The play An inspector calls was written in 1945 within a week of world war two ending but is set before world war one. J. B Priestly wrote this play intentionally as he saw an urgent need for social change and used the play to express his desire for social equality. The time in which the play was set is used because Priestly hoped that the play would give society the chance, with hindsight, to look back on the past and learn from its mistakes. Priestly also used this method so that it would make the audience realise how wrong they may have been assuming future events.
The play of an Inspector Calls centres on society’s lack of collective responsibility. The character of the Inspector is talking about a collective responsibility, everyone in society is linked, in the same way as the characters, although they live a completely different social class, were all linked to Eva Smith. Everyone is part of “one body”; the Inspector sees society as more important than individual interests. The views he is propounding are in fact those of Priestly who was a devout socialist. The Inspector hovers over the characters acting much like a conscience. Priestly uses the Inspector’s questioning of the characters as a means of underlining most of the social criticism in the play.
The main criticism in the play is the manner in which the upper classes treat and regard the lower classes. Apart from the constant shadowy figure in the background of Eva Smith and the maid Edna, the cast of the play does not include any lower class characters. We see only the rich, upwardly mobile Birlings and the upper class Gerald Croft. Yet, we learn a lot about the lower class as we hear in detail the miserable events of Eva Smith’s life, and the attitude the Birlings had for them.
Mr Birling used her as cheap labour, and fired her when she wanted a better pay. Sheila regarded her as someone who could be fired out of spite and pride. Gerald treated her, as a mistress who could be discarded at will. Eric used her as easy sex at the end of a drunken night out, and Mrs Birling as a plain inconvenience and an insult. J.B Priestly wanted the audience to be able to contrast the way the Birlings saw lower class Eva Smith, and the way they saw themselves within their own class.
When the enigmatic and puzzling figure of Inspector Goole interrogates the family, he brings about criticism about the way she was treated because of her social status, but also because she was a woman. Because Eva Smith was a woman, in the days before women were valued by society, and had not yet been awarded the right to vote, she was in an even worse position than a man of her class. In those days, even upper class women had few choices. For the best they could hope for was to impress a rich man and marry well, which explains why Sheila spent so much time in Milwards.
For women a job was crucial. There was no social security, so without a job they had no money. There were very few options for a woman in Eva Smith’s situation, and many saw no option but to turn to Prostitution. Mr Birling is dismissive of the several hundred women that work in his factory: ” Were paying the usual rates and if they didn’t like those rates they could go and work somewhere else.”
Gerald saw Eva as “Young and fresh and charming”, in other words he saw someone vulnerable that he could amuse himself with. And Mrs Birling could not believe that “a girl of that sort would ever receive any money”. Her charitable committee was a sham; a small amount of money was given to a small amount of women, hardly touching the surface problem. Priestly deliberately focussed his play on the death of a young working class woman instead of the death of a young working class man, so as to arise criticism of the inequalities relating gender in that present day’s society.
The play not only focuses a lot on the lives of a working class woman, but also of upper class women, like Sheila and Mrs Birling. A sexist attitude towards education is brought up many times in the play. On numerous occasions, Birling asks Sheila and his wife to leave the room so that he can speak in private. At the stat of the play, Sheila and her mother leave the room and leave Birling to talk about issues he does not want them to hear, such as his worries for Gerald’s mother and his desire to talk about Business issues. Both Birling and Gerald initially try to shield Sheila from the inspectors questioning, and when Sheila sees the photograph of Eva Smith she runs out of the room, and Birling angrily asks the Inspector “Why the devil do you want to go upsetting the child like that?”