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Theatre / An Inspector Calls

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"Public men, Mr. Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges."

"One Eva Smith has gone - but there are millions and millions and million 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, and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other."
Inspector Goole

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 GCSEs 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 a man identifying himself as Inspector Goole, a local police detective who is investigating the suicide of a young 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 young woman, and learn that there's more to their seemingly-perfect world than they previously believed.

It was adapted into a film in 1954 directed by Guy Hamilton and starring Alastair Sim as Inspector Poole (they changed the name from Goole to Poole in the 1954 version). The BBC made a remake film in 2015 starring David Thewlis, with Miranda Richardson as Sybill Birling.

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Name Change: The 1954 film version changes the inspector's name from Goole to Poole.
  • 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 has been a heavy drinker for years; he got Eva pregnant after a drinking spree, and when the play opens, he already appears to have had quite a few drinks, and he has many more over the course of the play.
  • Ambiguously Human: The film makes the Inspector out to be more explicitly "supernatural" than does the play. In the play, he is ushered in by the maid, while in the film he simply appears suddenly in the dining room as if from nowhere, accompanied by an ominous chord in the background music. In the middle of the film, he inspects his pocket watch and asks Eric to enter the room. He states he has just heard Eric come through the door; but eerily he states this before Eric does come through the door. Likewise, at the end, when the family receives the phone call that the local police are on their way to question them, the Inspector is supposedly in the study, but when the family checks to see if he is there, they find an empty chair and that he has gone.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Mr. Birling, one of the play's more detestable characters, is overly concerned about progressing socially, including trying to get himself a knighthood and having his daughter "Marry up."
  • Angel Unaware: It is often suggested that the inspector is not what he appears...
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Played for Drama. 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: The fiercely left-wing Priestley thought the capitalist middle class - as represented by the Birlings and Gerald - were predominantly selfish hypocrites whose ruthless pursuit of wealth ground up vulnerable women like Eva Smith into grist, and several of the "Reason You Suck" Speeches Inspector Goole gives the suspects over the course of the play mirror Priestley's own views.
  • Badass Longcoat: The Inspector.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: All of the family fit the bill, but Gerald especially stands out, as he feigned real connection and love for Eva Smith and regret over what happened to her, then rejoicing once he thinks he's off the hook.
  • Break the Haughty: Sheila realises just how much her own jealousy and vanity affected a less privileged girl, and is thoroughly remorseful by the end of the play.
  • 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.
  • Brits Love Tea: In the Daldry production, which (since 1992) is the one generally staged, the British 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 he emphatically refuses Birling's offer of a drink since he is "on duty".
  • Captain Oblivious: Mrs Birling is blind to anything scandalous unless it's spelled out to her. At least some of this is implied to be willful ignorance, something both Sheila and the Inspector call her out on.
    • She doesn’t seem to 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 has been a heavy drinker for some time, and even denies this when Sheila points this out.
    • When Gerald starts telling his story about how he had an affair with Daisy Renton, it's blatantly obvious where the story is going to everyone except her, as she doesn't realize until Gerald bluntly states that she was his mistress.
    • She doesn't realize that Eric is the father of Eva's child until the inspector more or less tells her.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Sheila does this a bit, but it's mainly Eric (see the Adults Are Useless entry).
  • Character Development: Sheila and Eric grow up a lot and by the end of the play have accepted their responsibility for the girl's death.
  • 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 as Mr Birling gets a phone call that a girl has committed suicide, and a police inspector is on his way to the house to question them.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: Mrs Birling's constant attempts to deflect any blame she may have for the suicide. Lampshaded by Sheila.
  • 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 WWI-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.
