Theatre: An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is a British play by J. B. Priestley that was first performed in 1945. It’s often called one of Priestley’s best works – if not, the best play he’s made – possibly because it comments on (as well as references) social issues that are still alive in Britain today. Maybe that’s why it’s a set text in many schools in Britain – usually for the in England and Wales, so expect a large dose of Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory.

Set in the year 1912, the play follows the story of a middle-class family called the Birlings, who are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to a much-older upper-class Gerald Croft, secretly hoping that the marriage will make them even richer. The party is then interrupted by an Inspector, who has been sent by the precinct to question them about the possible reasons behind the suicide of a working-class woman named Eva Smith. Each of the guests at the dinner-table are questioned, despite some protests of annoyance, but the family soon find out that they all have had dealings with the woman, and learn that there’s more to their seemingly-perfect world.


Provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Mr and Mrs Birling could be kindly described as idiots. Only the younger generation realize the significance of the Inspector's message and try to be nicer people because of it. Eric also says he didn't ask for his father's help after he got "Daisy Renton" pregnant on the grounds that "You're not the kind of father a chap could go to when he's in trouble, that's why."
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Sheila and Eric's distress is just dismissed as a result of their youth.
  • The Alcoholic: Eric.
  • Ambition Is Evil
  • Angel Unaware: It is often suggested that the inspector is not what he appears...
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Mr Birling seems more concerned with the loss of his money- a small amount to him compared to his total wealth- than with Eric impregnating Eva Smith or her death.
  • Author Tract
  • Badass Longcoat: The Inspector.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Close to the end the Inspector has a big dramatic speech warning about the First World War (and possible Hell, depending on how your English teacher wants you to interpret it) directed at the audience as well as the Birlings.
  • Captain Oblivious: Mrs Birling.
    • She doesn’t seem to not be aware that her children are in their twenties (which is obvious when she chaperoned Sheila to a clothes shop, and she calls Eric a young man).
    • She doesn’t realize that Eric was drunk at the party (probably every early into the party) and was possibly an alcoholic. When Sheila claims that he’s drunk, her mother scalds her.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Sheila does this a bit, but it's mainly Eric (see the Adults Are Useless entry above).
  • Character Development: With the possible exception of Mr and Mrs Birling, each of the characters is a changed person by the end of the play.
  • Character Focus: Each character gets a couple of scenes where it's mainly them talking, other than prompting from the Inspector.
  • Cliffhanger: The play ends on one.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Birlings find out that they're this, despite their supposedly perfect middle-class lives.
  • The Edwardian Era: Although the Daldry production meshes the Edwardian "bubble" the family live in with ominous WWII-era bombed-out surroundings outside their house.
  • Everybody Did It: Although it's initially presented a little like a murder mystery, it becomes obvious fairly soon that the whole family are to blame.
  • Fat Bastard: Mr Birling.
  • First Name Basis: Edna, the maid.
  • Foreshadowing: The play is chock full of it. It's a rare example of a set text that actual stands up to being repeatedly re-read.
  • Friendly Enemy: Birling & Co. and Crofts Limited are business rivals, but Gerald Croft has just got engaged to Sheila Birling and there hasn't been a single feud.
  • Gold Digger: Mr Birling. His daughter is probably marrying Gerald because she really does love him, Mr Birling is rather happy that she agreed to marry him because he would be able to be closer to Gerald's family, Lord and Lady Croft, and hopefully become richer if he's able to negotiate merging their businesses together.
  • Here We Go Again: It's revealed at the end that the inspector is not actually a police inspector, and the characters are seemingly free to ignore their guilt and culpability in Eva's death with the illusion that he was just a fraud sent to scare them. Until Mr. Birling gets a phone call; it seems a young woman has committed suicide, and the police are on their way to question them about certain connections she may have had with them...
  • Hysterical Woman: Sheila is frequently accused of this by her family when her discovery of their actions distresses her, especially towards the end when she is the only character to point out that whether the Inspector is real or not doesn't matter - it's what they did that's important.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Most of Birling's speeches at the start of the play. Strikes? Labour troubles are over! War with the Kaiser? The world's too advanced for silly things like that!
  • Last Name Basis: Mr and Mrs Birling. Their children call them "mother and father", and Gerald calls them their formal titles out of politeness, but the married couple call themselves their forenames when they talk to each other.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: How the play ends.
  • Posthumous Character: Eva Smith/Daisy Renton.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Inspector.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Birling is essentially a rich bitch who disguises the fact with her position on the board of a local charity. Her daughter is implied to be one, but she feels remorse for what became of Eva and is intent on making amends.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Most of the family qualify, but
  • Scenery Porn: The mid-1990s revival received a lot of attention for its lighting and scenic design, which featured a self-deconstructing house for the Birlings.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Birling constantly argues that his actions toward the strikers are justified because they would have cost him profit if he'd listened to them. Averted when Birling states towards the end that he'd pay thousands to make up for what he's done, only for the inspector to tell him that the damage has been done.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Gerald and Sheila in the opening act — but not for long.
  • [[Single Man Seeks Good Woman Single Woman Seeks Good Man]]: Eric willingly dated Eva because he wasn't into the middle-class women at the fancy dinner parties he always attended, because they always talked about their wealth and other uninteresting topics.
  • Spot of Tea: In the Daldry production, which (since 1992) is the one generally staged, the Inspector is seen interacting silently with various characters outside of the family. This includes politely accepting a cup of tea off Edna. In the original play, although it's not clear whether he's a teetotaller, he emphatically refuses Birling's offer of a drink.
  • Strawman Political: Mr. Birling is pretty much everything Priestley loathed about the British middle-class, and it shows.
  • Summation Gathering
  • Take Back Your Gift: Sheila gives Gerald his engagement ring back after discovering what he really did last summer. That being Daisy Renton.
  • This Is Going To Be Huge: Mr Birling's opinion on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
  • The Unfair Sex: Sort of; everyone acknowledges that Gerald's affair with Eva was wrong, but it's also acknowledged that he's not the only one to blame.
  • The Unfavourite: It's obvious that Mr Birling prefers Gerald, who toadies to him in an effort to impress his future father-in-law, to his own son.
  • You ALL Share My Story
  • Your Cheating Heart: Gerald to Daisy Renton.