Capitalism, Corruption and Conscience: An Inspector Calls

Advanced through the readings of John McRae on Missoulit.

An Inspector Calls by J.B Priestley is a foundational text of the UK GCSE curriculum. Set in the autumn of 1912 but written and staged in 1945, this play explores capitalism, corruption and conscience at its darkest hour through the suicide of Eva Smith.

The success of the Birling family is materialistic and hollow, and their moral responsibility is null. The events of the play take place after a celebratory family dinner held for the engagement of Shelia Birling to Gerald Croft which forms a prosperous new business partnership for Mr Birling through the joining of the Birlings and the Crofts. The dining room of the Birling’s ‘fairly large suburban house’ becomes the epicenter of the play’s events. The unplanned visit of an ‘Inspector Goole’ is the catalyst for social and moral change within the play as he undermines the authority and status of the Birling family through his visit. He works merticulously to interrogate each family member to reveal their responsibility in the death of Eva Smith and Priestley ‘turns the lights on the audience’ as he delivers the moral teaching that ‘we should all be responsible for each other’. 

The play is set in 1912 Edwardian Britain but written and performed in 1945. This is significant because 1912 was the height of the industrial revolution. Whilst times had changed significantly, Priestley wanted to warn the 1945 audience about the deadly consequences of capitalist society where people are self-centred, arrogant and not accountable for the actions they perform to climb the economic ladder. After the end of World War Two in 1945, there was a great desire for social change as women held a more valued place in society due to their war efforts. Social and political boundaries began to deconstruct with the victory of a new labour government and the public were keen for change. Through the play An Inspector Calls, Priestley encouraged his audience to make the most of the opportunity for equality that the war had presented and highlight the social change that had already taken place since 1912.

Priestley was a labour voter and he didn’t approve of Churchill’s conservative government. He supported the new labour government of 1945 as it brought about social change and equality which he strived for. Priestley encourages the audience to look back in time and sympathise with the victims of the play rather than the characters on stage. Throughout the play, the audience delves past the physical characters and into the liminal space of a voiceless character who lies between the folds of a 1912 society. 

Inspector Goole is a ‘probing voice of conscience’. The play doesn’t only question the conscience of the Birling family,  but the social conscience of society.  

The importance of stage directions within the first scene is not to be overlooked. The power dynamic between Mr and Mrs Birling is outlined from the beginning as Mrs Birling is described as Mr Birling’s ‘social superior’ due to her family’s ‘old money’. From the very first page of the play, Priestley challenges the gender stereotypes of 1912 by informing the audience that Mr Birling is socially inferior to Mrs Birling despite her position as a woman. Wealth is a key theme of the play and despite Mr Birling being socially inferior to his wife due to his ‘new money’, his portentous attitude and gender give him more authority and respect in society than Mrs Birling.

In the stage directions, Priestley consistently uses the conjunction ‘but’ when describing the characters of the play. Whilst the audience is made aware of a positive quality first,  Priestley juxtaposes this by then unveiling one element of the character that is negative and the character’s downfall in society. This reveal of a hidden negative characteristic foreshadows the breakdown of the family later in the play as each character has a revealed responsibility in the death of Eva Smith. 

‘There are no wasted words in this play’ as Priestley constructs the setting, the conversations and the events of the play very carefully. There are many generational differences that appear from Act one and the capitalist philosophy of Mr Birling highlights the old-fashioned benefits of marriage and the alliance of enterprise and wealth. He toasts not to the happiness of his daughter and future son-in-law, but to the alliance between his business and Crofts Limited. 

Whilst in the 21st Century ‘greed is good’ and ambition is courageous, a 1945 audience under a new labour government would feel uncomfortable at the capitalist intent of Mr Birling. He is the target of Priestley’s anger. 

What has the audience learnt? 

All of us have responsibility. ‘The political context of the future is resonating through the final pages of the play’.  Members of the 1945 audience resonate with the characters of Shelia and Eric who understand and accept responsibility for their actions in Eva’s death. In 1945, society was still divided by class, and whilst social responsibility and change were beginning to take place through the victory of a Labour government, there was still a long road ahead to equality. Priestley’s play preys on the remains of capitalism and the opportunity for change. Whilst members of the audience who had developed a moral conscience and desired social equality felt acquitted of their responsibility in the death of Eva Smith, the initial production of the play in 1945 was unpopular in the UK as economically-driven individuals experienced guilt and discomfort at their own role in Priestley’s morality play.

Whilst the audience may feel uncomfortable throughout the play, Priestley aspires to absolve them of their sins through the younger generation and presents the audience with an opportunity for change that is not available to the Birling family. 

Gerald brings the denouement of the play as he states that the ‘the man wasn’t a real police officer you know’. Despite this, Eric and Shelia reinforce the fact that the responsibility of their actions exist whether Eva Smith was a real person or not. As the older generation build up their social pretence once again, the audience is brought back to square one. Shelia acts as the voice of reason at the end of the play. As the telephone rings one final time, the family and the audience realise that the message of the play is wider than the responsibility and actions of one family. It is about all of our crimes and self-centred ambition. The moral of the story is that society is changing to look after the vulnerable (as seen in the recent start of the NHS)and accept social responsibility for its actions. The walls of the old capitalist empires such as that of the Birling Company begin to crumble. 

Priestley’s morality play is about the pitfalls of capitalism. The play acts as a warning to those who hide away from social responsibility and their actions in society. Inspector Goole is a symbol of change and equality and brings down the hollow walls of money and status to highlight the importance of responsibility and the destructive outcomes of greed and selfishness.  

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