‘An Inspector Calls’ play by J.B. Priestley
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J.B. Priestley was born at the end of the 19th century; in 1894. At this time, Britain and Europe had a very class conscious society. Britain was highly industrialised and governed by right wing parties either the Whigs or the Liberals. Most of the royal families of Europe were inter-related and wielded enormous power. The workers in most countries of Europe were badly treated both at work and socially. This led to the formation of the Labour party in Britain in 1901 with the Russian Revolution, soon after in 1917.
J.B. Priestley served in the First World War, which together with the Russian Revolution changed society irrevocably. He served in the infantry and therefore had first hand experience of the trenches and the abominable conditions existing there. When the war was over the Russian Revolution had occurred with any survivors of the army returning to demand a society of their choice. These were the condition prevailing when J.B. Priestley himself returned from the war. J.B. Priestley was a socialist who wanted to change society to be fair-minded. He tried to convey this through plays such as this one, ‘An Inspector Calls’ and ‘The Arts Under Socialism’ which he wrote two years later in 1947. In the former play he uses the character of Mr Arthur Birling, a self important business man, to mock typical capitalist business men.
In this play Mr Arthur Birling is given the characteristics of a typical capitalist business man being confident and self assured. His (Mr Arthur Birling’s) attitude changes when an Inspector Goole (who voices J.B. Priestley’s views), appears and challenges his views on society and community responsibility.
In Act 1, Mr Arthur Birling makes a speech regarding his views on business. He is presented as a prosperous businessman, a capitalist:
“You’re the kind of son-in-law I always wanted…… we may look forward to a time when Croft and Birling are no longer competing but are working together for lower costs and higher prices”
This implies that Mr Arthur Birling is interested in Shelia’s future husband, Gerald because he would make an excellent business partner. When he says his future son-in-law is the sort, he has “always wanted”; it shows he’s got a fixed opinion. Clearly, Mr Arthur Birling believes in maximising his profits and minimising his costs, rather than being interested in his daughters’ happiness with Gerald Croft. Later on in the play we see how scant his regard is for Shelia’s future even though Gerald has treated her so badly; Mr Arthur Birling still wants the marriage to go ahead. J.B. Priestley is commenting on his capitalistic tendency to push for profit above everything else. For instance when he says, “Now Shelia, I’m not defending him, but you must understand that a lot of young men…..”
Mr Arthur Birling represents the part of society who optimistically believed that the First World War simply couldn’t happen. He smugly informs Eric and Gerald that:
“There isn’t a chance of war. The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible.”
When Mr Arthur Birling claims that “There isn’t a chance of war”, he elicits the idea that war will definitely not happen. He insists that this will be the case because he sees no reason why nations should go to war and upset the business man’s quest for profit. The dramatic irony of this would have been immediately noticed by the audience of 1945. Having experienced the hardships and horrors of two world wars they see that Mr Arthur Birling is wrong in his assertions and is demonstrating his stupidity with unthinking optimism.
When Eva Smith and some of her colleagues wanted more money (Wages), Mr Arthur Birling reacted in a hostile fashion. He refused, saying:
“It’s my duty to keep labour costs down”
When Mr Arthur Birling mentions the word “duty”, it is defined as an obligation whereas in this instance he is choosing not to advance his workers an extra five shillings a week. Mr Arthur Birling clearly sees his “duty” as being to his business and the interests of capitalism
rather than to the well being of his workers. J.B.Priestley is criticising businessman and capitalists at the time who thought profits were more important than responsibility for the welfare of workers and society
Mr Arthur Birling in this play is being represented as a typical hard-headed capitalist, who thinks his own opinion is always right. He often states the words:
“As a practical hard-headed man of business”
This demonstrates that he is convinced that his experience and success qualify him to be correct on most of his subjects.
He is very status conscious and mentions to Gerald that:
“There’s a very good chance of a knighthood”
Again, through Mr Arthur Birling, J.B.Priestley draws a sharp comparison between he different status conscious part of society and the down trodden working class. In this case Eva Smith. It is significant that Mr Arthur Birling is telling Gerald Croft this as his parents are already part of the peerage and he seems to regard them with trepidation. This strongly constraints with his views on working class people who should be there to serve and work for whatever low rates he decides to pay. He is appalled that his son Eric, has made love to a working class girl and made her pregnant. He also sees scandal looming and his knighthood disappearing. J.B.Priestley is making it clear that capitalists such as Mr Arthur Birling are interested in their own welfare and not worried about the effect their actions or of their family have on working or lower class people.
When the inspector arrives Mr Arthur Birling is at first courteous to him , offering him a drink of port, but rapidly becomes impatient and then aggressive because he cannot accept the fact that he has any responsibility for the death of Eva Smith and objects to being questioned by someone who is of lower class than himself. Mr Arthur Birling threatens the inspector, by pointing out that he knows the chief constable. J.B.Priestley is making the point that status and power could be used by the middle and upper class citizens to overcome difficulties but this option was not available to Eva Smith or the lower class citizens.
The audience of 1945 would have seen Mr Arthur Birling as a figure rapidly disappearing in British society. A socialist government had been elected and the nation now behaved that equality of opportunity would now prevail to all and that society would look after its poorer community. Whereas power and privilege had not completely disappeared in 1945, it was on its way out.
J.B.Priestley has created the character of Mr Arthur Birling as having the worst aspects of a successful capitalist business man. As a socialist he wants to highlight the self important, pompous, domineering and dogmatic traits the Mr Arthur Birling displays. Mr Arthur Birling’s attitude in his quest for profit and his love of social standing emphasize the early twentieth century greed for money and power, which such men desired. He is even shown in this play to put business interests before those of his family. He reacts to the news of Eva Smith’s death in a callous way. As far as he’s concerned he “can’t accept any responsibility”. This is entirely the opposite view to the one J.B.Priestley believed in. That we are all members of one family in a caring society was J.B.Priestley’s code of ethics. By showing Mr Arthur Birling in such unfavourable light, J.B.Priestley is letting the audience decide which view is best. An audience in 1945 might be expected to sympathise with the Eva smith’s of this world, as they had been through the terrible circumstances of war, they would surely understand what it felt like to suffer and face terrible poverty.