An Inspector Calls

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This article is about the play. For the film, see An Inspector Calls (film). For the 1982 TV series, see An Inspector Calls (TV series).
An Inspector Calls
A cover of a book reading "An Inspector Calls", with a photo showing a woman's face lit up by a light with a dark background. She has her hand in front of her face with a shocked facial expression.
Written by J.B. Priestley
Date premiered 1945
Place premiered Moscow, Soviet Union
Original language English
Subject A mysterious inspector interrogates a wealthy English family about their responsibility for the death of a young working class factory girl.[1]
Genre Drama
Setting The Birlings' home in Brumley, England; 1912

An Inspector Calls is a play written by English dramatist J. B. Priestley, set in 1912 and first performed in 1945 in the Soviet Union and 1946 in the UK. It is one of Priestley's best known works for the stage and considered to be one of the classics of mid-20th-century English theatre. The play's success and reputation has been boosted in recent years by a successful revival by English director Stephen Daldry for the National Theatre in 1992.,[2] and a tour of the UK in 2011–2012.

The play is a three-act drama, which takes place on a single night in 1912,[3] focusing on the prosperous middle-class Birling family,[4] who live in a comfortable home in Brumley, "an industrial city in the north Midlands".[3] The family is visited by a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who questions the family about the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith (also known as Daisy Renton). The family are interrogated and revealed to have been responsible for the young woman's exploitation, abandonment and social ruin, effectively leading to her death. Long considered part of the repertory of classic "drawing room" theatre, the play has also been hailed as a scathing critique of the hypocrisies of Victorian/Edwardian English society and as an expression of Priestley's Socialist political principles. The play is studied in many schools in the UK as one of the prescribed texts for the English Literature GCSE examination.

Plot[edit]

At the Birlings' home in 1912, Arthur Birling, a wealthy mill owner and local politician, and his family are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of Birling's competitor. In attendance is Arthur's wife Sybil and their adult children Sheila and Eric. Eric, the youngest, has a drinking problem that is discreetly ignored. After dinner, Arthur speaks about the importance of self-reliance. A man, he says, must "make his own way" and protect his own interests.

Inspector Goole arrives, interrupting the evening and explaining that a woman called Eva Smith has killed herself by drinking strong disinfectant. He implies that she has left a diary naming names, including members of the Birling family. Goole produces a photograph of Eva and shows it to Arthur, who acknowledges that she worked in one of his mills. He admits that he dismissed her from Birling & Co. 18 months ago for her involvement in an abortive workers' strike. He denies responsibility for her death.

Sheila enters the room and is drawn into the discussion. After prompting from Goole, she admits to recognising Eva as well. She confesses that Eva served her in a department store and Sheila contrived to have her fired for an imagined slight. She admits that Eva's behaviour had been blameless and that the firing was motivated solely by Sheila's jealousy and spite towards a pretty working-class woman.

Sybil enters the room and Goole continues his interrogation, revealing that Eva was also known as Daisy Renton. Gerald startles at the mention of the name and Sheila becomes suspicious. Gerald admits that he met a woman by that name in a theatre bar. He gave her money and arranged to see her again. Goole reveals that Gerald had installed Eva as his mistress, and gave her money and promises of continued support before ending the relationship. Arthur and Sybil are horrified. As an ashamed Gerald exits the room, Sheila acknowledges his nature and credits him for speaking truthfully but also signals that their engagement is over.

Goole identifies Sybil as the head of a women's charity to which Eva had turned for help. Despite Sybil's haughty responses, she eventually admits that Eva, pregnant and destitute, had asked the committee for financial aid. Sybil had convinced the committee that the girl was a liar and that her application should be denied. Despite vigorous cross-examination from Goole, Sybil denies any wrongdoing. Sheila begs her mother not to continue, but Goole plays his final card, making Sybil admit that the "drunken young man" should give a "public confession, accepting all the blame". Eric enters the room, and after brief questioning from Goole, he breaks down, admitting that he drunkenly forced Eva to have sex and stole £50 from his father's business to pay her off when she became pregnant. Arthur and Sybil are upset by this, and the evening dissolves into angry recriminations.

The implication resulting from Goole's questioning is that each of the people there that evening had contributed to Eva's despondence and suicide. He reminds the Birlings that actions have consequences, and that all people are intertwined in one society, saying, "If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish." Goole then leaves.

