The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a political satire written by a devoted socialist, J.B Priestley – an ex-soldier who fought in World War I. The play was set in 1912, 2 years prior to World War I; however it was written and published in 1945 – just after world war II. Priestley uses this time difference effectively to emphasise the British society of 1912, where there were firm class and gender barriers; Priestly detested this and was passionate towards the need of collective responsibility – he believed that if there was no change, the consequence would be ‘blood, fire and anguish’. Nonetheless most of these barriers were violated by 1945; Priestly wanted to make the most of these changes. Throughout his play, he influences his audience of 1945 to take advantage of the opportunity the end of the war had set them to reform an enhanced, more compassionate society. J.B Priestly portrays Mr. Arthur Birling as an arrogant, hard-headed, selfish capitalist who is only concerned about his reputation.
Priestley intentionally exaggerates this character to corroborate his own political agenda. Birling’s thoughts towards socialist ideologies about the significance of community is ‘nonsense’ and that “a man has to make his own way”. This indicates that he has no interest whatsoever in social responsibility – through his business or his family. In Act One, Mr Birling dictates his predictions for what he thinks is going to happen in the future. He states that “The world’s developing so fast it’ll make war impossible.” the readers already know that World War I and II have already taken place. Furthermore, he says that the Titanic is ‘absolutely unsinkable’; the audience already know that t he Titanic has sunk. Moreover, he believes that there will be ‘peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’. To the audience of 1945, this character would have been viewed as laughably optimistic and short-sighted; however these were common assumptions of those living in 1912. Priestley does this to show the lack of responsibility Capitalists had for predicting what will happen in the future and causes the audience to doubt whatever Mr Birling says because he could be wrong once more.
‘We do not live alone. We are members of one body.’ How does this play highlight the theme of responsibility?
‘An Inspector Calls’ is a detective/drama play written in 1945 by J.B. Priestley. Priestley believed in very socialist views that are very much about sharing and same values for all. Theses get reflected in the play, most notably as his role as the inspector, where Priestley most outputs his views in direct contrast with Mr Birling. Priestley portrays Birling as an idiotic capitalist that is very misjudged at common courtesy, often mocking him for being very ignorant and the lack of responsibility he(and by extension, some of his family) takes when confronted with their wrong-doings.
Responsibility is to acknowledge that you have had some part to play in a event or chain of events. It does not always have to be negative but the idea of ‘taking responsibility’ is, as not many people would take responsibility for their own actions if negative. ‘An Inspector Calls’ follows this theme very well, showing us how some people are more allowing of themselves to take responsibility than others.
Priestley uses the setting time and the time he actually wrote the play to highlight the themes of responsibility between the two eras. Pre-1912, people were very harsh when it came to helping and this was a time when Capitalism was rampant. There was a very large gap between the rich and poor, and Priestley used this to emphasize how bad things were back in 1912 and how change would be better. As in 1945, people were becoming more of a community and people helped one another, the idea of Capitalism and not caring about anyone dwindled as Socialism became more and more accepted.
‘We do not live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each over.’ The inspector says this during his final speech and it really shows the contrast between Capitalism and Socialism. The idea of ‘We are responsible for each over.’ is a very Socialist term, as Socialism is all about community and this the polar opposite of Capitalism. Also, he used ‘John Smith’ and ‘Eva Smith’ in his final speech, and says we are all responsible for them. The use of the ‘Smith’ last name is a very clever one, Smith was the most common name at the time, and it suggests that; it does not matter who the person is, if you have to take responsibility regardless.
Priestley also uses generations and age, and suggests that the younger generations are more prone to taking responsibility for their actions then the older generation; this maybe due to the time or the way they’were raised. Sheila and Eric are the ones that accept responsibility for their actions outright. Gerald, as someone between the old and young generation(eh.. current generation?), takes responsibility at first. After finding out the inspector is not real, quickly turns to the denial of his actions, similar to Mr & Mrs Birling. In response to everyone’s denial, Sheila states “Everything we said had happened had really happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us.”. This suggests that Sheila knows everything was wrong, but we should still take some responsibility, as it was only lucky that they got off without consequence. This only add dramatic irony when an actual inspector comes at the end of the play.
‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and 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, and what we think and say and do.’ This is said by the inspector during his final speech to signify the idea of a ‘collective responsibility’ and how it effects us all. Priestley uses common names such as ‘John’ and ‘Smith’ to empathise that out responsibility applies to everyone regardless of ages, class, status or anything else. What matters is that everyone is is human and we have a right as humans to be treated with equal kindness and respect, and for those who do not provide that kindness and respect to be held responsibility. This is important with the dates on the play, the setting of 1912, where nobody cared much for their locals. This contrasts very well with the written time of 1945, where the country was moving more towards a welfare-state and rampant socialism that Priestly fully supported.
In conclusion, this play proves we must have responsibility for all our actions, both good and bad. Priestley has shown us that without doing this, further bad actions will come from that original bad action. In this case, continuing bad actions in a chain is a very bad thing. The act of not helping the people around us may be our downfall and Priestly teaches us we need to show more compassion, friendliness and overall responsibility in order to become better people ourself and people who do not follow this example will have even worse things happen to themselves.