An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls A Stage History of the Play

The best way to experience any play--at least, one that is meant to be performed--is to see it on stage. Remember that reading a play on the page is like looking at sheet music without an instrument to play it on. One's study of the play will be hugely helped by seeing a live production with a live audience.

There is also much to be gained from viewing different treatments of Priestley's play on film. In particular, the 1954 film (directed by Guy Hamilton), which stars Alastair Sim as the Inspector, offers an interpretation radically different from the internationally successful touring theatre production directed by Stephen Daldry.

Sim's characterization of the Inspector is sparkling, though not particularly ominous and, as one might expect, key changes are made to the plot of the play. In particular, the Inspector is locked in a room by the Birlings as they discover what is going on, but when they return to the room to confront him with what they have discovered, he has vanished. There also is a more comic feel to the tone of the film: the Inspector is far from ominous or ghoulish, and the family members are not particularly unpleasant or dislikable.

The first production of the play was in Moscow in 1945, though the first major production in English was in London in 1946. Ralph Richardson, who played the Inspector, had already appeared in a play of Priestley's, Eden End, in 1934. Priestley wrote of Richardson that "[h]e can be a bank clerk, an insurance agent, a dentist, but very soon mysterious lights and shadows, tones of anguish and ecstasy, are discovered in banking, insurance and dentistry."

Priestley did not want the play to be set on a realistic "box set" (i.e., showing a realistic, fully furnished room with the fourth wall [facing the audience] missing). In his opening stage direction, he tells directors that they might be "well advised to dispense with an ordinary realistic set." Unfortunately, Basil Dean, who directed, gave him a realistic box set, but lit it in bright green. After the dress rehearsal, Ralph Richardson fired the director and had the lighting entirely changed!

The reviews of this first production gave no indication of the international success that the play would meet. The Daily Mail's reviewer commented that this "moralising play had no theatrical ethics," implying that the play was all message and no dramatic excitement. J.C. Trewin, writing in The Observer, wrote that the play could have "been stripped to half its length ... the Birlings are hardly worth this prolonged clatter of skeletons." There were some positives, though: the New Statesman praised the "beautiful craftsmanship" of the play and argued that the ending was the "coup de théâtre of the year."

The play saw many small-scale revivals following its original production up and down the country and internationally, though it was not until 1992 that Stephen Daldry rediscovered the play in an expressionist production at the National Theatre and thus afforded it a more significant revival.

Daldry asked for operatic, non-realistic, "high definition" performances from his actors, and he set the play in an entirely different environment desiged by Ian MacNeil. An old-fashioned curtain lifted to reveal an Edwardian house, looking like it had suffered damage in the Second World War and standing stage left with its foundations exposed. At one moment, late in the play, it was as if the "fire and blood and anguish" had already arrived: the house tilted violently forwards with the crockery pouring off the dining table to smash on the cobbles. Rain poured down at various moments in the play.

Daldry's production, still on tour into the 2010s, radically reimagined Priestley's message for a modern audience. Daldry was famously opposing Margaret Thatcher's statement that there was "no such thing as society" (just a collection of individuals and families), and Priestley's play seemed continuously relevant to the modern day, given its fundamental critique of the social order in favor of a more socialist politics. "I think Priestley would have been outraged now to see people on the streets," Daldry said.

Daldry also played with Priestley's idea of time, dressing the Inspector in clothes from 1945 but everyone else in clothes from 1912. This Inspector, indeed, really had seen the "fire and blood and anguish" of Second World War. This "political parable" was, despite some initially ambivalent critical reactions, a tremendous success, running for over fifteen years around the world, and reclaiming the idea of An Inspector Calls as a relevant, modern play that has not lost the power to shock.