Gerald returns, telling the family that there may be no "Inspector Goole" on the police force. Arthur makes a call to the Chief Constable, who confirms this. Gerald points out that as Goole was lying about being a policeman, there may be no dead girl. Placing a second call to the local infirmary, Gerald determines that no recent cases of suicide have been reported. The elder Birlings and Gerald celebrate, with Arthur dismissing the evening's events as "moonshine" and "bluffing". The younger Birlings, however, realise the error of their ways and promise to change. Gerald is keen to resume his engagement to Sheila, but she is reluctant, since he still admitted to having had an affair.

The play ends abruptly with a telephone call, taken by Arthur, who reports that the body of a young woman has been found, a suspected case of suicide by disinfectant, and that the local police are on their way to question the Birlings. The true identity of Goole is never explained, but it is clear that the family's confessions over the course of the evening are true, and that they will be disgraced publicly when news of their involvement in Eva's demise is revealed.

Cast of characters[edit]

Arthur Birling[edit]

Arthur Birling is a "heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties", husband of Sybil and father of Sheila and Eric Birling. He represents the capitalist ruling class, repeatedly describing himself with pride as a "hard-headed businessman", and the head of a patriarchal family structure, and is arguably the main subject of Priestley's social critique. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred and morally blind, he is insistent throughout about his lack of responsibility for Eva/Daisy's death and quotes his economic justification for firing her as being the importance of keeping his labour costs low and quelling dissent, which he says is standard business practice. Although he is authoritative and has risen to a position of economic and social prominence, he reveals his lower social rank to that of his wife, when he compliments the cook right at the start of the play, and by his continual need to assert his social importance. (His status as an alderman and former Lord Mayor of Brumley is repeated several times in the play, with increasing comic effect. Early in the play, he also makes a series of thoroughly explained and justified predictions about the future world which the audience know will not come true). He appears pleased at the economic and social cachet brought by his daughter's engagement to Gerald Croft, and resents Goole's intrusion on the family. He remains unaffected by the details of Eva/Daisy's death, and his own concerns appear to be retaining his social standing, avoiding public embarrassment by the leaking of a scandal, insisting that Eric accounts for and repays the stolen company money and that Sheila should reconsider her relationship with Gerald to maintain a promised Croft-Birling merger.

Sybil Birling[edit]

Sybil Birling is the wife of Arthur and mother of Sheila and Eric Birling. She is her husband's social superior and is keen to show him the correct etiquette. As the leader of a women's charitable organisation, she assumes a social and moral superiority over Inspector Goole, whose questioning style she frequently refers to as "impertinent" and "offensive". Like her husband, she refuses to accept responsibility for the death of Eva/Daisy, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation- even going so far as to lie and deny recognition of the photograph of the dead girl. She fearlessly expresses her prejudices against working class women like Eva/Daisy, whom she accuses of being immoral, dishonest and greedy. It is Eva's/Daisy's use of the assumed name "Birling" that makes Sybil turn her away from her charity and she doesn't see why she did this until it is too late. Also she seems detached from the rest of the family as she does not realise Eric's alcohol problem (either she's blind to it or fails to accept it and still insists on unsuccessfully covering it up around the Inspector). She is described as a snob who doesn't care about working class people, only respecting the people of her class.

Sheila Birling[edit]

The Birlings' eldest child, described as a very pretty girl in her mid-twenties, 'very pleased and rather excited', and quite delighted about her engagement to Gerald. She starts out as a playful, self-centred girl who loves attention. Throughout the play, she becomes the most sympathetic family member, showing remorse and guilt on hearing the news of her part in the girl's downfall, and encouraging the family (mostly unsuccessfully) to accept responsibility for their part in Eva/Daisy's death. She is revealed not to be as naive as originally thought, revealing her suspicions about her fiances infidelity. Despite continual criticism from her father, she becomes more rebellious toward her parents, supporting her brother against them and assisting Goole in his interrogations. By the end of the play, she represents the younger generation's protests against the morality of the older generation and seems the most responsive to Goole's Socialist views about moral responsibility towards others. Priestley uses Sheila to show that even though most wealthy people are snobbish and don't care about anybody but themselves there are exceptions: Sheila is one. At the end of the play, Sheila is much wiser. She can now judge her parents and Gerald from a new perspective, but the greatest change has been in herself: her social conscience has been awakened and she is aware of her responsibilities. The Sheila who had a girl dismissed from her job for a trivial reason has vanished forever. At the end of the play Sheila is also very optimistic and knows her responsibilities of what she has done and takes steps very carefully. Her immense guilt after the death of Eva causes her eyes to open and acknowledge all the wrong things she and her family had been committing.

