An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls Study Guide

"We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently: one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test."

—J.B. Priestley, Postscripts, BBC radio broadcast, 21 July 1949

As Priestley was writing An Inspector Calls, the United Kingdom was in a bad state: the Second World War had concluded only a year before in 1945. Food was still being rationed, and many towns and cities had suffered massive damage during the Blitz. The political situation in the UK was about to shift massively with the first Labour government in several years, led by Clement Attlee, beginning work in 1946, the same year Priestley's play was first performed. The National Health Service (NHS) was also founded in 1946, taking effect on July 5, 1948.

The government’s unusually high degree of control of the people because of the war had given some of the British new inspiration to use the government to promote equality, to attack Britain's problems with poverty, and thus to try to end the economic and social ills that were sometimes attributed to the country’s class system. These issues also were clearly on Priestley's mind, since An Inspector Calls is one of the most famous and explicit espousals of socialism that has ever graced the British theatre.

Priestley’s work was successful in part because he detected the mood of many in the country. Many of the people, he thought, had turned selfish and cynical despite (or perhaps because of) their massive sacrifices during the war: "They are trying to take as much as they can and give as little as possible in return. They are cutting themselves off from the welfare of the community. They are losing all pride and interest in the job. They are not behaving like good citizens ... They believe this to be a rotten world and they do not propose to do anything themselves to improve it." There, in a concise paragraph, lie the attitudes of the play’s characters the Birlings, expressing the attitudes that the play attacks.

Priestly wrote extremely quickly. He remembered writing Dangerous Corner (1932) "very quickly as a technical experiment and as proof that I could write for the stage" (1962). He also claimed that he wrote three of his most famous plays, Time and the Conways (1937), An Inspector Calls (1946), and The Linden Tree (1947), in "about ten days" each.

An Inspector Calls was initially performed in Moscow in 1945, and only subsequently in Britain. Its London premiere was at the New Theatre in October 1946, with a cast including Ralph Richardson. The play was later made into a motion picture. For more on the play's stage history, see the section on A Stage History in this ClassicNote.

Priestley's play had Christian resonances for its original audience. Northrop Frye, a literary critic and theorist who worked closely on the Bible during his critical career, wrote in his diary on 12 January 1952 that he had seen An Inspector Calls:

"Down to a rather a cheap theatrical trick at the end, the play was a study in the contrast between the religious & the moral conceptions of guilt ... The inspector leaves & the whole thing is proved a hoax, whereupon the parents pick up where they left off. The younger people - son and daughter at least - are more deeply touched, but even they don't appear to have the strength of mind to face the fact that all that guilt is potential in them whatever the accidents of consequence may be. At that point the phone rings and the real action starts, the inspector having been of course God."

It is rare to see Priestley's play interpreted in such a Christian context today, even though England today remains a Christian nation and retains a high percentage (but a decreasing percentage) of Christians. It is interesting that Priestley's message has found more resonance in modern theories of politics and sociology than in Christian conceptions of sin, forgiveness, and guilt. This set of different, even contradictory, interpretations suggests a universality that might ensure the long-term endurance of Priestley's play.