It’s tempting to read a book in isolation; the characters are imagined, the action just happens and we speed through the plot to get to the ending. No spoilers please!
However, everything is part of a more complex web and just as the characters in An Inspector Calls are called to realise their complicity in the death of Eva Smith, the spiderly spectre of Inspector Goole pulling on the threads, so we can see the play itself connected to wider theatrical and literary tradition.
Many exam students miss out on extra marks to be gained from commenting on the context of the set texts so I’m writing this to help generate ideas and discussion.
Classical Greek drama insisted on The Unities: the action should take place in time no longer than a single day; the stage should not represent more than one place; the play should have one main action with no subplots.
Morality Plays of the Medieval times have a protagonist, or hero, who represents humanity. Supporting characters display both good and evil traits. The plays are performed with the moral guidance of the audience as an aim.
Why would Priestley reference these traditions?
The Morality Play tradition suits his Liberal and Left Wing or Socialist politics. He needs a framework in which to teach the audience, to remind them about the shared concerns of humanity. Referencing such an ancient tradition perhaps adds weight to Priestley’s arguments.
The simplicity of the Classical tradition, the lack of subplots for instance, focusses the audience on the message. The Inspector only reveals the photograph to each character one at a time to keep the plot as sparse as possible. The audience is finely tuned to the character arc each family member experiences.
The period from 1920 to 1950 was the age of the ‘whodunit‘, detective fiction works which kept audiences guessing about the suspect until the final few pages. Priestley bases his play on earlier tradition but tries to satisfy his contemporary audience’s love for a mystery. An Inspector Calls follows the pattern of crime fiction; a skilled, professional investigator, a number of false suspects, the application of science and questioning.
In a Morality play about class there is a particular importance in having a detective as the Protagonist however. In her book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale not only tells the story of the murder of a child but looks closely at what was happening politically in the mid 1800s when working class policemen were elevated to the rank of detective and allowed to question middle class people’s motives. This might all sound like a long time ago sure, but An Inspector Calls is set in 1912 and the woman who ‘confessed’ (no spoilers!) to the murder at Road Hill House died in 1944 a year before An Inspector Calls was first performed.
Summerscale discusses Charles Dickens, like Priestley a social commentator and critic who loved a crime drama. During this whole period as the Industrial Revolution caused a social revolution, the traditional values of ‘knowing your place’ were overturned. In Dickens’ Great Expectations it is the convict Magwitch who is Pip’s benefactor, not the middle class Havisham; it is the underclasses who try to do good while their ‘betters’ are self centred and anti social.
So the play begins referencing the great traditions of theatre and employing the forms of naturalism, obeying certain conventions, like the illusion of an every day reality on the stage and everyday speech. However, with the increasing realisation that Goole is not all he seems to be, I think the audience are forced to distance themselves from the narrative and think hard not only about the true nature of the detective or who in the Birling family is most to blame but also about their own complacency about poverty and wealth.
Which brings me to my final point. And I’m smiling because I’m in danger of saying that An Inspector Calls is an example of nearly every type of theatre both ancient and modern!
Bertholt Brecht is not part of the GCSE specification but his Socialist stand on poverty and his concerns with wealth fit closely with Priestley’s. There are huge differences between the two playwrights, but it is this moment of distancing (or as Brecht calls it ‘verfremsdungseffekt’) which I think Priestley handles so well. In this review of the play in The Independent the suggestion is that, rather than making you want to start a revolution as Brecht would have you do, Priestley’s play “pricks your conscience, but it also congratulates you for having one”
which two words from the Wordle at the top of the page did NOT appear in the post?
Research those words and discuss where they might fit in an essay about the play
Make your own Wordle for An Inspector Calls!