BOOK NOOK: ‘An Inspector Calls’ by JB Priestley

Wednesday November 1 2017

Ken Stott as Arthur Birling, Miranda Richardson

Ken Stott as Arthur Birling, Miranda Richardson as Sybil Birling, Chloe Pirrie as Sheila Birling and Finn Cole as Eric Birling in 2015’s BBC Production of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By BENSON MWANGI
More by this Author

An Inspector Calls is a play by JB Priestley set in 1912. It was first staged in 1945.

A family of four is enjoying a warm little party, the patriarch Arthur Birling and his wife Sybil Birling, their two children, Sheila and Eric and Sheila’s fiancé Gerard, the son of Croft of Croft Limited. Croft Limited and Birling & Co. are competitors.  

Arthur Birling, a self-important, dominant and arrogant man is enjoying the evening than most after the engagement of his daughter to his competitor’s son.

The union could result in a merger of the two companies. He sees a huge opportunity for himself. He is overriding, a former Brumley Lord Mayor and alderman and a man whose projections finished off the opposite such as the claim the Titanic was “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” and about the First World War “to that I say fiddlesticks! The Germans don’t want war”.

The doorbell rudely interrupts their deserved celebration. Their lives will never be the same again.

A DEAD GIRL

An Inspector Goole arrives in the Birling residence armed with a postcard-sized photo of a pretty young woman who had just committed suicide. Arthur Birling is incensed at the interruption and cannot see how the death of a woman he vaguely remembers has anything to do with him or this family. But the assertive Inspector shows him the photograph alone to the chagrin of the inquisitive young men.

Eva Smith, the woman in the picture had apparently committed suicide by ingesting a poisonous disinfectant and had left a telling diary with names that include those of Arthur Birling’s household.

Apparently, Eva had been working at the Birling & Co. mills before she and others had led an abortive worker’s strike agitating for an increment of wages from twenty-two shillings to twenty-five per week.

Together with four other ringleaders they were fired over 18 months prior.

FIT OF JEALOUSY

Sheila joins the unfolding drama and immediately absorbed in the discussion. Sheila seems sympathetic to the misfortune of Eva and when the Inspector allows her to glimpse at the photograph she is instantly heartbroken having recognized the girl.

After being fired from the Birling mills, Eva had got a job at Milwards as a salesgirl where Sheila and her mother frequently shopped.

Out of a fit of jealousy and obvious vindictiveness she had insisted that Eva should be fired. She was more beautiful than her and the dress Sheila wanted seemed to be a perfect fit for Eva.

A MISTRESS

The Inspector tells everyone that after she was thrown out of the Birling & Co. mills she had taken another name, Daisy Renton to be hired at Milwards. The name startles Gerard. His wife-to-be Sheila immediately notices the change.

Sybil, Arthur’s social and moral superior wife joins the unfolding events. Gerard admits to having met a Daisy Renton at the Palace Bar and made plans to meet her often including giving her some money.

According to Inspector Goole, Gerard had made Eva his mistress. Gerard had promised to keep supporting her with money but abruptly ended the relationship.

This horrifies the proud, pompous and ‘moral upright’ Sybil and Arthur.

As he makes an exeunt Sheila is delighted with Gerard’s truthfulness but seemingly uninterested in marrying him as she hands him the pretty ring he had bought for the engagement.

SINS OF THE MOTHER

Next in the line of questioning is Sybil, who is identified by the Inspector as the woman heading the charity that had denied Eva financial aid.

Sybil is haughty in her rebuttals but eventually acknowledges the destitute, desperate pregnant Eva had requested for support but she had twisted the committee to deny her.

The sly Inspector leads the righteous Sybil to agree that the young drunken idler who had made Eva pregnant must accept all the blame.

She intimates that the Inspector has to ensure the young culprit is “dealt with very severely” and “compelled to confess in public his responsibility”.

 To her horror, her son Eric joins them and a few questions from the Inspector compel him to admit he had raped Eva followed by a few meetings between them.

Eric had then stolen some money from his father to aid the pregnant Eva at her hour of need. The angry recriminations that follow are telling, as Sybil and Arthur show their concerted disappointment.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Each of them had contributed one way or the other directly to Eva’s despondency, frustration, misery and finally suicide.

Arthur Birling had fired her, his daughter Sheila in a fit of jealousy made sure she was fired in her new job, Sheila’s husband-to-be had made her his mistress and then forsaken her, Arthur’s only son Eric had sexually exploited her and made her pregnant and when she had refused his stolen money and turned to a woman’s charity for help Sybil, their mother, had used her influence to make sure she was turned away.

Soon they realize there was no inspector by the name Goole in the local police department. They call the infirmary where the said girl had been taken after committing suicide. There is nothing like that.

Sheila has completely changed and cares about the evil that has happened ostensibly a hoax, considering her fiancé had confessed she was his mistress.

hings are about to return to normal. However, the phone rings and they are told a young woman had committed suicide using a disinfectant and a police inspector was on his way to their home to question them.  

An Inspector Calls parallels Kenya currently represented by Eva.

The powerful with responsibility of helping her have indefatigably exploited her in every possible way, of which Inspector Goole reminds us that “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” He warns us that “time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.