Discuss the ideas of Community and responsibility for our fellow humans in ‘An Inspector Calls’. How successfully does the National Theatre Production convey this idea? “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that a time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish” Inspector’s Final speech. An Inspector Calls is as its name implies- a detective play with a twist. Written by John Boynton Priestely in 1945 after WW2, it is based in 1912 in the industrial city of Bromley in the North Midlands and is centred around the Birling’s- a respectable upper middle class family who all in some way contributed to why Eva Smith- lower class girl, committed suicide- yet who shun their responsibility and then reap the consequences.
In the years between 1912 and 1945, there were two huge world wars that had affected millions of lives. The casualties had been staggering and the destruction overwhelming and people were now beginning to ask why- why had all this happened- why had so much misery come about- who was responsible for it all? Before the 1939, theatres had been extremely versatile in its styles and it had been a popular form of entertainment with the people to whom the theatre was a means to get away from the horrors of the war.
Theatre was also greatly influenced by playwrights and authors. Brecht- a German director, poet and playwright of late 19th and early 20th century was incredibly famous for his plays in which he introduced moral/ social and political issues (social division, racial prejudices etc) and encouraged the audience to think about what the moral and situations of the story were so that they could thereby learn through them. Priestely believed very strongly in such matters and these he showed through what he wrote and thought- he was very politically minded and passionate in what he believed in, but was more of a social philosopher and liked to think of himself as such. He himself had fought in WW1 and had had close shaves with death on a number of occasions- and it was these unforgettable experiences which helped shape the direction of his writing.
It was with these influences and his own personal beliefs of community and human socialism that Priestley wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’- characterising the Birling’s and Gerald Croft as the standard middle class family of the time- the suicide of Eva Smith as the tragedy caused by their own mistakes (WW1) and the recurrence of the tragedy as what occurred when they did not learn from their previous errors (WW2). The beginning of the play starts off relatively uneventful- a rich middleclass family extolling their appreciation of their daughter Sheila and Gerald Croft’s (a rich young man) engagement.
In Priestley’s performance, this would have been a fairly calm tranquil scene- soft lighting and a relaxed atmosphere to contrast with the scene later on in which the Inspector appears. However in the modern National Theatre production, the opening has a much more symbolic and eye-opening effect. Instead of the stage simply being the interior of the Birling’s house, the stage is set out much more widely- providing the whole of the house and some scene around it- mainly a dark lit street. Small but vital additions e.g. the cobbled streets and smoky gas lamps set the scene to 1912 and create a mystical and eerie atmosphere which with the sinister, discordant background music, promises the audience a worthwhile play.
The Birling’s house is the centrepiece of the stage- situated at the back right hand corner, is raised above the rest of the stage and through the windows, the figures and voices of the exuberant Birling’s are clearly defined. The house’s separation from the rest of the stage symbolises the huge distinction between the classes of the period. While poorly dressed boys play hopscotch and kick stones around upon the street below, the richly clad Birling’s toast each other with wine and brazenly exude their wealth. There is no sense of a closely knit community and the impression rather is of two magnets- they could be together and work in harmony but instead they are placed and choose to remain, back to back- repelling each other.
It is here Mr Birling paints the true portrait of himself to us the audience and shows that not only is he a rich swaggering man of high standing, but a selfish, arrogant and shrewd one too. He leaves the interior of the house and comes out into full view of the audience with Gerald Croft upon the balcony outside and proceeds to lecture him upon a man’s duty- first and foremost to himself then as an after thought his family but then responsibility stops.
“But the way some of these cranks (Socialists) talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we’re all mixed up together like bees in a hive- community and all that nonsense.” The idea of helping or aiding others, to him is preposterous- you can almost hear his sneering ridiculing tone- Gerald and his son Eric do nothing to correct him and instead are listening intently almost to the older man- taking in his words. From what he says, you begin to feel a certain disgust at this man who talks so fluently and certainty that the war which is to kill millions- is simply rumours and nothing more-
“And I say there isn’t a chance of war….progress we’re making…automobiles…ships…Titanic sails next week- 46800 tonnes- every luxury- unsinkable- absolutely unsinkable” To the 1945 audience, these words would have had a great effect for Mr Birling was echoing what some of them were and had been before the whole world it seemed, crashed. His certainty and prideful ignorance would have touched some deeply – the war had been brutal and painful as well as the loss of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic and all because they had not pulled down barriers and muffled their pride- it would have shattered any remaining doubts about Mr Birling’s character being anything other then what I have described above and made him into a figure of ridicule as both of his emphatic statements in due course, turn out to be exactly the opposite.