An Inspector Calls
The shadow of war hovers over JB Priestley’s play about the suicide of a young working-class woman. It was written in 1945 after World War Two, and the action takes place two years before World War One begins. An upper-class family’s celebration of an engagement is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious police inspector, who interviews each of them about their connection to the dead girl, Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone,” the inspector concludes. “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
“If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?” says Mr Birling. And yet each member of the family did something to Eva Smith which ultimately led to her death. So, are they all responsible? And where do we see Mr Birling’s question coming up in the news today?
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As Priestley wrote the play, Britain was planning to introduce a welfare state that could help vulnerable people like Eva Smith. But, until then, she was completely dependent on the whims of the rich. “There are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us,” says the inspector. Class, welfare and poverty are still controversial issues today.
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Eva Smith’s problems are made far worse because she is a woman. When she is fired, the men who try to help her end up using her for sex, and then discard her — only then, she is pregnant and even more desperate than before. Have things improved for women? Has the #MeToo era made a difference?
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Mr and Mrs Birling are quick to absolve themselves of any individual responsibility for Eva’s death — but the inspector repeatedly warns them that we all have a social duty to look out for one another. Terrible things will happen if we don’t. Have we learned this lesson yet? Should we?
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The parents refuse to accept any responsibility for their part in Eva’s death. But their daughter and son, Sheila and Eric, are overwhelmed by guilt for their actions. There is hope for the next generation, suggests Priestley. How pronounced is the generation gap today?
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