accepting the blame and expressing sincere regrets and sympathy for Eva Smith. For instance, in Act One, Sheila’s reaction to the news about Eva Smith’s death is ‘How horrible!’ The contrasting reactions of the younger and older members of the family links back to their response at the news about Eva Smith and to the Inspector’s comment in Act Two, that the young people are ‘more impressionable.’ As the older generation seems to be already fixed in its attitudes, the hope is left with the younger ones to improve the society by performing their moral duties towards the ‘Eva Smiths and John Smiths.’
Tension and suspense are the other methods that Priestley uses to sustain the audience’s interest. When Mr. Birling answers the telephone to discover that ‘a girl has just died…and a police inspector is on his way here – to ask some – questions’, the tension is restored very dramatically. This particular sequence is highly entertaining and educating as Priestley concludes the play leaving the characters and the audience with a final twist in the tale. This would be very dramatic on stage as we see the facial expressions and reactions of the characters at this unexpected revelation. As ‘the curtain falls’, they ‘stare guiltily and dumbfounded’, left to experience the events for the second time.
By ending the play on a cliffhanger, the audience are left reflecting on the events of the play and its significance. Priestley skilfully structures the play with dramatic conclusions of each Act in order to maintain the audience’s interest, leaving them anxious to see more. As one critic, Tim Bezant, states ‘the audience’s interest is sustained…by their desire to find out who, ultimately, was responsible for driving Eva to her suicide’, in an almost ‘whodunit’ mystery.
An alteration to the ending of the play is shown in the 1954 film, where the Inspector does not leave until Mr. Birling answers the phone to be notified that ‘a police inspector is on his way.’ In disbelief, he goes to the room but finds that the Inspector has disappeared. The producer entertains his audience by using the concept of a ghost or a ghoul, as the name ‘Goole’ suggests, giving the audience a supernatural and ominous sense of some greater power at work.
Priestley does not reveal the Inspector’s identity to leave the audience with an element of mystery, allowing them to make predictions about the reality of the Inspector. However, one definite answer is that Priestley uses him as a dramatic device to increase the pace of the story and create tension and suspense, but most importantly, to educate and entertain, presenting his central theme of responsibility to the audience, as well as the characters, ‘Public men, Mr. Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges.’
It is apparent that in Act Three, and in the rest of the play, Priestley uses several different methods to articulate his message. Since an important message is represented, it signifies that ‘An Inspector Calls’ is not only a murder mystery, given that Priestley uncovers the story of the death of Eva Smith, but also a moralistic play. He uses dramatic devices, such as the Inspector, to make the audience contemplate on the reality that they are ‘members of one body’ and therefore ‘responsible for one another.’
This applies to both the contemporary and the modern society, where people need to work together as a community and help those who are oppressed. After studying this play, I have realised that it had an effect on me as I found myself reflecting on the way I treat other people, considering Priestley’s message that ‘No man is an island’ (John Donne, English poet, 1571-1631)