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AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY

BEGINNINGS
John Priestley was born on September 13th 1894 in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the son
of a schoolmaster. His mother died when he was very young, and he was brought up by
his stepmother. After leaving Belle Vue School when he was 16, he worked in a wool
office. But, already determined to become a writer, he spent his hard earned money on
buying books, and used his spare time trying different kinds of writing, including a regular
unpaid column in a local periodical, the Bradford Pioneer. Samples of his early writing are
kept in the Archive at the Special Collections of the J.B.Priestley Library at the University
of Bradford. His first piece of professional writing was an article "Secrets of the Rag-Time
King" which appeared in London Opinion on Dec 14th 1912.

WORLD WAR I
He volunteered for the army in September 1914 and served for five years in England and
France. The only time he wrote about his experiences during the First World War was
in MARGIN RELEASED, but some of his letters home from the army survive in the Archive,
and these were amalgamated with extracts from the book in PRIESTLEY'S WARS,
published by Great Northern Books in 2008. Apart from those letters, the only other
writing from that period were some poems which he published privately, entitled THE
CHAPMAN OF RHYMES, to ensure some writing would survive should he be killed in the
trenches; he destroyed most copies when he returned home.

EARLY WORK
He graduated in two years, but stayed on for the required third year, married his Bradford
sweetheart and continued writing short pieces for local periodicals. These were collected
in his first professional book, BRIEF DIVERSIONS, which was well noticed by London
reviewers.
He established himself in London as a freelance writer with mainly literary work, writing
essays, reviews, biographies, as well as reading for John Lane, the publisher.

PLAYS
No sooner had he entered the theatre, and he felt to the end of his life that he was better
equipped as a dramatist than a novelist, than he branched out in a totally new direction.
He was invited by Victor Gollancz to undertake a journey round the country to experience
at first hand the life of people in the industrial areas and the plight of the unemployed in
the recession; but the journey he made in 1933 included much more than that, opening
out into an examination of England and the English, praising as well as blaming where
necessary.
ENGLISH JOURNEY was an exceptional success for a work of non-fiction, republished in a
fine illustrated edition in 2009. It established his reputation as a social commentator, a
role he continued to enjoy throughout the rest of his writing life.
TIME
In the theatre he was best known for his 'