Surely we are all Arthur Birling? A discussion piece

OK, so maybe not, if only on gender terms, but my point is this: for Priestley’s play to succeed in its aim of persuading the electorate to ditch the Conservative party which had led the war coalition, he needed to sway not the aristocracy, who simply are not numerous enough, but rather the relatively prosperous and upwardly mobile middle classes for whom loyalty to their class was not set in stone. This was one of my gripes with the BBC version which is shown to students throughout the country and discussed here On that BBC Inspector Calls.

Simply, the Aristocracy are not attainable for the majority of society. The aspirant wealthy, on the other hand, are. Priestley knew this, and knew that his audience (in London, if not in Leningrad and Moscow) would come from that tranche of society.

This makes the opening Stage Direction so vital: ‘fairly large suburban‘ dwellings say it all. This is the land of the middle manager and the aspiration of so many during the colossal building booms of the 1930s – a house in suburbia. Not only that, but the audience will recognise their own living rooms and typical furniture as they are shown the truth behind the veneer of their ‘respectable’ lives. Arthur, it is stressed, has a provincial’ accent at a time when even labour politicians sounded as though to the manor born. Again, he is not special and is not a figure removed from the norm or from the understanding of the audience. The point is to make his version of Middle England in 1945 see themselves in the play and to respond appropriately. Some might have winced or sympathised as he is shown trying to ingratiate himself with Gerald by means of port and cigars ‘You ought to like this port, Gerald.’. However as his behaviour and his entrenched social bigotry are displayed for all to see, the intention is to sway the audience enough to give their vote to the Labour Party. The somewhat heavy and portentous political dialogue hardly sets the world on fire, but the point is laboured enough that one would have to be so entrenched in classist arrogance to be able to refuse to feel guilty. To be Sybil, in other words.

This play is not kind to women. Eva is the victim of the struggle, sacrificed as a catalyst to win votes, although the clarity of the message about what it means to be female and to be adrift with no job and no means of support is clear. However to a modern reader, the behaviour towards her of Eric is utterly appalling, yet Priestley has no interest in following this hare – it is not useful if the Socialist younger generation of men are seen as rapists and misogynists. Hence a somewhat implausible romantic interlude which allows for the appearance of the pregnancy as the final cliffhanger in Act 2. The idea is never followed through and there is no sense that such behaviour towards women is something which Priestley has in his sights.

Sybil is the least interesting character. She portrays a steady stereotype of Upper-Class disdain for all others. She is the only family member impervious to Goole. Priestley is right here. Such members of the Upper Class will be clinging to their rafts as the flood of socialism washes over their heads. The younger generation can see the need for change and embrace it – though surely the vile Gerald Considering Gerald Croft… the original cad will need a further lesson before he comes over. Even Birling seems to have some guilt -though not enough to stand up to Gerald’s amoral escape plan. It seems a shame that it is a woman who is chosen to represent the immovable force of wealth, but there it is.

For me, I tend to ignore the gender thing: We are all Arthur, if we have any pretension towards social advancement at the expense of social responsibility. We should all look at ourselves and consider our responses to the range of social injustices which abound today.

See also: A contextual introduction to An Inspector Calls