  • Evil Old Folks: The two parents are shown to be more evil than the others. At least their children end the play feeling remorse.
  • Exact Words: In an attempt to intimidate Inspector Goole, Mr. Birling says that he plays golf with the chief constable, and asks whether Goole is that close to the man. Goole coolly replies that he does not play golf (which you may note doesn't actually answer the question). This is both a polite screw-you to Mr. Birling's attempt to bully him, and a way to conceal that he does not in fact know the chief constable at all, because he's not really an inspector, without straight-out lying.
  • Fat Bastard: Mr Birling is the least sympathetic character, and often portrayed as stout.
  • First-Name Basis: Edna, the maid. Usually maids of a certain station are referred to by their last name.
  • Foreshadowing: The play is chock full of it. It's a rare example of a set text that actually 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.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Sheila's insecurities over her own looks are what led to Eva being dismissed from her second job.
  • Irony:
    • Sheila's jealousy over Eva Smith apparently looking prettier than her is what leads to her fiance having an affair with her!
    • Sybil spends quite a few lines of dialogue slamming the man who got Eva pregnant, unaware that it's her son. And denying her own grandchild charity to boot!
  • 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!
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Eric did get a girl pregnant thanks to some drunken idiocy and while he stole money from his father, he points out it was stolen to help the mother of his child. And that if he had gone to his father, he was unlikely to have gotten the help Eva needed.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Who was Inspector Goole? An imposter, somehow connected to Eva Smith, who wanted to confront and frighten the Birling family? Or a supernatural being, out to impart vengeance or a lesson on behalf of another power?
  • Meaningful Name: Inspector Goole. Not exactly a ghoul, but is he of supernatural origin?
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Inspector Goole. Downplayed in that he is genuinely benevolent, if an example of Good Is Not Soft.
  • Nice Mean And In Between: Sheila and Eric are shocked when they discover their involvement in Eva's death and end the play feeling disgusted with themselves. The Birling parents treated Eva with contempt because of her class, and when they learn there is no Inspector Goole, they're happy to be off the hook and don't care about the harm they may have caused to a poor girl. Gerald is in between, where he feels remorse for his actions but is likewise happy at the prospect of not having to answer for them.
  • Not Like Other Girls: Eric's attraction to Eva was that she was different to the shallow middle class girls he normally went with.
  • Obliviously Evil: Sheila is the only one who knew at the time she was hurting Eva (and on some level doing it on purpose)—she was just too weak-willed in that moment to stop herself. The Birling parents and Gerald are various levels of Entitled Bastard, so used to being socially privileged they didn't think to consider they weren't in the right or what harm an idle choice could do; in Eric's case, although his wealth also played a role in insulating him from consequences, his wrongs against Eva/Daisy stem from his immaturity and drinking problem. However, the play makes the case that being this oblivious to one's capacity for harm is itself a type of sin.
  • Oh, Crap!: Sheila's reaction to her mother's speech about how the father of Eva's child should take responsibility for his actions could be considered this (she's much faster on the uptake than the rest of her family and realizes that they're all connected to Eva, and Eric hasn't been singled out yet, so it's got to be him), as well as Mrs Birling once the Inspector delivers a Wham Line.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: How the play ends. Eva Smith/Daisy Renton was real, but there is no Inspector Goole, and Eva Smith may not have committed suicide - at least, not until after "Inspector Goole" leaves and Mr Birling gets a phone call... (The 2015 film adaptation does away with this; it shows Eva's death, with Goole watching helplessly and on the verge of tears, before the call comes.)
  • Posthumous Character: Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, whose death has already happened before the play begins, but the audience discovers plenty about her via second hand information.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Inspector. Although he's not an authority figure at all.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Some productions have the Birlings' house mounted on a hydraulic platform. When the inspector leaves, the platform tilts forward, causing a large amount of crockery to crash down around the Birlings. When they later realise that Goole wasn't a police inspector at all, the set rights itself, but the shattered crockery remains.
