An Inspector Calls was written in 1945 by J B Priestley, but is set in 1912, so the setting and characters are separated from the audience by two world wars and other historical events. This important fact gives Priestley opportunities to use the key feature of dramatic irony. The play promotes ideas that were introduced by the Labour government, which was elected in 1945: the Welfare State and the National Health Service. These institutions, which have been a feature of life in this country for over sixty years now, were new and quite controversial when the play was written. They are based on the idea that we are all responsible for helping each other, those in need being looked after from extra money paid in taxes by those with incomes. J B Priestley does not deal directly with these big ideas; instead he looks at the case of one person in need, Eva Smith. She suffers through her various relationships with the Birling family and Gerald Croft. Although this story might seem unlikely, it reflects how An Inspector Calls is a form of morality play. Eva Smith does not actually appear in the drama, which means she can be seen as a representative for all people in need of help, (and the Birlings as representatives of a society which does not care for its weakest members). The title and the character of Inspector Goole initially suggest that the play is a detective story. The ending (which many do not feel happy about at first) adds a strange, perhaps supernatural element. This ending is linked to the structure of the play, which is based on classical Greek drama, in which the ending (sometimes called the ‘denouement’) is a learning experience for both characters and audience. Some of the characters in the play clearly have not learned their lesson, and so are doomed to repeat the experience until they do.
Dramatic irony: when a character in the play speaks lines that are understood differently by the audience to the characters on stage – for instance Mr Birling brags about how the manufacturing world to which he belongs has produced the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, whereas the audience knows the ship will sink on its maiden voyage.
Labour government: In 1945 the Labour Party won the general election, despite Winston Churchill, the great leader of the government in the war, leading the Conservative Party. People felt that this was a great opportunity for the needs of ordinary people to be met – new housing, health, and security if they were out of work.
Welfare State: The system of providing money for those who cannot work or lose their jobs, and providing state pensions for retired people. This is paid for by a special tax called ‘National Insurance’. Before the Second World War, people who were out of work had to hope for charity when they ran out of money, or starve.
National Health Service: The system of providing free necessary health care. This originally included dental treatment and opticians. It is paid for by taxes. Before the Second World War, people paid for medical treatment or had to take out private insurance plans (like in America today).
Morality play: A type of popular drama from the middle ages. It has a clear message, guiding the audience to behave in a morally correct way, in line with the teachings of the church.
Detective story (or ‘whodunnit’): A story or play, often involving murder, where a mystery is unravelled through questioning by a detective, leading to the unmasking of a criminal. In An Inspector Calls, although no actual murder has been committed in a technical or legal sense, the inspector treats his investigation as though, morally, one has been. None of the characters questions the justification for the investigation taking place (perhaps because of a respect for the authority of a policeman that reflects the times; or because they are all being portrayed as guilty, and so unconsciously tend to recognise the validity of the inspector’s purpose.)...