Tally up the questionable things you’ve done, from the seemingly small offenses — complaining about someone for no good reason, or judging them unfairly — to those larger wrongs that plague you forever, such as firing an employee without cause or cheating on your lover. Now imagine that someone has been watching everything you do and is waiting to pass judgment on your actions. That’s the idea behind J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, now playing at Point Richmond’s Masquers Playhouse. That, and a belief that our interconnectedness makes us responsible for each other’s well-being.
Written in 1944, An Inspector Calls has an unusual production history. Although the script was well-received in London, Priestley had a hard time finding a theater prepared to present the play on terms acceptable to the playwright. As he wrote to his friend Michael Macowan, “I was offered one theatre if I would give the lessee’s wife a part, and replied that rather than obtain theatres on these terms I would prefer to stop writing plays.” So Priestley sent the play off to Moscow in May 1945. It was only after the Inspector had called in a few other countries that the play finally circled back to the Old Vic. In England as in Russia, the message of class conflict was clearly heard, and Inspector became one of Priestley’s best-known works.
The Birlings, a wealthy factory-owning family in industrial Brumley, are having a quiet celebration one spring evening in 1912. Daughter Sheila and her beau Gerald have announced a long-awaited engagement, and father Arthur couldn’t be more pleased, taking the opportunity to lecture his family roundly on the value of self-sufficiency. A man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, and so forth. But just as the men are withdrawing for cigars and port, the maid announces an unexpected visitor, a police inspector ominously named Goole. A young woman named Eva Smith has committed suicide, and Inspector Goole thinks someone in the Birling household might know something about it.
The pleasant evening falls to pieces as the inspector cannily gets the family members — Arthur, his frosty wife Sybil, Sheila, her drunken brother Eric, and Gerald — to confess all sorts of horrifying things. By the time the inspector has left, the family is a shambles of accusation and self-loathing. But is the inspector real, or is he a manifestation of the family’s collective guilt? A big twist at the end, coming on the heels of two acts littered with smaller twists, makes the exercise an interesting one.
The older Birlings believe Eva Smith is entirely responsible for herself and her life, an attitude that will seem familiar to anyone who’s been through psychotherapy or even the self-help aisle of any decent-sized bookstore. Priestley had no patience with this idea, and it’s clear from his nonfiction that in Eva Smith he saw a microcosm of the larger world. We are all responsible for each other, he reiterated in dozens of ways, whether it’s how we as individuals treat those around us or how we as nations react to the plight of our neighbors. While broadcasting for the BBC during World War II, Priestley exhorted the United States to end its policy of isolationism and join the fight against Hitler, and later he was a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament.
Oddly, considering the sledgehammer with which it was delivered, some critics didn’t get Priestley’s message. Hard to believe, when Inspector Goole proclaims that those who do not learn the lesson on interconnectivity “will be taught it with fire and blood and anguish.” And he declares that “[T]here are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do.”
Priestley was fifty when he wrote this play; apparently he believed the young are more capable of redemption than are their elders, as the only characters who truly understand and repent of their actions are Sheila and Eric, while their stodgy parents pretend nothing important has transpired. In his seventies, writing his memoir Margin Released, Priestley laid out what he saw as the difference between his prewar childhood and what modern children faced. “I believe such expectations, a feeling that life should have warmth, generosity, nobility, arrive with each generation; they are not taught but somehow inherited. When they are derided and frustrated, then contempt and bitterness and anger take their place. When the young behave badly, as we are told so many of them do now, it is because society has already behaved worse. We have the teenagers, like the politicians and the wars, that we deserve.”
This production, directed by Carlene Collier Coury, began stiffly the night I went, as if the actors were reading their lines off a TelePrompTer. They even looked out over the audience, as if straining to make out text written above our heads. I wasn’t sure if the stiffness was deliberate, a stylization in keeping with the modern music (Aimee Mann at the beginning made sense, but using Supertramp’s “Logical Song” at the end was just plain weird), or if the actors were uncomfortable. I decided on the stylization theory, as the actors loosened up after the formal dinner scene, although a few of them still paced their deliveries very strangely.
While all the actors had their accents down and the text more or less so, of the batch I found Oonagh Kavanagh (Sheila) and Jennifer Rastegar (Edna) the most believable. Kavanagh’s Sheila, while emotional, certainly was not as hysterical as the other characters claimed she was; instead she was deeply remorseful, making her remonstrations against her family the stronger. Meanwhile Edna’s silent entr’acte (drinking the master’s port and lounging about) was a sweet break from the tension of the second act. Coley Grundman’s set is clever and entirely in keeping with the symbolic nature of the play, utilizing a bare minimum of furniture, a lighted scrim, and three wide columns that turn to reveal different blown-up sepia photographs describing the locations of the play. It’s the most abstract set design I’ve seen at the Masquers, and I think more effective than a more naturalistic design might be.
What appears on the surface to be an odd little visit from a police inspector to a wealthy family proves to be an admonition to the audience to consider its behavior as part of a bigger picture. It’s also a stern warning against the overindulgence made possible by the Industrial Revolution. In An Inspector Calls, five characters are given the opportunity to change themselves — but will they take it, and find their rightful place in a community of equals?