Written nearly 31) years ago, Mr. J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls (Mermaid Theatre) is a "happening." Without a halt in the action, never a lull, it runs straight through, true -in rtime, never, by so much as a second, deviating from the tick of the clock. It is hypnotically gripping.
The theme is the cruelty of the materially secure, the vanity and the vacuous self-righteousness of those who make money by contriving the breeding of money with money. But watching Mr. Priestley's play, one did not think of Karl Marx.
One thought of Dickens, Gissing, Morrison, and the great essayists, Owen, Stead, Blatchford, the Chestertons, Wells, Belloc and Orwell angered by the justiceless poverty Inflicted upon the mass of their fellowcountrymen and women. A generous radical, Priestley is cut from the same stem as those men of other generations. His parable is set in 1912. The place is industrial England, the scene a dining room in a rich man's house. A father, mother, sister, brother are celebrating the girl's engagement to the fifth diner, a young man, even richer. The occasion could not be happier. Father, as fathers do on such occasions, holds forth.
All is well with the world. Progress has reached its apogee; England is the dominantly progressive power. It has, indeed, just built the first unsinkable ship, the Titanic. There never was a better time but . . . he offers cautionary advice: ". . . The way some of these cranks talk and write now, you'd think everybody has to look after everybody else . . . But take my word for it ... a man has to mind his own business and look after himself."
The front door-bell rings and father pauses. A maid-servant announces that a police inspector is calling. The official discreetly in
sinuates himself into the room and speaks: "Two hours ago a young woman died in the infirmary . . . because she'd swallowed a lot of strong disinfectant. Burnt,her inside out, of course."
An Inspector Calls is shaped like the film "La Ronde." But the stream of anecdotes is tragic, not comic.
The family and their guest are sympathetic but slightly impatient. Father is smoothly intimidating — last year he was mayor. This after all, is a mere policeman. How does the affair concern them?
With deference, slightly chilly, the inspector explains. Unknown to them, they have the girl's eorpse in common. One sacked her, one had her sacked, two — the young men — exploited her in her poverty, and the older woman sent her to death when she might have helped with a few shillings. The girl was about to become a mother. Slie was unwed! Almost imperceptibly the inspector changes from a provincial policeman into an eerily fey commissar, an unsmiling inquisitor, an avenger pursuing a compassionate vendetta. He is from another world. Mr. Philip Stone gives him steely, ghostly grace even when, in anger, he explodes: "Just remember . . . One Eva Smith has gone . but there are millions . . . all intertwined with our lives . .. We don't live alone. We are members of one body . . ."
With every tick of the clock new, petty, yet murderously harrowing truths come out, until in the last seconds Mr. Priestley devastates with omnipresent threatening reality.
On the first night of An Inspector Calls, in a gracious curtain speech, the author confessed that he chose selfishness as his theme. He believes his message is still relevant.
W. J. Igoe