This play was a vehicle for JB Priestly to put across his socialist ideas to the public. In 1946, when the play was first performed, socialism was considered a very modern body of thought. Today, it is less controversial, and better known, but the play is still relevant, as it seems that the socialist ideas Priestly fought for are fading out, with greater links between the public and the private sector, and we are going back to the capitalist ways of thinking.
If the Inspector is an ‘Embodiment of a collective conscience’ and the personification of Socialist ideals, Birling is the direct opposite. He is quintessence of capitalism, which, Priestly shows us, promote and rationalise human exploitation and misery. While capitalist values dictate that it’s every man for himself, the socialist vision holds that we are all collectively responsible for each other and our society. It is unreal and irrational to deny that we are connected to all other individuals in our society, however Birling is guilty of this several times in his speech, which once again highlights his inadequacies.
The play begins with the Birling family, Arthur, Sybil, Sheila and Eric, along with Shelia’s fiancï¿½, Gerald Croft, son of Lord and Lady Croft, celebrating their engagement.
Arthur Birling, the breadwinner, gives a speech in which he shows himself up with his historical predictions, which show him to be wrong in his whole outlook on the world. He is adamant that ‘there isn’t a chance of war’. He then goes on to speak of the ‘unsinkable’ titanic. This is ironic, as the audience knows that Birling is wrong, that the Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage and that the First World War began just two years later, and was a catalyst for World War II. These obvious historical errors accentuate his moral error of being dismissive of, and dismissing, the strike leaders at his factory.
Within that speech, he deliberately comes across as arrogant and outspoken about his self-centred philosophy of the world: “a man has to mind his own business and to look after himself and his own”.
When Birling is speaking, he also makes several references to these capitalist views. When he speaks of the union of Crofts Limited, Gerald’s family company, and Birling and Company, ‘working…for lower costs and higher prices’. He intends to see that his interests and ‘the interests of Capital’ are properly cared for. He refers to socialists as ‘cranks’, but does not mention air his opinions in front of the Inspector and hushes Eric when he makes an attempt to.
The Inspector arrives in the middle of Birlings speech, interrupting him, which is to become a habit of his. He is much less vocal when the Inspector starts asking tricky questions, and his voice becomes harsher. He resents having his celebration spoiled by this Investigation, which he believes has nothing to do with him. He drops hints to the Inspector that he frequently plays golf with the Chief Constable, and that he is a man of important social status. He is used to be in charge and giving orders, but he is reduced by the arrival of the Inspector who is the one giving the orders.
This probing and re-education of the family and the way in which each character deals with their connection to Eva Smith is the focal point of the play. However, through the trials of the Birling family, larger social issues are explored. Although all the action takes place in the confines of a well-to-do upper-middle-class family residence, the audience is exposed, by the Inspector, to a whole lot more of the city of Brumley: the conditions of factory life, pick-up joints (the Palace Bar), the life of semi-prostitution, political corruption, the whimsical power of the rich to destroy working-class lives. Mrs Birling, for example seems astounded that Alderman Meggarty frequents the Palace Bar to meet women, and was totally ignorant of her son’s drinking. When she finds this out, she finds it hard to take in ‘you’re not the type-you don’t get drunk’
The role of the Inspector is to expose the ways in which we live, and show us how it is wrong. He has been sent, or has sent himself, to prove to the Birlings that they cannot remain in their high-class bubble forever, that sooner or later they must face up to the fact that we are all connected in a large web of people, places and time. The Inspector demonstrates how responsibility for one’s actions and for others is a complex thing – no single person is solely responsible for Eva’s death, but no one is absolved or let off the hook. Just because responsibility does not fall solely on to the shoulders of one person, they cannot abdicate responsibility entirely.
The Inspector has most effect on the Birling children, Sheila and Eric, while Mr and Mrs Birling are unchanged, which creates a great division within the household.
Gerald Croft seems to fall somewhere between the two generations of Birlings in terms of the way he deals with the event. On the one hand he seems to be moved and saddened by the news of his ex-girlfriend, and somewhat remorseful about dumping her. However, at the end of the play he has returned to his old complacency and detachment, choosing to ignore the Inspector’s lesson and learn nothing from the incident. He tries to discredit the whole episode by pointing to the fact that Goole was not actually on the police force-‘Everything’s all right now, Sheila’
After the Inspector has finished questioning Mr Birling, he moves on to Sheila, whom got Eva Smith sacked from her job at Milwards, while in a bad mood when she thought she was laughing at her. When she discovers the consequences of what she has done, she is overwhelmed with guilt, and no one can convince her it was not her fault.
