An Inspector Calls (this blog contains major spoilers for those who have not yet seen Stephen Daldry’s superb production of the play)
“So the exploding house, the fireworks, all those children milling around and Sheila’s defrocking – how can I talk about those in my exam?”
So said Molly outside the theatre after seeing the stage version of An Inspector Calls which we saw at the Playhouse in London this week. ‘Twas the day before we broke up for Christmas; our throng of Year 11s were all buzzing with excitement as well as bemusement after seeing the dry pages of the text they had studied so studiously last year brought to life by real people within a set that makes all the symbolism within the play make absolute sense at last.
Let’s begin with the music. The play opens with a blast from Bernard Hermann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s the ‘Nightmare’ sequence which accompanies Scottie’s delirium after he sees the woman he loves, Madeleine, fall to her death. It is a suicide provoked by her inability to escape a past that haunts her, consumes her. Except of course that Madeleine doesn’t die: it’s all a ruse, a fake death designed to trick Scottie who falls apart as a result. Madeleine returns in the guise of Judy and Scottie, after meeting her, himself becomes unable to escape his obsession with the woman he used to love, ultimately re-creating her in the image of her own past self. You really need to watch Vertigo. So why is this relevant to An Inspector Calls? Vertigo is a film about how the past haunts us but it’s also about manipulation and the uncanny return of the repressed past. All of this is relevant to Priestley’s play – the Inspector invokes the ghosts of the Birlings’ past; their repressed guilt comes back to haunt them as he recounts the stories of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton and how they fall victim to the Birlings’ greed and selfishness. Arthur Birling – the manufacturer who manipulates the lives of others to suit his own capitalist needs for example. The Inspector recreates Eva Smith (is it one person or is it many?) for his own needs as well, so that he can bring the Birlings and their middle class complacency come crashing down.
The Inspector’s arrival and the light …
Anyone who has seen William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist will nod smugly at the Inspector’s arrival at the Birling house. He stands with his suitcase, his back to the audience and bathed in white light which seems to emanate from the Birling’s residence. Compare these images:
The Inspector is the equivalent of Father Merrin, the titular exorcist in Friedkin’s film: he has come to exorcise the demons that inhabit the Birling’s past, to help rid them of their guilt perhaps. But it’s not an easy job. The Inspector in Daldry’s play is impatient, constantly looking at his watch as he realises time is running out. He harangues the Birlings, all-but physically striking them in his anger. They possess demons that refuse to be quieted but more importantly they don’t want to be cleansed – except of course ‘the younger generation’ of Sheila and Eric.
“The Expressionist set makes no pretence that the play’s events are taking place in a naturalistic environment. It is impossible not to be aware of the set’s artifice when Gerald Croft enters down the precarious slope of the collapsed house, crockery tumbling as he staggers down to ground level.”
“The landscape is important because the Inspector has to get the Birlings out of the house. These people live in one world and it is only when they get into this other landscape – the existential landscape, the wasteland landscape – that anything can possibly happen. But that landscape is a dream landscape: there they can sort out their lives and work out what they are going to do. Ultimately they have to go back into their own little world, but they get this opportunity to glimpse another world. It is a dream landscape where the past, present and future can all exist.” – Stephen Daldry – Director
One of the most striking effects of the staging is the fact that the dinner conversation between the Birlings and Gerald is conducted inside the house and so the audience hear only the dialogue alongside snatched glimpses of the actors behind the small windows. Daldry is using the Brechtian technique of alienation which creates a distance between the audience and the narrative/actors – it makes us see the play for what it is: a play. However, by spatially and visually creating this distance, it makes us see physically that which the words on the page are trying to communicate: that the Birlings live their lives apart from the real world; it is they who distance themselves. This distancing effect is also created by the size of the house: when the actors emerge from the interiors, it is clear that the size of the building is disproportionate to the characters. There is something absurd and comical about this which reflects, I suppose, the absurdity of their world view – their complacency and smug self-assurance. The fact that the house is elevated and apart from the stage (which represents the street and thus the rest of the world, most notably the world of the working classes) also adds to the set’s expressionist impact.
When the house collapses at the end of the second act, this is to symbolise the complete breakdown of the Birlings’ world, a world which the Inspector has helped to deconstruct and undermine. However, it is interesting that when Birling and Gerald begin to attempt to rationalise the events of the evening and find excuses to exonerate themselves from their guilt, the house reassembles itself, cocooning Sybil, Arthur and Gerald back inside their little shell which protects them from the reality of the events which have threatened to disturb their hitherto cosy existence. Whilst Eric and Sheila remain outside the house, the others are heard within engulfed in bouts of laughter which border on hysterical relief. I was reminded of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland and I suppose the fact that the house is so small in relation to the characters adds to this almost madcap, absurd sense of reality.
