Written in 1947, J.B. Priestley's didactic murder-mystery, An
Inspector Calls, accentuates the fraudulent Edwardian era in which the
play was set. Britain in 1912 was inordinately different to Britain in
1947, where a country annihilated by war was determined to right the
wrongs of a society before them.
In 1912 Britain was at the height of Edwardian society, known as the
"Golden Age". A quarter of the globe was coloured red, denoting the
vast and powerful Empire and all Britons, no matter what class they
belonged to were proud to be British - the "best nation in the world".
Theatres, musicals, proms concerts and films entertained the growing
population. The upper classes led such a lavish life of luxury that
the Edwardian era is now infamous for its elegance, ostentation,
extravagance and sexual license.
However despite the illusions of these secure times this epoch was
full of hypocrisy, prejudice and exploitation. There was a huge divide
between the upper and lower classes and the difference between the
affluent lifestyle the wealthy lived compared to the downtrodden
existence of the poor was remarkable.
In 1947 Britain had just come to the end of a devastating world war
where families had suffered immense losses and society was desperate
for a fairer, more equal lifestyle. Socialism and left-wing Labour
views were becoming increasingly popular and Priestley, himself a
Socialist, was anxious to point out the flaws of a society which
rewarded rich men who openly exploited the poor for profit. He
effectively uses hindsight in his play to ensure the corruption,
hierarchy and discrimination of Edwardian Britain was not repeated.
There is an irrefutable message in Priestley's thriller, a feeling
felt by many Socialists at the time. Being responsible for oneself, it
was thought, was not enough, if one wishes to obtain a fairer society
then one must accept responsibility for others. Priestley believed
that the upper classes have wealth and influence and therefore have
responsibility for the way in which society is organised. He argues
that the upper classes control what happens to the lower classes and
that this power must be exercised with care. He is trying to convey to
the audience the need for personal responsibility and also
responsibility for the way in which our actions affect others.
In the play Priestley explores the diverse aspects of responsibility.
He relates these ideas to the Birling family although the family
members are stereotypes representing people at the time. Mr. Birling
is ascribed very Capitalist views and believes "A man has to make his
own way - has to look after himself." These clearly contrast the views
portrayed by the Inspector, Priestley's mouthpiece in the play, which
are very socialist. "We don't live alone. We are members of one body -
we are responsible for each other." The character Mrs. Birling
automatically tries to pass the blame and responsibility of the