‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 by John Boynton Priestley. He was born on the 13th of September 1884 in Bradford, England. He died on the 14th August 1984 in Warwickshire and was widely respected as a great English writer and broadcaster. Priestley was born in a highly respectable suburb in Bradford. His father was a teacher and his mother died when he was young. He worked in the wool trade after he had left grammar school but had always had ambitions of being a writer and he became one when he reached the age of thirty. In much of his work he drew on memories of his time in Bradford after he had moved south.
Priestley wrote more than fifty plays the most famous of which are, ‘Dangerous Corners (1932)’, ‘When We Are Married (1938)’, and ‘An Inspector Calls (1945)’. His first major success though came with the novel ‘The Good Companions’ which earned him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and made him a national figure. Many of his works have a political aspect. For example ‘An Inspector Calls’ contains many references to Socialism. He was also a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. He declined lesser honours before accepting the Order of Merit in 1977. He married three times and had four daughters and one son.
In ‘An Inspector Calls’ the main themes are status, love, power, guilt, responsibility, honesty and lies. The play is set in 1912 because it gives the audience a more dramatic impression of the differences between rich and poor. In 1912 the people were vastly socially divided. There were a lot of lower class people who were very poor and very few upper class rich people, a lot of the rich people disliked the working class and disrespected them. Among the political issues receiving the most attention at the time was the need to improve working conditions for the average English employee, and the question of voting for women.
Using the play, Priestley attacks the social standards of the time, a time in which people were just concerned for themselves with no concern for the welfare of the community. Priestley was a socialist and believed that people should either share their wealth or help those in need. In several of his plays he tried to persuade people to become socialist. He uses ‘An Inspector Calls’ to voice some of his beliefs e.g. what can happen if we ignore the feelings of others. He also uses the play to point out that the way people behaved in those times was wrong. By setting the characters of the play in a time of innocence and hope, Priestley can speak strongly to his audiences who have lived through a time of despair.
The pride and complacency of the Birling’s seems all the more foolish to an audience who knows what is about to happen to the British people. The lessons that Eric and Sheila learn are even more poignant when one realizes that very soon all classes in England, upper, middle and lower, will be involved in the same tragic war. In the play Priestly seems to be asking the question, “Just what kind of society are we fighting to save?”
In Act 1, the play starts with a wealthy family celebrating an engagement in a very extravagant fashion, nothing could be happier. Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Eric, Sheila and Gerald are sitting around the dining table discussing Gerald and Sheila’s recent engagement. Gerald and Sheila are young, healthy and prosperous. Everyone is dressed up and in a good mood, the food is excellent; and Mr Birling even has special port to drink a toast with. The bickering between Sheila and Eric is friendly, Sheila adores her engagement ring: “I’ll never let it go out of my sight for an instant.” After a good evening meal with loved ones the stresses of daily life seem unimportant. Here everyone is content, and behaving and saying the right things. The future looks rosy. But there are hints of conflict under the surface… Things are not right as there are some unanswered questions:
When Sheila and Mrs Birling leave the room, Mr Birling makes stupid speech to Eric and Gerald about conflict. He thinks that the future will be fine and trouble-free. He says conflicts between workers and their bosses will come to nothing. But he’s wrong, because in 1912 there was the Lawrence textile strike when thousands of immigrant workers refused to work until they got a pay rise. The audience of 1946 (when the play was first performed) would have known this. Arthur also says that the progress of technology will continue and uses the titanic as an example. He says it’s: “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” this shows the audience that he’s overconfident and a bit daft. Eric then asks whether there’s going to be a war with Germany. Arthur says no way. But the audience knows that two years later, England will go to war with Germany in World War One. This tells us he’s a foolish person.
The Birling’s and the Croft families are both owners and managers so they’re not interested in equality or change. But the world was changing at that time and the bosses of the world needed to confront their responsibilities. They couldn’t go on and keep exploiting the workers. But Arthur Birling thinks he can as: “Every man for himself” is his philosophy. As soon as Inspector Goole calls, the whole atmosphere of the play changes. He doesn’t waste time. He’s not interested at all in being sociable or conversing with his social superiors. He has a job to do and he doesn’t mind confronting people to get it done, and when people resist, he fights back and he tends to win.
Arthur Birling tries to impress the inspector and establish his own self-respect and social status to show that he is a man of power and influence; he does this by saying that he’s a former Lord Mayor and he also tries to put the Inspector down by telling him that he knows most of the town’s police officers: “I was an alderman for years and Lord mayor two years ago and I’m still on the bench, so I know the Brumley officers pretty well.” But the Inspector takes no notice of him and says: “Quite so.” And continues on.
The Inspector is deliberately slow at first to give away the reason of his visit. Then he suddenly comes out quite bluntly with an account of the woman’s death. Her name was Eva smith. She committed suicide by swallowing disinfectant. She was: “burnt inside out”. The Inspector saw her body in the Infirmary and in her room he found a letter, a diary and a photo of her. He shows the photograph to Mr Birling but refuses to show it to Eric and Gerald, when they ask him why he tells them that they will be dealt with: “one at a time.” He is quick to suggest that Arthur is involved but he is slow to tell them why. The strange way that the Inspector goes about his business infuriates Mr Birling. The Inspector hints that he knows more than he’s telling e.g. He implies that Sheila, Gerald and Eric also know something about Eva Smith and he also rarely answers questions precisely: “It might be” his business, he says.