The new BBC production of JB Priestley’s classic play brings this searing indictment of class society to a new audience.
CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you don’t know the story, watch it first.
An inspector calls, late at night, at the home of the wealthy Birling family. The Birlings, lead by industrialist and paterfamilias Arthur, are celebrating the engagement of their daughter to Gerald Croft, the son of a business rival.
The year is 1912. Bourgeois society is perched on the brink of a precipice, yet remains full of hubris and blind to its hypocrisies.
The inspector explains that a young working class woman, Eva Smith, has committed suicide, and proceeds to interrogate each person present about their involvement with her. The style is the classic drawing room murder mystery, but instead of identifying the killer at the end of a long investigation, as the tale of Eva Smith’s downfall unfolds, it systematically implicates everyone in the room.
At first they deny any knowledge of her, but it turns out each has had a role to play in her death: from Arthur Birling, who sacks her for her role in organising a strike at his factory, all the way through to youngest son Eric, who forces her into drunken sex and then attempts to pay her off when she gets pregnant.
Each of these people, although selfish, did nothing that directly caused her destruction and suicide. It makes perfect sense, from Arthur Birling’s perspective, to sack a young woman who is a troublemaker from his factory.
Equally, it makes sense for Arthur’s daughter Sheila to complain about her to a store manager, and for her mother Sybil to refuse charity. Some members of the family – for instance, Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald – even treat her with something approaching kindness. However, it is a kindness that doesn’t transcend the class barrier between them, and leaves her isolated and alone.
The point the play is making, very powerfully, is that it’s the system that is at fault: it causes people, who are neither particularly good nor bad, to behave selfishly, and in doing so, destroy the lives of others.
Priestley’s play, first performed in Moscow in 1945 and set in 1912, feels just as pertinent today: the smug, self-satisfied members of the Birling family sound like much of today’s austerity-supporting commentariat, blaming the poor for their predicament.
Eva Smith could be Aylan Kurdi, the child from Syria whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. Or she could be a disabled benefit claimant who is found fit to work under Iain Duncan Smith’s brutal regime.
From the rich protecting their wealth from taxation, to the politicians looking for scapegoats and a feral right wing media spreading fear and hatred, bleak, Tory Britain is indicted for its lack of humanity and compassion.
And the misplaced arrogance of the Birling family is relevant today too: in 1912, society was perched on the precipice of war and revolution. Today, the certainties of wealthy western society are just as much under threat: from the climate crisis, from the next financial crash, from the consequences of our wars coming back to haunt us.
As the inspector says, as he turns to leave:
“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do.
“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they well be taught it in fire and bloody and anguish.
- If you live in the UK (or if you live elsewhere and have access to a proxy server) you can watch it on iPlayer now.
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