Like Dangerous Corner, An Inspector Calls is a suspense play that investigates a suicide through self-incrimination. It also reflects Priestley’s consuming interest in time theory. In spite of these similarities, the two plays were written for very different purposes.
An Inspector Calls is a parable on the responsibility of the individual toward one’s fellow beings, and it succeeds in spite of its heavy-handed sermonizing. Arthur Birling and his family are celebrating their daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft. This will also merge two corporate competitors, resulting in higher profits. Priestley relies on the audience’s knowledge of recent events to color Birling’s optimism with irony as he extols the wonders of the Titanic, which is about to set sail into a world that will avoid war. These ironies also foreshadow the impending disaster about to strike the Birlings when Inspector Goole unexpectedly arrives. True to his name, the inspector resembles a ghoul as he glares at the family, relentlessly repeating his message that a young woman has killed herself by drinking disinfectant.
The details of the woman’s hideous and painful death are described repeatedly as Goole methodically reveals how each member of this respectable family was partly responsible for her untimely death. Birling fired her for requesting a small raise. In a spoiled rage, Sheila Birling insisted she be fired from her next job. After Croft had an affair with the girl, she picked up with a wild young man who left her alone and pregnant. Mrs. Birling used her influence to deny the girl charity, contending that the “unknown father” should be found. The drunken father is her own son, Eric. The inspector condemns them all for their part in this tragic suicide.
It is the unexpected twist at the end that makes the play palatable in spite of its obvious structure, stereotyped characters, and heavy-handed lecturing. After the inspector leaves, Priestley adds dimension and substance to the play. The family first rationalizes and then questions the legitimacy of the so-called inspector. Phone calls prove that there is no Inspector Goole and that there has been no suicide. It has all been a joke. As the family returns to normal, forgetting their terrifying lessons, the phone rings: A woman has just killed herself by drinking disinfectant and an inspector is on his way to question them. Priestley’s fluid use of time leaves the audience gasping.
Priestley’s theme of the individual’s responsibility to society is obvious. The play’s historical references are not enough, however, to manifest the intended allegorical level of the play as the history of twentieth century England. An Inspector Calls succeeds as suspense drama, but not as an allegory of how no one is blameless.