An Inspector Calls
An Inspector Calls is a play written by English dramatist J. B. Priestley, first performed in the Soviet Union in 1945 and at the New Theatre in London the following year. It is one of Priestley's best-known works for the stage and is considered to be one of the classics of mid-20th-century English theatre. The play's success and reputation were boosted by a successful revival by English director Stephen Daldry for the National Theatre in 1992 and a tour of the UK in 2011–2012.
|An Inspector Calls|
|Written by||J. B. Priestley|
|Date premiered||6 July 1945|
|Place premiered||Moscow, Soviet Union|
The play is a three-act drama which takes place on a single night in April 1912, focusing on the prosperous upper middle-class Birling family, who live in a comfortable home in the fictional town of Brumley, "an industrial city in the north Midlands". The family is visited by a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who questions the family about the suicide of a young working-class woman in her mid-twenties. Long considered part of the repertory of classic drawing-room theatre, the play has also been hailed as a scathing criticism of the hypocrisies of Victorian and Edwardian English society and as an expression of Priestley's socialist political principles. The play is studied in many British schools as one of the prescribed texts for the English Literature General Certificate.
At the Birlings' home in the industrial town of Brumley, Arthur Birling – a wealthy factory owner and local politician – celebrates his daughter Sheila's engagement to a rival magnate's son, Gerald Croft. Also in attendance are Arthur's wife Sybil and their son Eric (whose drinking problem the family discreetly ignores). Following dinner, Arthur lectures them on the importance of self-reliance and looking after one's own, and talks of the bright future that awaits them (which, he hopes, will include a place for himself on the honours list).
The evening is interrupted by a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who is investigating the suicide of Eva Smith. Her diary, the Inspector explains, named 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 and Co. some two years ago for her involvement in an abortive workers' strike, but denies responsibility for her death.
After prompting from Goole, Sheila admits to recognising Eva too – she had contrived to have her fired from her job in a local department store over an imaginary slight. Her real motivation, Sheila ashamedly confesses, was the jealousy that she felt towards the younger, prettier woman.
At the mention of Eva's alias "Daisy Renton", Gerald starts. He admits to having met a woman by that name in the Palace Bar, and to having given her money and arranged to see her again. Goole reveals that Gerald then installed Eva as his mistress, becoming "the most important person in her life", before abruptly cutting her off. Arthur and Sybil are horrified, and Sheila returns her engagement ring.
Goole comes to Sybil next, whom he identifies as the head of a women's charity which the pregnant and destitute Eva turned to for help. Sybil, however, convinced the committee to deny her application for financial aid. Despite vigorous cross-examination from Goole, she denies any wrongdoing. Goole then plays his final card, making Sybil lay the blame at the feet of the "drunken young man" who got Eva pregnant. Eric then enters, and after brief questioning from Goole, breaks down and admits responsibility for the pregnancy, having forced himself on Eva after a drinking spree at the Palace Bar. He took funds from his father's business in order to support her and the child, but she refused the stolen money. Arthur and Sybil are outraged by Eric's actions, and the evening dissolves into angry recriminations.
Goole's questioning reveals that each member of the family had contributed to Eva's despondency and suicide. He reminds the Birlings that actions have consequences and that all people are intertwined in one society. As Goole leaves he warns that "If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish" – an allusion to the impending war.
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. Learning from a second call to the infirmary that no recent cases of suicide have been reported, the family surmise that the Inspector was a fraud and that his story was fictitious. Gerald and the elder Birlings celebrate, but the younger Birlings still realise the error of their ways, and promise to change.
The play ends with a telephone call, taken by Arthur, who reports that a young woman has died (a suspected case of suicide), and that the police are on their way to question them. Goole's true identity is left unexplained, but it is clear that the family's confessions over the course of the evening have all been true, and that public disgrace will soon befall them.
The mysterious "Inspector Goole" claims to have seen Eva Smith's dead body earlier that day, and to have been given "a duty" to investigate her death and the Birlings' involvement in it. He seems to be familiar with every detail of the case already, interrogating the family solely to reveal their guilt rather than to discover unknown information. Both during and after Goole's visit, the Birlings question his credentials, and a phone call to the local police station reveals there is no one by his name on the force. Many critics and audiences have interpreted Goole's role as that of an "avenging angel" because of his supernatural omniscience and all-knowing final warning, and even because of his name, which is a homophone for the word "ghoul". It is suggested in the final scene that a quite real investigation will follow Goole's, and his purpose has been to warn the family in advance and encourage them to accept responsibility for their wrongdoing.
