The title of J.B. Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls, now playing at the Playhouse Theatre in London, gives the impression that you’re about the watch a thriller, or perhaps a whodunit like The Mousetrap. But An Inspector calls is neither. The play is rather more about the characters who, together, paint a very interesting portrait of early 20th century English society – if you know what you’re looking at.
In case you’re planning to watch An Inspector Call’s somewhere in the following months – if you’re in London, go see it. If you have to cross the channel to see it, perhaps rent the movie – it’s probably best to stop reading here and come back after you’ve seen it.
An Inspector Calls
The play begins with the Birling family celebrating the engagement of the daughter, Sheila, with Mr Croft. Just as Mr Birling is explaining to Mr Croft how every man ought to take care of himself and his own family, inspector Goole drops in with the news that a girl, Eva, has killed herself. It quickly becomes clear that every member of the Birling family is somehow involved in the Eva’s suicide.
Mr Birling is the typical early 20th century industrialist. He’s got the money, but not the standing in society that he desires. That’s why he’s very keen to get a knighthood and especially pleased that Sheila is about to marry Mr Croft, whose mother is a Lady.
Mr Birling fired Eva after she helped organise a strike where the workers asked for 10% more wages. People are nothing but cheap labour to him, and he’s not ashamed of his views. If his workers don’t like it, they should go and work somewhere else.
Eva did go on to work somewhere else: a fancy department store. Alas, she had the ill fortune that Sheila Birling shopped there. One off day led Sheila to threaten the manager that she would force her mother to close the family’s account, unless action was taken against the Eva.
Until Sheila heard that the girl killed herself, she hadn’t given it another thought. Eva was a pretty girl, and in Sheila’s world pretty girls don’t have much trouble in life. Of course, Eva did not live in Sheila’s world.
Eva is fired from the store – probably without references – and without money and options, she started to make her living in a different way. One night, she caught the eye of Mr Croft in a hotel bar. He set her up in the apartment of a friend, and although he didn’t have dishonourable intentions, she’s pretty and thankful, and thus becomes his lover.
Mr Croft represents the impoverished aristocracy. He’s marrying Sheila for her money, and doesn’t care too much about her opinion. He could let the girl use his friend’s apartment as long as the man was away, but he wasn’t wealthy enough to keep Eva on as his mistress. He really did care about Eva, but of course it was unthinkable that he would actually marry her, despite the fact that she was pretty, intelligent and sweet. A son of a Lady marrying a poor orphan… Impossible.
It’s back to the hotel bar for Eva, and the next family member she meets is Eric Birling. They have a couple of drinks, and he admits to inspector Goole that after he’s brought he home, he forced himself inside and threatened the girl. He feels terribly guilty, but he was drunk.
A couple of weeks after he saw her again and he kept on seeing her, until he found out she was pregnant. He gave her money, but since he didn’t have any of himself, he stole it from his father. When Eva found out, she stopped accepting it.
Eric is the typical 3rd generation kid – the 3rd generation that squanders the money. In a way he’s also got ideals. For one, he disagreed with his father about firing Eva in the first place. But he’s completely dependent on his parents and not in any position to change the world.
Pregnant and short of options to generate income, Eva knocked on the door of the local charity. The president of the charity was Mrs Birling, but the Madre Familia turned the girl away from because the didn’t like Eva’s morals and manner. When it becomes clear how much the Birling family is to blame for everything, all Mrs Birling cares about is avoiding a scandal.
Mrs Birling is the kind of woman who cares about her charity because of the position it gives her in society, not because she actually feels for the people who need her help. In fact, she doesn’t really care about anyone outside her family at all – except about the way they look at her.
The inspector represents a new kind of civil servant, the kind that works for the state rather than for the local aristocracy. Numerous reminders about the family’s connections don’t bother him in the least. He’s a police inspector less corrupt than previous police officers, who owns his position to abilities rather than connections. One might argue he is more of an ideal of of J.B. Priestley than reality.
Eva Brent / the girl
Eva represents the British working class in the early 20th century. She’s smart and pretty, yet she only has so many options. When they’re taking away from her, all that rests her is a different kind of profession. Nevertheless, even without options she tries to protect Eric from stealing from his father and retains the moral high ground.
Prediction of war
It’s clear that Priestley believes capitalism to be deeply flawed. Mr Birling says that every man should fend for himself, but throughout the play it becomes more and more clear that the industrialists have lots of possibilities to care for himself, while the working class has almost none. Eric and Sheila are the only ones who actually understand, and Priestley’s lesson is clearly meant for the younger generation. If they don’t change the world, there’ll come a time when the younger generation will no longer accept the status quo.
And then they’ll vote for Donald Trump.
An Inspector Calls is playing at the Playhouse theatre until 25 March 2017. Find tickets here.