Play Time: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls is the most famous of J.B. Priestley’s time plays, as well as one of his best-known works in general. The play contains elements of all the other plays, starting with the setting—similar to that of Time and the Conways—of the estate of an upper-class family, the Birlings, in 1912. Unlike Time and the Conways, this play takes place entirely over the course of one night. A police inspector shows up to ask some questions about Mr. Birling’s interactions with a young woman who has just committed suicide—a former employee of Mr. Birling. It soon becomes apparent that all of the Birlings, as well as Gerald Croft, the fiancé of Sheila Birling, had some negative impact on this girl that lead to her demise, which Inspector Goole will extract from them and bring to light. In this way, the play is similar to Dangerous Corner, in the way that every character shares some blame in this girl’s death, and Inspector Goole is piece-by-piece constructing a timeline of events that leads to her suicide. The big “trick” (to use one of Priestley’s words in describing these plays) in An Inspector Calls is that the girl, Eva Smith, has not yet died, until the very end of the play, when the Birlings receive a call from the police station, informing them that Eva Smith has been found dead, and the real police inspector has been sent to question them.

Time and the Conways

Aside from this little trick at the end, the time discontinuity is mostly felt by the audience. Put it this way—the whole play is like the third act of Time and the Conways, in which the audience knows exactly what has happened in the future of the characters, but the characters don’t. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Birling bloviates optimistically about the prosperous future they will all live in. It’s different from the moment where Madge does the same in Time and the Conways though, because Mr. Birling’s is a capitalist dream of the future, in which “the interests of Capital—are properly protected,” (6) and everyone will “have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.” (7) Birling’s optimism reaches its pinnacle of absurdity (from the audience’s perspective) when he mentions the Titanic—the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” ship which seems to embody the pompous optimism of the pre-war period, as well as the promise of industrialism. This ship was a modern marvel, one of whose features was its inability to fail, that almost instantly failed catastrophically.

The other difference between An Inspector Calls and Time and the Conways is the point from which the author, and the audience of the first showing, is looking back. Time and the Conways was just before the second world war, while An Inspector Calls was written at the tail end of it, emerging into a world where ideas of world government and socialist economics were being championed once again. Rather than the impression that everyone is doomed, the play gives the impression that all the characters have a chance to learn from their mistakes, especially with the ending.

In the final moments of the play, the Birlings realize that Inspector Goole was not a real police inspector, and that he could have tricked them. Gerald posits that the girl they interacted with could’ve actually been several different people that the inspector cleverly presented as the same person. While the children of the Birlings, Eric and Sheila, are still shaken and guilt-ridden by what they did, whether they did it to Eva Smith or to completely different people, Mr. and Mrs. Birling, and Gerald Croft, all brush it off. For a moment it seemed there would be real consequences for them, but knowing that no one has died, they forget the lesson, until the very last line of the play—“That was the police. A girl has just died—on her way to the Infirmary—after swallowing some disinfectant. And a police inspector is on his way here—to ask some—questions—” (73). At the end of Act III of Time and the Conways, we know that everything is going to get worse for the Conways, but at the end of An Inspector Calls, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Will the Birlings lie to the real inspector? Will they learn their lesson?

Likewise: Were two world wars enough to teach everyone a lesson? Will everyone take the fact that they survived as an excuse to stay the same, or will they make changes to avoid another global conflict?

Dangerous Corner and I Have Been Here Before

It’d be reductive not to look at An Inspector Calls as a social parable, mainly because of Inspector Goole. Goole is described as being someone who “creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.” (11) At the top of the play, Priestley notes that “The lighting should be pink and intimate until the INSPECTOR arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder.” (1) The methodical, relentless nature of the Inspector makes him seem like some divine arbiter of justice, especially when he pronounces at the end,

“remember this. One Eva Smith has gone—but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” (57)

In this moment, Priestley takes the idea that he touches on in Dangerous Corner and I Have Been Here Before—that all our lives are interconnected, and our individual, isolated realities are actually linked—and links it to the kind of societal critiques that he makes in Time and the Conways. In terms of plotting and pacing, An Inspector Calls is incredibly similar to Dangerous Corner, with progress measured by the construction of a shared timeline ending in the death of someone. Dangerous Corner plays this tension and plotting pretty straight, and uses it to develop a portrait of the human psyche and conflicts between individual realities. In An Inspector Calls, given the surreal elements, it’s hard to imagine that the shifting blame and arguments about who is really the direct cause of the girl’s death are just a realistic drama of human nature (especially given how implausible it is that all these family members would’ve had connections with this one girl in completely different ways.)

The way I read it, it seems like a commentary on Europe’s struggle to assign blame and ownership of World War I, and their even greater struggle to do so with World War II—especially given that Eva Smith’s death was a suicide, and so it was, at least directly, her own fault. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s destruction in World War I could be seen as a suicide, as could Germany’s defeat in World War II. It was easy enough to slap Germany with the bill for the first world war, and certainly it would’ve been easy to do the same after World War II. However, there were undeniable contributing factors from the allied countries that lead Germany down the path of fascism (namely, the attempt to assign absolute blame to them after World War I, and ruin their economy with reparations.) Again, Priestley is intertwining the broad scope of history with parlor room drama, and again we arrive at the question—will Europe make the same mistakes again? Will the allied countries neglect a ruined Germany, and send the country spiraling toward suicide again?

Conclusion

When Mr. Birling realizes that Eva Smith hasn’t died, he declares, “Nothing but an elaborate sell! … Nobody likes to be sold as bad as that” (71). It’s an interesting moment, because the audience is in the same position as Birling, thinking that Priestley has just performed an elaborate sell on us, and dissolved all the tension and tragedy of the situation. But just a few moments later, the call comes in that Eva Smith has in fact been found dead. This act of whiplash seems to be Priestley’s way of making sure the audience is paying attention, and that when they walk out of the theater, they don’t just think of the play, “Nothing but an elaborate sell!”

Priestley’s play is not just a parlor drama like Dangerous Corner, though it shares the same big-revelation-based plotting. It’s also not quite a social commentary in the way that Time and the Conways is. While Time and the Conways feels like a scathing, bitter statement, An Inspector Calls feels like a question. In Dangerous Corner, at the end the audience knows everything that has happened in these characters’ pasts, as well as two possible timelines that could result from it. At the end of Time and the Conways, the audience knows everything that will happen to the Conways and the whole country over the next twenty years. In I Have Been Here Before, the audience knows everything that has happened in the past lives of these characters, and can rest assured that these events has been avoided and will not repeat.

In An Inspector Calls, we know everything that has happened, but we don’t know what will happen next. The last image is of the Birlings stunned, “As they stare guiltily and dumbfounded” (73). The play is an accusation and a call to action to admit guilt and take responsibility. The inspector revealing everyone’s role in the death of Eva Smith, hours before she actually dies, is empowering. The dumbfounded silence at the end of the play comes as the Birlings, and all of Europe, are given a second chance. The play is not just an elaborate sell, it is exposing real, societal problems that will lead to more catastrophe if people do not take advantage of the little bit of foreknowledge they have.

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