  • 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 Connections!: Birling does this constantly to the Inspector, just to make sure he doesn't get any ideas. He not only lets the Inspector know he's on the bench, but introduces Gerald by his full name just so Goole knows who he's connected with. When that doesn't work Birling boasts about playing golf with the chief constable. Neither seem to phase Goole in the slightest.
  • 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. He was wealthy enough to comfortably wait out the strike and "accept" the workers back when they couldn't afford to keep it going, even firing the strike's organizers at his leisure.
    • When the Inspector is leaving, Birling drops all pretense and tries to bribe him to keep the investigation private. Goole scolds him for this, pointing out that he could've easily spent a tiny fraction of the money he's offering to give into the worker's demands and avoid all the trouble in the first place.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: Present in how the characters treated Eva in their crossings with her. The older characters have two sins each, fittingly as a commentary on the older generation.
    • Mr Birling showed Greed by denying her the raise she needed to live, and Wrath by angrily dismissing her for even asking. He also yells at his children a lot.
    • Sheila showed Envy by getting her fired from the shop when she was jealous that Eva looked prettier than her.
    • Gerald showed Lust by having an affair with her while he was courting Sheila.
    • Eric showed Gluttony by his excessive drinking, which led to getting Eva pregnant.
    • Mrs Birling showed Sloth by not doing her duty as a charity worker when encountering the pregnant Eva. She also showed Pride by viewing Eva as beneath her because of the class difference.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Gerald and Sheila in the opening act — but not for long.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: A gender inverted version; 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.
  • Strawman Political: Mr. Birling is everything Priestley loathed about the British middle-class - arrogant, obsessed with money, and without morals - and it shows.
  • Summation Gathering: Played with. The Birlings and Gerald are already gathered at the house for personal reasons when Inspector Goole arrives to perform his summation.
  • 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. In total fairness, he's not wrong... but not for the reasons he thinks.
  • The Unfair Sex: Sort of; everyone acknowledges that Gerald's affair with Eva was wrong, and while Eva isn't blamed for it it's never mentioned or established if she knew Gerald was already involved with another woman while they were together.
  • The Un-Favourite: 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.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Upper middle class anyway. The Birling parents and Gerald are zero percent sympathetic.
  • The War on Straw: Mr Birling, representing the bourgeoisie. Priestley does everything possible to stack the deck against him, such as using the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of the First World War as illustrations of his complacency. In early 1912, nobody was expecting the Titanic to sink, and it wouldn't have been crazy to expect there not to be a war.
  • Wham Line: The closing line: "That was the police. A girl has just died on the way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant. A police inspector is on the way here to ask some questions..."
  • What You Are in the Dark: The family are all revealed to have done horrible things over the course of the play, but the moment they really show their true colors is when they discover that Goole isn't a really inspector. The already-unrepentant Birlings are overjoyed, and while he appeared to have regrets about what happened, Gerald is quite happy to have avoided any responsibility. Eric and Sheila are the only ones who are revealed to feel genuine remorse, saying that whether the inspector was real or not didn't matter.
  • You ALL Share My Story: All four Birlings and Gerald have crossed paths with Eva Smith in different capacities; Mr Birling sacked her from a job at his mill for her involvement in an abortive strike, Sheila got her sacked from a department store job out of jealousy, Gerald took her as a mistress and then abruptly dumped her, Eric got her pregnant after a drinking spree and then stole money from his father to support her financially (which she refused), and Mrs Birling turned her away when she tried to ask her women's charity for help.
  • You Are Not Alone: The inspector's final speech to the other characters is built around this general theme, but plays with it; rather than a comfort that the characters themselves are not alone and have support, it is more an exhortation for them to stop being so selfish and remember that they have a duty and responsibility to support others if and when they need it.
  • You Just Told Me: The family eventually "realize" that the Inspector never presented any evidence that they were involved with Eva Smith's suicide, and had simply been stringing them along with just enough information to make them stupidly incriminate themselves. This convinces everyone involved that they're off the hook, as even if he did go to the actual police, he'd have no proof of their activities beyond hearsay. Cue the Wham Line...