August 3, 2021

An Inspector Calls and its Relevance in Pandemic Britain

Spoilers, obviously. 

Now, I think there is some kind of (probably documented) effect, a sort of law of the universe, that if one studies something in English Literature, it, by default becomes a piece of literature that one starts to see unfavourably or even rather hates, and this has definitely been the case with me and An Inspector Calls. However, now that I have re-watched the independent film version of the play, It has grown on me, and its relevance in 2021 has become increasingly apparent. Given that the film is available for free on YouTube, I recommend that you also watch it – it’s a really good adaptation of the text for a film. 

Written by J.B Priestley (originally from Bradford), the play is set in early April of 1911, purportedly on the 5th of April, 5 days before the Titanic was to set sail for New York on her ill-fated maiden voyage, and it is set in a fictional industrial midland town, called Brumley. The Birling family are the main characters, and they consist of Mr Arthur and Mrs Sybil Birling, Arthur being a wealthy upper-middle-class industrialist who owns a textiles firm and is from a more ‘ordinary’ background, and Sybil being his wife, a daughter of some Aristocrat. There is also Eric and Sheila Birling, the children of Arthur and Sybil, Sheila being engaged to the son of a local upper-class industrialist and old moneyed aristocrat, Gerald Croft.  

The play starts with the family enjoying a celebration of the engagement between Sheila and Gerald, and after their meal, Arthur gives a speech, denying any chance of a potential war, and saying that the Titanic is ‘unsinkable. Absolutely unsinkable’. After this, the Inspector comes to the house and asks each of them questions, revealing what they had to do with a girl named Eva Smith, who kills herself before the play takes place by swallowing a large amount of disinfectant, and how they all contributed to her suicide.  

It tells the story of a complacent and wealthy higher class, analogous to the Bourgeoisie in Marxist theory, that actively exploits the workers below. A particularly good example of this is when, at the start, the Inspector asks Arthur about Smith’s previous employment at his works. Eva Smith was among a number of workers who arranged a strike of all the workers at the works. They were being paid 22 shillings and sixpence per week, about equivalent to £325 a week today, and were pushing for 25 shillings per week, about equivalent to £360 today.  The strike didn’t last long, but Birling chose afterward to fire Smith, just for orchestrating the strike for higher wages. It looks also at the unbridled and misplaced optimism and decadence of these elites. 

The Inspector continues on, working through the other members of the family and how they each made her situation worse. It follows the trail of desperation that Eva Smith trod on the way to her suicide, and each lesson given to the Birlings is heeded by some, and not by others. It teaches each one a lesson about the dangers of free-market capitalism, and how girls like Eva Smith fall through the cracks and eventually get into such desperation that they resort to killing themselves.  

It is later revealed that Smith was pregnant with Eric’s child, and a feud ensues as Eric finds out that it was, in effect, Mrs Birling who caused Smith to drink the disinfectant; Eva had nowhere to go and was pregnant, a recipe for desperation and inconvenience the family. 

An Inspector Calls was written in 1945, for a post-war audience, to show them how things were before the wars, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the Depression. It showed them the complacency and the decadence of the pre-WW1 elite, and comes to a dramatic end with the Inspector’s final speech, which I will leave you with now, as a reminder from this current pandemic:

But just remember this. One Eva Smith is gone – but there are 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. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.

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