Forgive my crass joke, but I always imagine Priestley’s play as though overhead by a sleepy Yr10 on a hot afternoon and then dream of his confusion when Anne never appears… Is she another of Eva’s pseudonyms?
But this is a valid question to address. Partly because of the fact that I gave it to Yr 11 this year as part of a mock GCSE, and partly because the press is full of concern that such a small range of text s are being taught at GCSE.
Let’s be honest. I have yet to read a list of set texts which has excited my by its use of genuinely recent work or by the potential excitement and daring of the choices: Paddy Clarke? Give me Saturday Night and Sunday Morning any day – that would shake up a few good debates. (What has happened to 1950/60 new realism? It’s as if it had never been written). So we fall back on i) the “easy and ii) the effective. M+M and Inspector in schools all over the country. I’ll focus on Inspector. M+M is a wonderful novella and for each time I think I teach it because of the moving portrayal of a fractured society or because of the glorious use of language found in Steinbeck’s descriptive writing I immediately remind myself that it is also much shorter than Pride & Prejudice and the context is simpler to grasp… Maybe some justification there then – though blame the exam boards for appallingly lethargic alteration of texts offered, not teachers for teaching to their strengths!
So, rant over, to address the question. As a teacher or an audience member this play delivers. It is not long and is not complex. Priestley is a highly controlling writer and the stage directions offer students clear instruction and advice about characters and setting, but the question needs to be addressed from the beginning – form.
This is a “well-made play”. Ensure that students accept this idea and use it in all essays. The nub in this case is the journey from ignorance to knowledge at the same time as the characters on stage. This is the key to gripping an audience. Behind the illusion of a whodunnit lurks a hugely powerful political exploration, but the development of Goole’s case against the Birling family fascinates on stage because no one knows where he is going and what secret will come out next. Not only this, but the Aristotelian unities of time and space ensure that we are constantly hooked and never allowed to lose focus. The lack of time lapse between acts is a masterstroke. Such a simple idea and yet as each new act opens, the implied question to the cast is directed as much to the audience – “well?” “you know don’t you”. After all the cliffhanger has been the subject of conversation in the bar and now we are directly pulled back into the action as though no time has elapsed.
Such an approach only works well with good characters of course and here Priestley pulls off another piece of magic. The implied allegorical nature of the characters allows quick identification of character as well as judgement to begin. Mystery plays succeeded in illiterate times because everyone recognised the characters for what they were. We can relax and enjoy the outcome precisely because the characters do conform to type – we despise Sybil, but love the arrogance of her bourgeois bigotry – just like a soap opera… The effect here is one that allows us to engage and to identify. Surely most girls see themselves as Sheila or Eva (the good bits), not Sybil and this can only be beneficial as they see the possible implications of a society that isolates on the grounds of class in the exaggerated world portrayed. We can laugh as Birling witters on about the Titanic, but we recognise the essential arrogance of his position – he’s not “ignorant” here by the way since he would need to be psychic to see what will happen. This is the effect of dramatic irony. We know more than he does and respond as intended by judging him because of it. We don’t know what will happen next in the plot though!
So, good characters are essential and delivered, most effectively once Goole has left and the sinners begin to turn. OK, so Envy and Lust remain converted but the speed with which Greed and Pride revert to type is genuinely scary. I always wonder what role Gerald plays and short of a convincing deadly sin, wonder if he is the Mephistopheles of this play. If so he is the charmingly plausible tempter – the man who will lure the family back to the path of “evil” once the “good” Mr Goole has left. But if Mr Goole is so good, why did Priestley give him that name?
Names are so important – Eva, the ur-female; Sybil Birling named after a blind prophetess, but Goole? GHOULS are not nice ghosts, they are blood suckers who enjoy their pain-causing. This does confuse me, but if students and teachers alike spend time questioning and debating this point then again, there is valid reason to teach this play. Such questioning in class or on the train home from a performance is surely at the root of engaging with the writers’ craft. Answers should not be glib and easy.
Surely, however, the reason to teach this play is the complexity of the time resonance and the relevance to toady.
Priestley wrote in 1945 a paean to socialism that was first performed in Moscow and transferred to London after the war in time for the election of a socialist government – a triumph which many had not foreseen. The play is part of this sea-change and should be read as such. As unbiased as a party political broadcast, we do our students a disservice if we underplay the politics of this play. After all we teach them Critical Thinking – they are ready for this.
This play is as relevant today as it was in 1945 and will be in 2045 because there is still injustice in the world. Students respond to this so we must embrace it. Worried about a failure to “get” the politics? Britain has a coalition precisely because no one could see so clearly as JBP and there was no clear water between the parties. The situation today is little changed and even if one does not share the ideals of JBP, the heavy handed caricatures of Capitalist greed can still be recognised in Bankers bonuses and other tales from the current media. I wonder if, should the trial find that a certain England captain is not guilty or if the evidence is found to be flawed, anyone will ask the question – yes, but what if…? This is the vital importance of this play – it demands a social conscience form all who read it.
It may be that too little variety exists in syllabuses today, but please avoid knee jerks – some texts are valuable and valid even if they are ubiquitous.
I wrote this shortly after the election of a coalition government and events have now moved on. Luckily, I think the current political scene will allow students to get even more from the play. In a Britain governed by Birlings with an opposition led by a throwback to old fashioned Socialist leaders of the past and away from the glib “New Labour” model, the opportunities for contextual discussion are vast. Only this week we have seen Britain’s steel industry under threat of closure and many question the balance between the financial health of the country and social welfare of large portions of its people. This is the play. Priestley will never become irrelevant and will always have the power to provoke thought. I am glad I am teaching again next year.