An Inspector Calls is set in the dining room of a large suburban house in the industrial city of Brumley, North Midlands, England. The time is early April, 1912, shortly before the fateful voyage of the Titanic. The action is in three acts. Act 1 opens during a formal dinner party. Around the table sit the Birling family: Arthur, a heavy-set manufacturer, in his middle fifties; Sybil, Arthur’s wife and social superior, a rather cold woman; Sheila, their pretty daughter, who is in her early twenties; and Eric, their son, about the same age as his sister but shy and not as vivacious as she is. With them is their guest, Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft, heir of a business fortune, an attractive young man of about thirty. A maid, Edna, is clearing the table and setting out port and cigars as the dialogue begins.
Birling is clearly pleased with himself. The occasion, an engagement celebration, has allowed him to ingratiate himself with Gerald, whose marriage to Sheila he hopes will smooth the way for a merger between the Birling and Croft firms. Gerald good-humoredly obliges his host’s fancy and behaves like a perfect suitor as he offers Sheila a ring—which she delightedly accepts. As the conversation continues, Birling complacently dismisses the “silly little war scares” of the time, predicting that there will be peace and prosperity for decades to come. After the ladies leave the room for their coffee, Birling lectures the young men about the need for self-reliance in the modern world. Suddenly, a sharp ring of the doorbell announces the arrival of Inspector Goole.
Goole is middle-aged, solidly built, and disconcerting in his direct manner of speech. He wastes no time in getting to the point of his visit: The body of a young woman lies in a local infirmary. She had committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of disinfectant. Further investigation revealed that she was formerly an employee of Birling’s company. Goole says that the woman’s name was Eva Smith and then shows Birling—only Birling—a photograph of her. Birling acknowledges that Eva Smith did indeed work for him, but that she had been discharged nearly two years before for helping to instigate a strike on the issue of a pay raise. Gerald commends the action Birling took, but Eric objects that the girl had every right to try to improve her wages. Sheila reenters the room and, learning of the affair, sides with Eric. Naturally, their father is not happy with their attitude, nor can he accept the idea that the inspector appears to be blaming him personally for the tragic death.
Goole does not, however, single out only Birling; he blames the whole household for what has happened. Remorselessly pursuing his investigation through the first and second acts, he asks each of the family to tell of his or her relationship with the deceased. Sheila confesses that she had been instrumental in getting Eva fired from her job as a clerk because she thought that the girl had smirked at her while she was trying on a dress. When told that Eva had later changed her name to Daisy Renton, Gerald is noticeably startled and then admits that she had been his mistress, after he rescued her from the attentions of a “notorious womanizer.” For her part, Mrs. Birling is forced to tell how, as chairwoman of a charitable society, she had used her influence to disallow the claim of a pregnant and penniless Daisy.
As the third act begins, Eric acknowledges that it was he who had made Daisy pregnant and that she had...
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sought charity rather than accept money he had stolen for her from his father’s petty cash. All these revelations provoke family quarrels; more important, each bit of evidence forges a chain of coincidences that binds everyone, morally, to Eva/Daisy’s fate. Moreover, hers is not an isolated case, as the inspector makes clear: “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.” Then, with a curt “Good night,” he leaves the house. The subdued family is left to ponder his words.
At first they try to salvage what little self-respect they can. Gradually, however, their attention turns from the sorry events to the identity of the inspector. How was it, Sheila wonders, that he had seemed to know beforehand what the involvement of each one actually was? Birling wants to dismiss Goole as a crank who stumbled fortuitously on damaging information, but Gerald is able to show the local constabulary has never heard of an Inspector Goole. Further checking reveals that there is no dead body at the infirmary and that there has not been a suicide reported in the district in months.
Suddenly, the telephone rings. Birling answers. He announces that the police have just found a girl, dead after swallowing disinfectant, while on her way to the infirmary; a police inspector is on his way to the Birling home to ask some questions. The curtain falls.
An Inspector Calls clearly belongs to the mystery and detective play genre. However, it is more than that: It contains elements of the problem play, the psychological thriller, and the medieval morality. As theater, it is a fascinating blend of forms.
To begin with, it is an odd example of the mystery play because Goole is no ordinary detective and because there is no murder or murderer in the usual sense. There is, though, an unraveling of clues, suspense, and a final plot twist—all features of the stage mystery, particularly in England. An Inspector Calls begins, however, as a problem play, and as one gets to know the family one can see how J. B. Priestley is preparing the way for the crisis. The mood of carefree happiness is cleverly undercut by Birling’s ironic reference to the imminent sailing of the Titanic, which, in approximately a week, will become the symbol of an age’s hubris. The same is true of his pompous assurance of the world’s safe future when Europe is about to undergo the disaster of World War I. None of this would be lost on post-1945 audiences, who would be aware of these calamities and conscious of the fact that they had just survived another world war and were living through an era of possible nuclear war. The sources of these horrors are the minds of ordinary men and women who create conditions of social and economic injustice, Priestley implies. As Goole begins to extract the family’s secrets, the initial lighting of the set, soft pink, becomes “brighter and harder,” emphasizing the change to a dark mood. Here the elements of a psychological thriller are apparent, as viewers move inside the recesses of characters’ experiences on a steadily descending path to ignobility and guilt.
The inspector’s very name may give one momentary pause, for its sound suggests unhealthy associations with the world of the supernatural (ghoul). It is ironic, therefore, that he is actually one who brings forth good out of evil by insisting that truth be divulged and then draws the appropriate moral conclusions. In short, he is the antithesis of a ghoul: an angel of light.
Priestley’s handling of the final scene, in which the family members discover that they have been duped into a recognition of their shared guilt, is masterly in execution. He shows how they all, with the exception of Eric and Sheila, seek to avoid the spur of conscience and remorse. However, can any of them avoid the consequences of a real detective’s inquiry into a real death? The audience has sat in judgment on their past actions; it must now decide whether the family, being forewarned, is now forearmed against truth.
Sources for Further Study
Cook, Judith. Priestley. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
De Vitis, A. A., and Albert E. Kalson. J. B. Priestley. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Evans, Gareth Lloyd. J. B. Priestley: The Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1964.
Foot, Michael. William Hazlitt, J. B. Priestley. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1990.
Gray, Dulcie. J. B. Priestley. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2000.
Hughes, David. J. B. Priestley: An Informal Study of His Work. London: Hart Davis, 1958.
Klein, Holger. J. B. Priestley’s Plays. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988.
Priestley, J. B. The Art of the Dramatist. London: Heinemann, 1957.