Sheila is dressed in a beautiful white dress; angelic, her porcelain beauty is emphasised by the lighting which draws our attention to her fragile perfection. As the play progresses and Sheila makes her way on to the lower half of the stage (and thus begins to identify with the world from which she has up until now been isolated) she begins to look uncomfortable in her bustle and Edwardian trappings. She is constantly picking up her dress and is clearly weighed down by the social expectations of her sex. As the play progresses, she begins to discard these trappings: the white elbow length gloves, the ring which Gerald gave to her at the beginning to the play (notice that this is hurled on to the cobbled floor in the same place in which Edna has previously thrown the slops from the bucket). Finally, she gets rid of the very thing that has continued to irritate. She removes her outer dress, stripping away the trappings of her middle-class molly-coddling. This next dress is less constricting, almost revealing: clothes have become a metaphor for confinement and are also a reminder of her own treatment of Eva in Millwards.
At times, Sheila appears like a marble statue, something beyond human, unapproachable and divine. And yet she is all too human: guilty of vanity, narcissism; of childish petulance. She is cocooned within a world which is outside of society and time. Her jealous actions which result in Eva’s dismissal from Millwards are those of a society girl who thinks the world has been created for her own conceited whims. She initially fails to realise the repercussions of her own selfish and spiteful acts, blaming the Inspector for ruining her evening, unaware of the tragic irony of her protest and that it is Eva’s life that has been fatally ruined by the collective actions of the Birlings. By making her into a statuesque beauty, Daldry offers Sheila up as someone who exists outside of the normal world. And yet it is Sheila who ultimately rejects her parents’ ideals. The final moments of the play show Sheila and Eric alone with one of the urchins who have populated the stage throughout the play. There is a clear message here that the young ones are in fact the most impressionable and hold the future in their hands.
The people on the stage
Throughout the play, various people appear on stage, silent characters, who seem to gather like the ghosts of the past, present and the future. At the beginning of the play, the setting reflects the bombed out landscapes of world war two Britain, the children who wander around the set are displaced urchins, victims of a second war which Birling himself said would never happen. The backdrop to the house feels like something from a Gothic romance – dark clouds scud across a heavy sky and in the distance a dimly lit house that could represent the Birlings house itself.
The set cannot be pinned down to a time – exactly what the message in the play attempts to convey – although there is a sense that it cuts across the period covering the two world wars. But this is a play for all times. When the Inspector leaves, he warns the family that they are members of one body and that if they don’t learn the lessons of the past, the we will all suffer in fire, blood and anguish. Remember, Priestley’s play was first performed in 1945 but he sets it before the first world war. The Inspector’s lines are meant to be an ironic comment on the fact that society clearly didn’t learn those lessons but is perhaps also optimistic that we still might be able to do something about the future. As he delivers this speech, the Inspector breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. His lines are particularly effective when we think about the world today – I half expected images of stranded refugees from Syria to appear on the screen behind him as a reminder that we still haven’t learnt the lessons of the play.
So I suppose the children, the soldiers, the ordinary people that appear on stage are these ghosts – shadows of a world that is left behind by the likes of the Birlings who look after themselves and their own and forget that they are indeed members of a larger body which they ignore at their peril.
Why does the Inspector keep looking at his watch?
Time is a recurring motif in many of Priestley’s plays. He saw time as something other than linear, believing in precognition and also in the idea that time could be experienced as repetition. He wrote about something called ‘the future influencing the past’ and I suppose this is not a million miles away from contemporary theories of science (Stephen Hawking’s wormholes for example). Believing in parallel existences, or time folding back in on itself, Priestley tried to reflect the complexities of time in his plays. He felt that the scars of future major catastrophes could already be felt even before they happened and if you think about this, he really forces this issue in An Inspector Calls. Set in 1912, first performed in 1945, the shadow of the future already hangs over the Birlings’ present. Arthur’s certainty about the world – the Titanic will never sink, there will be no war and labour problems – appear as complacent nonsense to contemporary audiences. The structure of the play reflects Priestley’s fascination with time: that the Birlings appear to be trapped in a circular existence, a time-loop which will not let them go perhaps until they realise the extent of their mistakes.
In this way, is the Inspector a visitor from the Birlings’ future who has only a set amount of time to make the Birlings see sense? In that case, it could be argued he might be, despite his anger and impatience, a benign presence who wants to help the Birlings to escape their entrapment in this infinite circle of absurdity. Or he could be an avenging angel who wants to continue to punish the Birlings for their sins. Is he running out of time?
“Don’t stammer and yammer at me again, man. I’m losing all patience with you people.”
There are 75 references to ‘time’ in the play, by the way.
And I’ve just found this on –line which both annoys me (I didn’t think of it first) and reassures me (I’m not making this up)
It is knowingly peppered with pop culture references: Bernard Hermann’s gorgeously melancholic score from Vertigo augments the film noir-ish flourishes, while the first glimpse of Inspector Goole is oddly reminiscent of the iconic scene of the shadowy figure outside the house in 70s horror classic The Exorcist. The set itself designed by Ian MacNeil, isn’t merely functional, but features an ornate Alice in Wonderland style decorative house, paper-flimsy, which folds out and dwarfs the cast, who crane to enter and exit.