An Inspector Calls and its Reception: An Alternative Interpretation

When we arrive at the end of An Inspector Calls and witness the Inspector looking out at the audience, in a kind of ideological crescendo, bellowing his warnings about ‘fire, blood and anguish’, it would be difficult to imagine Priestley’s aim is not an act of conversion.

Priestley, one instinctively assumes, is seeking to uproot the views of the audience so that they exit the doors of the theatre changed. Yet, is this the case? Is this what is happening at the end? Is Priestley seeking to change the audience’s mind or change how they think about society? What follows below is a brief exploration of an alternative interpretative point of view, one that suggests this was not at all Priestley’s intended aim. 

I often find the typical view of An Inspector Calls is this: the play is an attack on capitalist views and is seeking to dismantle that ideology so that the audience recalibrate their views and emerge from the theatre as enthused and vigorous socialists. I think this is half right.

The play is clearly and emphatically a savage critique of capitalism and the greed represented by the Birlings. But I don’t think the intention is to change the audience’s mind and the reason why is really key.

Let’s go back to the first British audience for the play (it was actually first performed in 1945 in Soviet Russia, telling!). But, in Britain it was first performed in Britain in 1946 at the Old Vic.

As we know Attlee had very recently secured a massive landscape in the July 1945 Election. With a turnout of 72% this was a big moment in British politics. Attlee won 239 seats, almost 50% of vote. It was a resounding endorsement of Labour’s postwar socialist agenda. Compare this to Blair’s 1997 victory that had a very similar turnout. We see Blair’s victory now as very much a giant and definite victory for Blair. But Attlee had a larger percentage of the vote and a larger swing than Blair — just to help to capture Attlee’s dominance. The play itself was premiered in Russia a couple of days after this result and so it is true to say the play had not been written or performed with foreknowledge of Attlee’s victory, but it was written quickly (in just a week) and election campaigning had been ongoing, with the national mood being very much with Attlee. It would be difficult to imagine someone such as Priestley writing the play and not doing so with the assumption a socialist Labour government would soon be voted into office in only a matter of days.

So if we imagine the first British audiences for An Inspector Calls, the people the Inspector looks out towards as he makes his final speech about being members of one body, they probably just voted for Attlee. They already agree with this. He’s not converting anyone. They’re already converted. And more than this, the play was likely written with the anticipation this would be the case. Attlee’s victory, with the exception of Churchill himself, was not a surprise to anyone.

So if the play is being performed to a crowd who already ideologically aligns to what the Inspector represents and it’s not an attempt to convert and morally realign the audience then what is it? 

I’d argue the play functions like an advertisement. When you see an advert for a car no one is expecting you to buy it. That’s not the point. The point is to help to reassert the brand, to confirm you made the right call in buying it, that you were right to think it’s great. 

This is exactly what I would argue An Inspector Calls is doing. It’s not seeking to convert but rather to reaffirm the political allegiances of the audience in 1946. It’s a dramatic advert for Attlee. ‘Well done everyone. You made the right choice. This is the best decision you ever made’. By doing this, he is also perhaps seeking to guard against a future swing back to the Conservative party. The logic is to affirm the present decision but also, significantly, to encourage people to continue to make that decision into the future.

So was the play written to change the audience’s mind? No they probably already agreed with him. But it was designed to reaffirm their ideological disposition, to give them reason to continue thinking it.

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