Arthur Birling is described as "a heavy-looking, rather silly goose really of a portentous man in his middle fifties". He represents the capitalist ruling class, repeatedly describing himself with pride as a "hard-headed businessman", and is arguably the main subject of Priestley's social critique. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred, and morally blind. His stubbornness is shown when refusing responsibility for Eva's death; he fired her in order to quell dissent among his workforce and keep labour costs low, which he says is standard business practice. He remains unaffected by the details of the suicide, and his own concerns appear to be avoiding scandal, insisting that Eric account for the company money he stole, and convincing Sheila to reconsider her break with Gerald (so as to secure a promised Croft-Birling merger). He is the embodiment of self-centred upper classes. Arthur Birling is an arrogant and dismissive character used by Priestley as a dramatic vehicle to criticise capitalism, the arrogance of the upper classes and the ignorance of the elder generations.
Sybil Birling, "a rather cold woman" of about fifty, is Arthur's wife. As the leader of a 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 Smith, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation, even going so far as to lie and deny that she recognizes the girl's picture. She derides women like Eva as immoral, dishonest, and greedy.
Sheila begins as a naive and self-centred young woman, but becomes the most sympathetic member of the Birling family over the course of the play, showing remorse for her part in Eva's downfall and encouraging her family to do the same. By the play's end her social conscience has been awakened and she has a new awareness of her responsibilities to others. She represents the younger generation's break from the selfish behaviour and capitalist views of its forebears.
Eric is presented as a "Jack-the-Lad" character with a drinking habit, which led to his raping Eva and getting her pregnant. He is distanced from the rest of the family and feels he cannot talk to them about his problems. With his sister, he repents of and accepts responsibility for the way he treated Eva.
The son of Sir George and Lady Croft of Crofts Limited, a competitor of Birling and Company, he is at the Birling residence to celebrate his recent engagement to Sheila. Gerald's revealed affair with Eva puts an end to the relationship, though Sheila commends him for his truthfulness and for his initial compassion towards the girl. Gerald believes 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 unmasking the "false" Inspector and seems almost desperate for others to believe him.
Edna is the Birling's maid. She represents a working-class member of the Birling household. When the inspector visits the Birling's house she says "an Inspector's called." She is asked to stay up late during the play by Mrs Birling to make tea for the Birling family.
Reception and interpretation
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, but 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 criticism 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 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 criticism of the perceived-selfishness and moral hypocrisy of middle-class capitalist society in 1950s Britain. 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, prefiguring the development of the post-World War II welfare state.
An Inspector Calls was first performed in 1945 in two Russian theatres (Moscow's Kamerny Theatre and Leningrad's Comedy Theatre), as a suitable British venue could not be found. Priestley had written the play in a single week and all Britain's theatres had already been booked for the season. The play had its first British 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, Julien Mitchell as Arthur Birling, Marian Spencer as Sybil Birling and Alec Guinness as Eric Birling.
The play was produced and performed at the Ferdowsi Theatre 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 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 revival of the play by British director Stephen Daldry (produced by PW Productions) opened at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre in September 1992. Daldry's concept was to reference two eras: the 1945 post-war era, when the play was written, and the ostensible historical setting for the work in pre-war 1912; this emphasised the way the character Goole was observing, and deploring, the Birling family's behaviour from Priestley's own cultural viewpoint. 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, although the production had some detractors, including Sheridan Morley who regarded it as a gimmicky travesty of the author's patent intentions. 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. A Broadway transfer of the production starring Philip Bosco opened at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard Jacobs Theatre) on 27 April 1994 and played 454 performances.
The Stephen Daldry production went on a tour of the UK in 2011 and continued to tour into 2020, with Tom Mannion and Liam Brennan among the actors playing Inspector Goole. The production returned to the Playhouse in London's West End in November 2016, with Liam Brennan in the name part.
Another production opened on 25 October 1995 at the Garrick Theatre and ran for six years until its transfer to the Playhouse Theatre in 2001. In 2009 it reopened at the Novello Theatre for a year-long run, followed by another transfer to Wyndham's Theatre in December 2009, running for only four months.
