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Born to a working-class family in Yorkshire, in the north of England, John Priestley, who published under the name J. B. Priestley, wrote plays, novels, biographies, travelogues, and assorted essays, many notable for their political engagement. Priestley fought for England in the First World War, and the experience was formative for him. He later studied literature and political science at Cambridge, and on graduating began his career as an essayist, before branching out into other genres. He wrote quickly and thoroughly, producing dozens of texts. He published treatments of the lives of Charles Dickens and George Meredith, and a broader historical assessment of literary art and its effect on people’s lives (Literature and Western Man). Today, Priestley’s notoriety derives from his writing for the theater. An Inspector Calls, the play with which he is most commonly associated, opened in the Soviet Union in Russian translation after the Second World War, and in London soon after. Reviews over the next decades of Inspector and his other works were mixed, but a production of Inspector in the 1990s in London revived interest. Priestley’s plays continue to be performed in the US and the UK.
An Inspector Calls might be understood in several contexts. First, it is an example of immediate post-war drama, which means that it was written after World War Two. Post-war dramas take up some of the economic, political, and social issues prompting that conflict, including socialism versus free-market capitalism, democracy versus fascism, and communal versus individual rights and privileges. It is also a historical drama, as it is set in the run-up to the World War One. This produces instances of dramatic irony throughout the play. Characters refer to the possibility of World War One, and of later calamities that would seem, to the post-World War Two audience, pivotal and lamentable landmarks in world history. The small-scale but devastating violence described in the play points to the slaughter of many thousands that will occur only a few years after its narrated action.
Second, An Inspector Calls marks the beginning of a turn from the literary period of realism to what would later be called the postmodern, the absurdist, or the surreal. Priestley’s play considers realistic characters in a realistic upper-middle-class situation, and characters speak in “prose” rather than in “verse.” That is, the characters’ language is closer to dialogue in a novel than to the speeches of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Othello, for example. In this way, Priestley draws on the familial conflicts found in the plays of writers like Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Eugene O’Neill. But the presence of the “Inspector” marks within An Inspector Calls the possibility of actions beyond rational reasoning. Priestley’s work can be viewed as a hinge between more realistic plays of the early twentieth century and the darker, less plot-driven, and more openly experimental dramas of writers like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
Read about one of Harold Pinter’s plays, The Dumb Waiter.
Third, the performance history of the play sheds some light on its possible meanings, both at the time of its composition and in later interpretations. The play opened in the Soviet Union in 1946, and therefore reached its first audiences in Russian. Priestley sympathized with socialism broadly, but was not a member of any one political party, as his biographers note. Although An Inspector Calls is set some thirty-five years before its first performance, its consideration of industrial power and human worth was still very much an issue at the time of its debut. Priestley weighs what blame belongs to whom, and how ill-considered actions on the individual scale can have fatal, if unintentional, consequences. Anyone watching the play in the 1940s might see the heedlessness of Arthur, the aloofness of Sybil, the outward guilt of Sheila, or the drunkenness of Eric both as personal flaws and as potentially allegorical statements about national responsibility in continental Europe, the UK, and the United States.
The revival of An Inspector Calls in the 1990s demonstrates that the play’s preoccupations resonate beyond the Cold War period. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relationship between capital and labor, or between management and those doing the work, was of particular interest. So was the idea that democratic values might potentially have prevailed over the rigid bureaucratic governance of the USSR and its satellite states. The openness with which the play ends is, similarly, an opportunity for reevaluation, as Priestley never explains fully how individual crimes contribute to a more general guilt or innocence in the play’s main characters.