Eric Birling[edit]

Eric Birling is the son of Arthur Birling and Sybil Birling. Eric is revealed to have made Eva Smith pregnant as well as stolen some money from his father's business to support Eva (although she refuses the money once she knows it is stolen). Eric is revealed to be an alcoholic in the play. His drinking habits were only unknown by his mother who is very naive and wants to think of her son as a child, and not accept that he is no longer her innocent child but a grown man. When the Inspector is revealed to be a fake, he and Sheila are the only two who still feel guilty over Eva's death. In the beginning of the play, Eric is shown as a rebellious, full of himself young man, a true 'jack the lad', however towards the end of the play his true personality is revealed. By the end of the story he seems to have learned his lesson and feels as guilty as Sheila does for his part in Eva Smith's death. He feels as if he cannot talk to his family about his problems, so he bottles it up inside himself.

Gerald Croft[edit]

The son of Sir George Croft of Crofts Limited, a competitor of Birling and Company, he is at the Birling residence to celebrate his recent engagement to Sheila Birling. Gerald is revealed to have secretly known Eva/Daisy and installed her as his mistress, becoming "the most important person in her life", before ending the relationship. After the revelation of his affair, he is not blamed as heavily as the other characters – Sheila commends him for his honesty and for initially showing Eva/Daisy compassion, even though he is shown as cowardly and thoughtless for taking advantage of a vulnerable woman. Gerald thinks that Goole is not a police inspector, that the family may not all be referring to the same woman and that there may not be a body. Initially he appears to be correct, and does not think the Birlings have anything to feel ashamed of or worry about. He seems excited at the prospect of discovering the 'fake' Inspector and seems almost desperate for others to believe him. He is caused to confess as soon as he shouts out in shock, and this is where the inspector gathers that Gerald had some kind of involvement in Eva/Daisy's life.

Inspector Goole[edit]

A mysterious interrogator who introduces himself as "Inspector Goole" (as in "ghoul"), claiming that he has seen the dead body of Eva/Daisy earlier that day after her slow and painful suicide by swallowing disinfectant, and that he has “a duty” to investigate the Birlings’ responsibility for her death. He makes a brief reference to a diary left by Eva/Daisy although this is never seen or explicitly referred to. Throughout the play, it is suggested that Goole knows everything about Eva/Daisy’s life and the Birlings’ involvement in her death, and is interrogating the family solely to reveal their guilt rather than to discover unknown information. Both during and after his interrogation of the family, the Birlings query whether he is actually a real inspector, and a phone call made by Gerald to the local police station reveals that there is no Inspector Goole in the local police force. Many critics and audiences have interpreted Goole’s role as an “avenging angel” or a supernatural being because of his unexplained foreknowledge of events, his prophetic final speech in which he says that humanity will learn its lesson in “fire and blood and anguish” (referring to the First World War, two years after the setting of the play 1912)[3] and even because of his name, which plays on the word “ghoul” (meaning “ghost”) also known as homophones..[5] It is suggested in the final scene that Goole's interrogation of the family will foreshadow a further interrogation to follow by the "real" police force, and that Goole's purpose has been to warn the family in advance and encourage them to accept responsibility and repent for their bad behaviour, like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Goole also forces the characters to question their very own lives, and if the ones they were living were true. In addition he also feels a responsibility to make the Birling family feel guilty for their actions.