A 1954 film version, An Inspector Calls, was produced in England by Watergate Productions Ltd. The 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 1965, An Inspector Calls was adapted into a Bengali film entitled Thana Theke Aschhi, based on a Bengali version of the original play. The character of Inspector Goole was played by the Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar, the character being renamed "Sub-Inspector Tinkari Halder". The film went on to be a huge commercial hit at and is generally regarded as one of the era's best Bengali films. This film, along with the same literary material, was remade in 2010 in to a film of the same name having a ensemble cast of Shrabonti Malakar, Alakananda Ray, Rudranil Ghosh, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Dulal Lahiri with Sabyasachi Chakraborty as the investigating officer and Paoli Dam as the deceased girl. A 2004 Hindi film based on the same play, Sau Jhooth Ek Sach (One hundred lies, one truth) starred Mammootty as the Inspector and was also a critical success (a 2010 remake was however panned).
A 2015 Hong Kong film reinterpreted the story as a black comedy, adding slapstick elements.
The first television version was shown on live BBC Television on 4 May 1948, with a second live performance three days later. Running to 105 minutes, it was produced and directed by Harold Clayton, and starred Julien Mitchell as Arthur Birling (reprising his role from the first British stage production), Mary Merrall as Sybil Birling, Joy Shelton as Sheila Birling, Derek Blomfield as Eric Birling, Alastair Bannerman as Gerald Croft, Madeleine Burgess as Edna, and George Hayes as Inspector Goole. Since it was broadcast live before the method of telerecording was utilised by the BBC, it was never preserved and is thought to be lost.
A second BBC Television version was screened on 19 February 1961 as part of the Sunday Night Play series. Produced and directed by Naomi Capon, it starred John Gregson as Inspector Goole, Heather Sears as Sheila Birling, Nora Swinburne as Sybil Birling, William Russell as Gerald Croft, Edward Chapman as Arthur Birling, Hilda Campbell-Russell as Edna, and Alan Dobie as Eric Birling.
A selection of scenes from the play were broadcast in the ITV series Conflict on 15 May 1967. Produced by Associated Television, the 25-minute programme was directed by George More O'Ferrall, and starred Reginald Marsh as Arthur Birling, Julian Curry as Eric, Margo Andrew as Sheila, Pauline Winter as Mrs Birling, Stuart Saunders as Inspector Goole, Michael Graham as Gerald Croft, and Ann Dimitri as Edna.
A BBC Schools version of An Inspector Calls was produced in three 30-minute episodes, shown between 22 September and 6 October 1981 on BBC1. Directed by Michael Simpson, it starred Bernard Hepton as Inspector Goole, 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. It was repeated on primetime BBC1 in three episodes between 17 and 31 August 1982, and as a single 85-minute version on 2 September 1984.
In 2015, an 86-minute An Inspector Calls film was screened on BBC One. Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Aisling Walsh for Drama Republic, it stars David Thewlis as Inspector Goole, Chloe Pirrie as Sheila Birling, Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, Ken Stott as Arthur Birling, Kyle Soller as Gerald Croft, Miranda Richardson as Sybil Birling and Finn Cole as Eric Birling.
Radio and audio
The first radio production was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 27 March 1950 in the Contemporary European Theatre series. This was followed by a BBC Light Programme production on 10 June 1953. Adapted by Cynthia Pughe and produced by McWhinnie, it starred Frank Pettingell as Arthur Birling, Gladys Young as Sybil Birling, Angela Baddeley as Sheila Birling, David Enders as Eric Birling, Alastair Duncan as Gerald Croft, Dorothy Smith as Edna, and Richard Williams as Inspector Goole.
A second version of Pughe's adaptation was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 12 November 1960. Produced by Alfred Bradley and directed by Geoffrey Ost, it starred the Sheffield Repertory Company: George Waring as Arthur Birling, Ann Woodward as Sybil Birling, Jeanne Davies as Sheila Birling, Keith Barron as Eric Birling, Patrick Stewart as Gerald Croft, Geraldine Gwyther as Edna, and John Pickles as Inspector Goole.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a BBC Manchester production on 14 December 1979. Directed by Alfred Bradley, it starred Ronald Baddilet as Arthur Birling, Derrick Gilbert as Gerald Croft, Ann Rye as Sybil Birling, Barbara Flynn as Sheila Birling, Christian Rodska as Eric Birling, Teresa Moore as Edna, Geoffrey Banks as Inspector Goole.
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.
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 second 90-minute BBC Radio adaptation was transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on 29 May 2010 in the Saturday Play slot. 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
- 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
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the middle class family was at the centre of much of Priestley's work ... most clearly perhaps in 'An Inspector Calls'.
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