Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production of J.B. Priestley’s classic “An Inspector Calls” came to life once again earlier this month in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. The play, this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, conveys a deep criticism of man’s greed and selfishness through Priestley’s portrait of an archetypal upper-class family of the Edwardian era, the Birlings. Daldry’s adaptation aims to move away from the more traditional depiction of the judgement of the Birling family, and indeed, in distancing the characters from such a firm historical setting, Daldry makes key themes such as guilt, atonement and the class struggle all the more relevant to a modern-day audience.
The play opens with a trio of street children playing and casting shadows against the stage curtain until one boy finally peeks behind. Suddenly the mood changes, and as dramatic, thundering music plays whilst the scene of a bleak and rainy street is revealed, there is a clear foreshadowing of something sinister to come; something dark which apposes the pure, childish innocence, lost already as the little boy tries to catch hold of the curtain that is being lifted up out of his reach.
The events unfold over the course of one night and the whole scene is soon remoulded into something of a courtroom setting. As the family emerges from their strange, fold-up house, which is as theatrical and false as they are soon to be revealed themselves, they are called upon one by one to repent for their sins as a chain of events is revealed to have resulted in the supposed suicide of a young girl, implicating the whole group.
At the heart of the play is, of course, the ubiquitous Inspector Goole, who makes his entrance as a shadowy figure in the gloomy street, listening with us to the Birlings as they celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, and Gerald Croft. He stands alone in juxtaposition with the Birlings, bringing a stark reality to their hollow and fantastical world, and acts as narrator, director and also judge supreme throughout the play. Goole cuts through the superficiality and flippancy of the other characters, urging them to take responsibility for their actions. Whilst the Birling patriarchal figure, Arthur, may repeatedly refer to his position of power within the local government, it is Goole who controls the drama that unfolds at the Birling household. Noone escapes his judgement, the audience included.
The inspector draws the family physically down from the house to his level on the street, and later appears high in a gallery, removed from the rest of the cast. This switching of levels is particularly effective in highlighting the changing roles of the characters, as the inspector, the moral voice, looks down upon the Birlings, whose falseness and insincerity ultimately outweighs their social standing and causes their world to disintegrate.
The characters’ reactions to Goole’s accusations point to a higher criticism of the problems that Priestley maintained were the greatest ills of our society, and continue to resonate today. Stubbornness, greed, hypocrisy – Goole is imploring each and every one of us to consider our own treatment of others as he abhors such traits in the family. Each character becomes a symbol, even Goole himself, whose very existence is questioned in the final scenes. Daldry’s spectacularly beautiful and dark adaptation is both powerful and thought-provoking, itself becoming a parable, a moral lesson that continues to echo through the generations.