Eva Smith/Daisy Renton[edit]

The unseen working class woman who Goole claims has committed suicide whilst pregnant with Eric Birling's baby, and who has been mistreated by each member of the Birling family and by Gerald Croft. Through reports from other characters, she is described as "pretty" with soft brown hair and big dark eyes, and it is explained that she has no family and must work for her living. Her beauty is commented on by all the characters, though it appears to work against her. Her beauty attracts both Gerald and Eric to her, with Eric sexually exploiting her. Sheila comments disparagingly that Eva looked prettier when she wore a certain dress than Sheila did herself, and seems threatened by Eva's beauty, confessing that if Eva had been plain she would have been unlikely to have had her fired. It is also suggested that Eva/Daisy is morally principled, as she refuses to accept stolen money from Eric, despite her dire financial situation. Eva/Daisy appears to be a victim of her class, and is judged by the (female) characters for not acting appropriately for her class. Sheila imagines that Eva laughed at her and did not act respectfully towards her and so "punishes" her by having her fired. Sybil also criticises Eva for appearing proud and putting on airs and graces, and for being "impertinent" rather than being meek and grateful to her social superiors. The audience is invited to dwell on Eva/Daisy's vulnerability and her suffering at the hands of an exploitative employer, her sexual abuse at the hands of Eric, her powerlessness caused by her gender, class and poverty, and her victimisation on the basis of a sexual double standard.

It is implied at the end of the play that Eva Smith/Daisy Renton may not have been the same person but rather a collective personification of different working class woman that the family have exploited, invented by Goole to make the family feel guilty. Yet the final phone call, announcing that a police inspector is shortly to arrive at the Birlings' house to investigate the suicide of a young girl, implies that maybe Eva Smith did exist after all.

Edna[edit]

Edna is the maid at the Birling household. The character has limited contribution in the play; however she is the only person in the play that can provide an insight into the life of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, a character to whom Edna has a similar background. It is she who opens the door to allow the Inspector into the Birlings' lives, although she is often taken for granted and treated somewhat despicably at times, as if she is not actually there.

Criticism and interpretation[edit]

Highly successful after its first and subsequent London productions, the play is now considered one of Priestley's greatest works, and has been subject to a variety of critical interpretations.

After the new wave of social realist theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, the play fell out of fashion, and was dismissed as an example of outdated bourgeois "drawing room" dramas, and became a staple of regional repertory theatre. Following several successful revivals (including Stephen Daldry's 1992 production for the National Theatre), the play was "rediscovered" and hailed as a damning social critique of capitalism and middle-class hypocrisy in the manner of the social realist dramas of Shaw and Ibsen. It has been read as a parable about the destruction of Victorian social values and the disintegration of pre-World War I English society, and Goole's final speech has been interpreted variously as a quasi-Christian vision of hell and judgement, and as a Socialist party manifesto.

The struggle between the embattled patriarch Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole has been interpreted by many critics as a symbolic confrontation between capitalism and socialism, and arguably demonstrates Priestley's Socialist political critique of the perceived selfishness and moral hypocrisy of middle-class capitalist society. While no single member of the Birling family is solely responsible for Eva's death, together they function as a hermetic class system that exploits neglected vulnerable women, with each example of exploitation leading collectively to Eva's social exclusion, despair and suicide. The play also arguably acts as a critique of Victorian-era notions of middle-class philanthropy towards the poor, which is based on presumptions of the charity-givers' social superiority and severe moral judgement towards the "deserving poor". The romantic idea of gentlemanly chivalry towards "fallen women" is also debunked as being based on male lust and sexual exploitation of the weak by the powerful. In Goole's final speech, Eva Smith is referred to as a representative for millions of other vulnerable working class people, and can be read as a call to action for English society to take more responsibility for working class people, pre-figuring the development of the post World War II welfare state.

Productions[edit]

An Inspector Calls was first performed in 1945 in USSR in two theatres (Kamerny Theatre in Moscow and Comedy Theatre in Leningrad), as an appropriate venue in England could not be found. (Critics have speculated that the play's themes were considered too negative and critical for wartime British audiences). The play had its first English production in 1946 at the New Theatre in London with Ralph Richardson as Inspector Goole, Harry Andrews as Gerald Croft, Margaret Leighton as Sheila Birling, Julian Mitchell as Arthur Birling, Marian Spencer as Sybil Birling and Alec Guinness as Eric Birling.

The first Broadway production opened at the Booth Theatre on 21 October 1947 and ran until 10 January 1948. The production was staged by Cedric Hardwicke.

The play was produced and performed at the Ferdowsi Theatre (pictures[6]) in Iran in late 1940s based on the translation by Bozorg Alavi.

