An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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This straightforward, if blunt, assertion, probably best represents the feelings of audience members at the end of a performance, who are unlikely to be thinking very much about complicated time-slips and time-loops, but who will nonetheless know that they have been tricked – played upon – though for a good and serious purpose.

The Inspector is impossible, and therein, perhaps, lies the most telling final message of the play. The audience learns in the last five lines that a girl (presumably Eva Smith) has really died and that, as a result, an inspector is coming to interview the Birlings. The characters on stage have just demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Goole is not a real police inspector. But the phone call Birling receives has presumably come from Brumley police station, so now a genuine inspector is on the way.

What will happen when he arrives? Despite the understandable shock on Birling’s face as he delivers his news, there cannot be much doubt. The whole business of Eva Smith’s connections with the characters of the play will be carefully hushed up, because Birling is a former mayor and current magistrate and a friend of Colonel Roberts and that is the way things are done; questions that should have been asked will not be asked; potentially embarrassing lines of enquiry will be quietly dropped. All will be smiles and winks and understanding; there might even be a masonic handshake exchanged and a glass of port for the inspector before he makes his way back the station to file the usual bland report required in such ‘difficult’ cases. After all, what genuine police investigation phones up a group of suspects to tell them politely in advance that an inspector is on the way to interview them? A little reflection on the matter, and it is hard to doubt that the real inspector’s visit will lead only to business as usual in Brumley.

Inspector Goole’s interrogation of the Birlings and Gerald is, by contrast, a kind of fantastical prolepsis of what should have happened after Eva’s death. The fact that it is so obviously fictional – and, strictly speaking, impossible – is Priestley’s reminder to the audience that these things seldom do happen as they ought, because there is, in reality, one rule for the rich and powerful and another for the poor, and there always will be. Inspector Goole is, in essence, a fantasy Priestley shares with his audience – a piece of impossible wish-fulfilment, not unlike a child’s belief in Santa Claus. The Inspector is a dream. Some may, in reality, have acted as he does, but that is not the point. In terms of the play, the fantasy of Inspector Goole is important because it has the capacity to change real people. Sheila and Eric stand for these individuals: the members of Priestley’s audience who are touched by the story of Eva Smith and are willing to see her life in the lives of all the real ‘Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ who are still victims of a society that treats the rich and the poor very differently. Whatever one’s politics, that essential message more than justifies Priestley’s theatrical sleight of hand and continues to contribute to his play’s ongoing success and popularity.

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J. B. Priestley