Before this, during the interrogation of her father, she seems taken aback when she finds that Mr Birling sacked the girl for wanting a decent wage, telling him ‘they’re not cheap labour-they’re people’
The Inspector has most effect on Sheila, who takes on his socialist ideology, and becomes almost an advocate for him, telling her mother they’ve ‘no excuse for putting on airs’, after Mrs Birling pretends that she does not recognise the girl in the photo.
Mrs Birling is a prim and cold woman. She remains untouched by the story of Eva’s slide into despair, and when the Inspector interrogates her, she doesn’t show any sign of regret or remorse for the way she treated the girl. The most she bends towards sympathy is to say: “I’m sorry she should have to come to such a horrible end. But I accept no blame for it at all.” The only time she shows any hint of emotion about the incident is when Eric practically accuses her of killing the woman and their child in a highly charged moment, when he accuses her of killing Eva. “She came to you to protect me – and you turned her away – yes, and you killed her – and the child she’d have had too – my child – your own grandchild – you killed them both – damn you, damn you. ” he tells her, while she pleads for his forgiveness.
Eric is a spoilt, moody and irresponsible young man. At first lacking confidence in his father’s presence, he gains a voice as the story progresses, openly contradicting his father by the end of the play. Having known the young woman recently and having impregnated her, he is probably the most shaken by the news – as indicated by the outburst to his mother. Like his sister he has learnt from the episode, and feels terrible about his role in it.
Priestly cleverly leads Mrs. Birling’s story and rationalisation of her actions into Eric’s confession. She reveals that the woman was pregnant, and blames the illegitimate father. And then Eric is revealed as the culprit.
While each character has had some kind of relationship with the woman, Eric’s had resulted in her pregnancy. The fact that she had been carrying his child, hence Mr. and Mrs. Birling’s grandchild, makes the connection even more dramatic and tragic. The connection or link is now a family one, and they cannot deny it – they were bonded in blood.
When the Inspector finally leaves, Gerald Croft begins to doubt his credentials. He thinks it might all be a hoax, and that this woman might in fact be a ‘composite’ identity of the different women with whom they have individually come into contact. The guilt he once felt about the treatment of his former mistress seems to evaporate when the Inspector leaves and Gerald goes about deducing how he might have pulled the wool over their collective eye
Mr Birling is primarily concerned about public scandal and how it might affect his possible knighthood. Mrs Birling, like her husband, immediately bounces back when the hoax is discovered, refusing to allow the ordeal any value in her life.
They ascertain that there is no police officer called Goole in Brumley, and on phoning the infirmary, they discover that there has been no suicide reported in months. But just as they begin to feel relief, the whole thing seems to start again
By Act Three, when the Inspector finally leaves and has been revealed as an imposter, Birling is only concerned about a public scandal, but Eric and Sheila have learned from the Inspector, regardless of whether or not he was a real Inspector.
Eric and Sheila cannot see how their parents are still unmoved, and only concerned in disproving the authenticity of Inspector Goole’s identity. Sheila appeals: “but don’t you see, if all that’s come out tonight is true, then it doesn’t much matter who it was that made us confess”.
A bit further on her brother reiterates this: “And I say the girl’s dead and we all helped kill her – and that’s what matters.” The implication is that the characters who have allowed themselves to feel their guilt (and not just repress it) have become human, and have developed morally. They have become sensitised to the plight of others less fortunate, and have taken more responsibility for the social world in which they live.
This question of ‘who was the Inspector? Did he exist?’ is one which is left with the audience as we leave the play. The name Goole, for example, is used; one assumes, to make the audience envision the Inspector, not as a real person, but as a moralizing spirit, a ghoul. Usually, we would not know the spelling of the Inspectors name, because in a theatrical context, words are only heard, seldom spelt. In this case, however, Mr. Birling asks the Inspector to spell his surname, perhaps because he is in need of reassurance. If he is adequately reassured, then so is the audience.
The Inspector is described in the detailed stage directions, as ‘in his fifties, wearing clothes of the period’. I imagine the Inspector to be dressed in plain dark clothes. Of the time, so he does not look out of place, and his make-up, too, should be plain and simple. His appearance should not take away from his message, and should be eaily forgettable. This should impress further upon the audience the question ‘Who was he? Did he exist?’.
The Inspector is the focal character in the play, and is crucial to it, because without him the other characters would not have an opportunity to be seen. While the Inspector is important in what he says and does in relation to the other Characters, it is the other characters response to him which makes the play interesting and stresses Priestly’s socialist ideals.