Guilty As Charged: An Insprector Calls – J.B. Priestley

We employers at last are coming together to see that our interests – and the interest of Capital – are properly protected.

(An Inspector Calls, Act I, 11)

We are in the prosperous house of a well-to-do manufacturer in Brumley, England. It is the year 1912. There are five persons sitting around a table, celebrating the engagement of the daughter of the house, Sheila Birling, with her fiancé Gerald. Gerald is the son of Sheila’s father’s business competitor which makes him a well-appreciated partner for his daughter in Mr. Birling’s eyes. Further dinner guests are his wife and his son Eric. After dinner they are enjoying a glass of port wine when suddenly the door bell rings and in comes an Inspector. He informs them that he is investigating the suicide of a young woman who killed herself by drinking an acid detergent. The Inspector indicates that relations existed between some members of the dinner party and the victim and therefore he wants to ask them some questions.

An Inspector CallsIn the course of the evening it becomes clear that each person in one way or another had something to do with the young woman Eva Smith. These relations might have contributed to the fact that she became desperate enough to put an end to her life. Interesting are the ways the different persons deal with this knowledge: Some of them feel guilty and show honest remorse, others, however, don’t seem to be bothered at all. The only thing for example that affects Mr. and Mrs. Birling is their good reputation. Not the woman’s death is the problem for them but the possibility to become involved in this affair and the reactions it might provoke in society.

At the end of the play a surprise awaits the characters rather than the audience. The spectator already anticipates something about the further course of events that isn’t obvious for the persons in the play. This is not the only example of dramatic irony in An Inspector Calls. There are also Mr. Birling’s wrong predictions about the future. When he talks about the ‚Titanic‘ as an unsinkable ship or states that only some weird people think that there was going to be a war, the audience in contrast knows that he is wrong.

One Eva Smith has gone – but there are 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 a body. We are responsible for each other.

(An Inspector Calls, Act III, 69

J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls was first produced in 1946 in Moscow. A year after that it was produced a second time in London. The play is usually seen as a socialist critique on the behaviour of the capitalist class towards the working class. In the play, the Inspector’s opinion clearly show that he condemns the neglect and the irresponsible behaviour of employers for their working staff. Yet, there is also a glimpse of hope that things could change. This is indicated by the way Sheila and Eric react to the blame laid on their shoulders.

I ‚ve enjoyed reading An Inspector Calls a lot and would love to see it on stage some day. The play holds a lot of suspense originating from the tension, the characters consciously or subconsciously feel about their involvement in the death of a human being. This suspense was palpable even in the written form of a work that is rather intended to be performed. I was also intrigued by the concept of circularity in the play. It results from the fact that the ending in a way makes another beginning with the possibility that the persons might feel different about themselves this time.


An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley (Ernst Klett, 1996)


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