Tom Baker played Inspector Goole in a 1987 production directed by Peter Dews and designed by Daphne Dare that opened at the Theatr Clwyd on 14 April then transferred to London's Westminster Theatre on 13 May 1987. The cast included Pauline Jameson as Sybil Birling, Peter Baldwin as Arthur Birling, Charlotte Attenborough as Sheila Birling, Simon Shepherd as Gerald Croft and Adam Godley as Eric Birling.

A 1992 revival of the play by English director Stephen Daldry opened at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre in September 1992. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play, and was widely praised for making the work involving and politically relevant for a modern audience. The production is often credited with single-handedly rediscovering Priestley's works and "rescuing" him from the reputation of being obsolete and class-bound. The success of the production since 1992 has led to a critical reappraisal of Priestley as a politically engaged playwright who offered a sustained critique of the hypocrisy of English society. The Stephen Daldry production went on a tour of the UK in 2011 and 2012,[7] with Tom Mannion as Inspector Goole.

Film, television and radio adaptations[edit]

Three films have been adapted from the play; a theatrical release and two television mini-series.

Produced in the United Kingdom by Watergate Productions Ltd, the 1954 screenplay was adapted by Desmond Davis and directed by Guy Hamilton. Alastair Sim starred as Inspector Goole, renamed "Poole" for the film, with Jane Wenham as Eva Smith (the character not seen in the play), Eileen Moore as Sheila Birling, Arthur Young as Arthur Birling, Brian Worth as Gerald Croft, Olga Lindo as Sybil Birling and Bryan Forbes as Eric Birling.

In 1979, a Soviet made-for-television two-part film Инспектор Гулл (Inspector Gull [sic])) was produced, starring Juozas Budraitis as Gull (Goole), Vladimir Zeldin as Arthur Birling and Ivars Kalniņš as Gerald Croft.

A made-for-television adaptation was produced by BBC in 1982, directed by Michael Simpson. Bernard Hepton starred as Inspector Goole, and the cast included Sarah Berger as Sheila Birling, Nigel Davenport as Arthur Birling, Simon Ward as Gerald Croft, Margaret Tyzack as Sybil Birling and David Sibley as Eric Birling.

On 14 July 2007 BBC Radio 7 broadcast an adaptation by John Foley originally aired on the BBC World Service, starring Bob Peck as Inspector Goole, John Woodvine as Arthur Birling and Maggie Steed as Sybil Birling. The production was directed by Rosalyn Ward.

A full-cast unabridged audio adaptation and analysis was released on audio CD and MP3-CD in the United Kingdom by SmartPass in 2004 as part of their Audio Education Study Guides series.

A second 90-minute BBC Radio adaptation was transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on 29 May 2010 in the Saturday Play slot.[8] It starred Toby Jones as Inspector Goole, David Calder as Arthur Birling, Frances Barber as Sybil Birling and Morven Christie as Sheila Birling. The production was directed by Jeremy Mortimer.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Awards
  • 1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival
  • 1994 Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Play
  • 1994 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cousin, Geraldine (2007). "Past present: dramatisations of 'return'". Playing for Time. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-7190-6197-4. 
  2. ^ Stringer, Jenny (1996). The Oxford companion to twentieth-century literature in English. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 330. ISBN 978-0-19-212271-1. 
  3. ^ a b c Priestley, J. B. (1947). Bezant, Tim, ed. An Inspector Calls: A Play in Three Acts (1992 ed.). London: Heinemann. pp. xi–xiv. ISBN 0-435-23282-7. 
  4. ^ Gale, Maggie (2004). "Theatre and drama between the wars". In Nicholls, Peter; Marcus, Laura. The Cambridge history of twentieth-century English literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 328. ISBN 0-521-82077-4. the middle class family was at the centre of much of Priestley's work...most clearly perhaps in 'An Inspector Calls'. 
  5. ^ Gale, Maggie Barbara (2008). J.B. Priestley. London: Routledge. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-415-40243-9. 
  6. ^ Theatre in Iran, 1944–53
  7. ^ http://www.aninspectorcalls.com/#/tour/
  8. ^ "An Inspector Calls". BBC. 29 May 2010. Archived from the original on 29 May 2010. Retrieved 5 June 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Priestley, J. B. (1947). An Inspector Calls: A Play in Three Acts (First edition ed.). London: Heinemann. OCLC 59564726. 

External links[edit]