An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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6 ‘We employers at last are coming together to see that our interests – and the interests of capital – are properly protected.’ – Employers banding together against the unionising of their workforce sounds very much like the opening manoeuvres prior to an all-out class war. Priestley’s audience would know that there had been no revolution in Britain (as there had been in Russia), but the dialectic between capitalism and communism was still at the centre of people’s understanding of economics and society at the time An Inspector Calls was written and first performed.

6 ‘There's too much at stake these days. Everything to lose and nothing to gain by war.’ – What is ‘at stake’ from Birling’s point of view is international cooperation and the free movement of trade, both of which had been instrumental in making the ruling classes of Europe more prosperous. It seems to him unthinkable that war could break out and damage the future he envisages. In reality, economic rivalry between the British Empire and the new German Empire was one of the many causes of the First World War.

6-7 ‘The world's developing so fast that it'll make war impossible.’ – Such ideas were certainly characteristic of the Victorians’ belief in progress. In his popular poem ‘Locksley Hall’ (written in 1835), Tennyson’s unnamed protagonist speaks of a future in which ‘the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails’ (l121) and though he also predicts the use aeroplanes in war, conflict soon leads to universal peace: ‘In the Parliament of man, the federation of the world’ (l128). The irony of Birling’s words here is particularly notable: the technological advances he mentions are precisely those that, historically, led to the mechanisation of conflict and the horrific carnage of trench warfare.

7 ‘Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.’ – The Titanic sailed from Southampton and sank in the early hours of 15th April 1912. The National Coal Strike ended on April 6th, so the Birlings’ dinner-party can be dated quite precisely. Priestley clearly wants his audience to see his drama play out against a background of real historical events and he has also chosen a moment in time when Birling’s comments appear particularly ironic.

7 ‘In twenty or thirty years’ time – let's say, in 1940’ – Close to the date when the play was written and first performed, and close also, ironically, to the outbreak of the Second World War.

7 ‘you'll be living in a world that'll have forgotten all these capital versus labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.’ – Birling’s ‘silly little war scares’ ironically foreshadow the two World Wars as noted above; in reality, the next decades, more indeed than the previous ones, would be dominated by the international conflict between ‘capital’ and communism.

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J. B. Priestley