It's a celebration gone sour. A happy family gathers to rejoice in their good fortune, congratulating themselves. Not only is a beloved daughter engaged (with a big diamond ring to sweeten it) to a rich, handsome, socially desirable man, but two commercial empires will merge as a result. Business is good. The family is part of what today might be called "the 1%." Complacent, sleek, above the rabble. "A man has to mind his own business," puffs patriarchal Mr. Birling, offering advice to the young men, "has to make his own way," not "look after everybody else."
Does it matter that each person at the table has ugly secrets? Better not to know. And, there's peace and prosperity! Those rumors of a coming war? Nonsense. Won't happen. Don't pay any attention. Don't ask questions.
Questions, of course, are the business of the mysterious police inspector who arrives to break up the congratulatory dinner. A young woman has committed suicide and there seems, oddly, to be some connection between her agonizing end and each of the people gathered. The inspector's questions seem laden with prior knowledge and, rather than accuse, they induce confession and confrontation between the members of the family. Each person's sin against the dead girl-each pettiness, selfishness, mindless hardness-in itself wasn't enough to bring her to destruction. But collectively? Collectively-that is, as a society-greed and selfishness led this working class girl to despair and death.
As the exposed family members are outed, they turn against one another, accusing, blaming, and in most cases, dodging their own responsibility for another person's welfare. They share little else, but they share guilt.
An Inspector Calls opened in the summer of 1945-right after the end of World War II. It opened in Moscow because the playwright, British writer JB Priestley, didn't believe that an English theatre in that time was capable of producing an honest version of the play. The first two productions were in the post-war Soviet Union and an English production was not mounted until later in 1945, during the run-up to the election that brought the Labour Party to power. Since that time the Inspector's parting credo, that "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other," and his prediction of "fire and blood and anguish" to those who don't learn this lesson, has won awards around the world, yes, and caused riots as well.
Personally, John Boynton Priestley (1894 - 1984) knew a lot about fire and blood and anguish. Born to a working class family in Yorkshire, England in the waning years of Victoria's reign, he joined up at 20 at the very beginning of World War I, believing that it was "the war to end all wars." As a soldier in the trenches in France, he witnessed his generation of young Englishmen blown to bits or gassed. He himself was wounded by mortar fire, gassed, and also buried alive when a trench collapsed on him. He wasn't demobbed until 1919-a very different young man than the boy who enlisted. After studies at Cambridge, he became a well-known, exceedingly prolific writer, publishing 26 novels, 14 plays, and numerous works of literary criticism and political commentary. He was also a journalist, broadcaster, and distinguished man of letters. Everything he wrote was shaped by his experiences in the Great War. He was bitterly critical of the class system, the British Army, and especially of the officers. He became an outspoken socialist and friend to Labour. During the second world war, his BBC Radio broadcast (Postscript, 1940, 1941) drew audiences of 16 million listeners, second only to Winston Churchill's broadcasts. He voiced opinions like the following from 1940:
Pressed by his cabinet, Churchill had Priestley's broadcasts censored and cancelled for being too left-wing. Priestley was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.
An Inspector Calls is written in the shadow of the second world war, looking back at the complacency and social selfishness he believed responsible in part for the Great War of 1914-1918. How, when there had been such horrific sacrifice, could this bloodshed and misery have happened again? How are we responsible? What can prevent it recurring? The Inspector asks the questions that indict an entire society.
Priestley, like many intellectuals of his era, was also completely fascinated by metaphysical theories of Time that developed from the 1920s when Einstein's Theory of Relativity gained public acceptance. The philosophers that influenced Priestley brought him to believe that our lives are a continuum and, while we can only perceive linearly (an illusion), we exist in all the moments of our life simultaneously. Therefore, our pasts, perceived presents, and futures are intimately interdependent. The consequences of our thoughts and deeds will exalt or deform our futures as well as those of the people we touch. Time is a dimension that flows and bends back on itself. Priestley's plays often explore this idea and present characters who step out of their immediate moment to have an illuminating vision of something that will happen in the future, or has happened in the past, or are visited by someone from another time who bears knowledge that attentive characters transform into action. Thus, when the mysterious Inspector asks his accusatory questions, he speaks from knowledge of a deeper, darker future than any of the other characters in 1910 can imagine.