The writer J.B. Priestley enjoyed great success through much of the twentieth century, especially in his native Britain, composing novels, plays, screenplays, television scripts, literary criticism, and essays, especially pieces he broadcast on the BBC that were credited with boosting British morale during the Second World War. If his reputation faded some after his death in 1984, especially in this county, it was restored significantly by the unusually successful revival in 1992 at the National Theatre of one of his plays that had also faded some, An Inspector Calls.
Written in 1945, An Inspector Calls was first performed, because all of London’s theatres were booked at the end of the war, in Moscow, opening in London the next year. Perhaps the Soviet Union was not an unsympathetic place for Priestley’s play. Though he objected to Bernard Shaw’s admiration for the Soviet dictator Stalin, Priestly was himself an active socialist, supporting the Labour Party in winning the victory that led to the establishment of the welfare state in England. He was also a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose CND symbol continues to decorate left-wing activity.
Though written in 1945, Priestley set his play in 1912, the final glorious moments of the British Empire and of the Edwardian era, a time when English self-confidence, self-satisfaction, and self-assurance were unquestioned, at least among the capitalist upper classes. It is just such people that Priestly subjects to a devastating scrutiny in his play.
Arthur Birling, a wealthy factory owner and local politician in an industrial city in the north Midlands, and his wife Sybil are giving a dinner party to celebrate their daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, the son of a rival industrialist and, following the wedding, a possible business partner. Also present is the Birlings’ young, unsettled, alcoholic son Eric.
The Birlings’ maid Edna interrupts the party to announce the appearance of an Inspector Goole. He brings word of the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith, whose diary recounts contacts over the recent past with those now gathered in the Birling home.
Shown a photograph, Birling admits that he recognizes Eva, that she had been a good worker in his factory but that he fired her because she was a leader of a strike by the women in the plant asking for pay equal to the men’s. That is what any hard-headed, sensible businessman would do to keep labor costs down and profits up; he has no regrets.
Daughter Sheila then recognizes that Eva had found a job in a department store where she waited on her. Sheila, in a fit of insecurity and of jealousy of the more attractive Eva, had insisted that the store manager fire her or lose the Birling family trade. Which he reluctantly did. Sheila does have regrets, severe regrets.
The inspector next reveals that Eva, desperate to support herself, turned to prostitution, changing her name. But it is a name recognized by Gerald Croft. He had picked her up in a bar and supported her for a time. Sheila appreciates his honesty but returns his ring.
Goole then asks Sybil Birling about her encounter with Eva Smith. Mrs. Birling contributes time and money to a charity that helps women in difficult circumstances. Eva, now pregnant and destitute, appealed to that charity. Sybil refused help, saying that Eva had been irresponsible and should appeal for help to the “drunken young man” who got her pregnant.
And who might that drunken young man be? Who is left? Young Eric admits he had raped Eva when drunk, then stole money from his father’s office to support her when she became pregnant. She refused the stolen money, and went to, as it happened, Eric’s mother for help. And she now has killed herself and the grandchild.
But after a couple of phone calls, Birling and Gerald discover that the local station has no “Inspector Goole” (ghoul?) in its ranks and no young corpse in its morgue. The parents and Gerald are ready to celebrate again; their reputations are safe. Sheila and Eric know that they have done what they have done, and that it was wrong.
But Priestley, who was fascinated by the concept of time and how it can seem to turn on itself, is not yet finished with the Birlings or with us.
The director and cast at Alpha Players create a fascinating unfolding of the play’s dilemma. Kent Coffel makes Arthur Birling quite full of himself as he reminds everyone how fortunate they all are to be in his world, polite to the Inspector but ready to call him on it if he forgets who is superior here. Susan Volkan’s Sybil Birling, the perfect hostess, will not yield an inch. Lisa Hinrichs makes Sheila the most sympathetic of the characters, and Blake Barnes’ Eric the most pitiable. Harry Kolmer’s Gerald Craft is undoubtedly a fine young man, if lacking in some human sympathies. Zach Guenzel is relentless as Inspector Goole, but always in complete control, even when Berling threatens to report him for his “impertinence.” Director Danny Brown has chosen to have Lauren Tennenbaum double as the maid Edna but also, changing Costume Designer Barbara Langa’s always appropriate outfits, as Eva Smith, standing silently before the characters as each makes a confession.
Tim Callahan’s set creates the comfortable wealth of the Birling’s dining room, well lighted by John “JT” Taylor, with properties and set décor by Ken Clark and sound design by Brian Borgstede. Liv Lewis is Stage Manager.
Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is of its time, but of much of the best of its time, and well done by the playwright and by Alpha Players.
Photo by Ken Clark
From the left, Harry Kolmer as Gerald Croft, Susan Volkan as Sybil Birling, Blake Barnes as Eric Birling, Kent Coffel as Arthur Birling, and Lisa Hinrichs as Sheila Birling in An Inspector Calls.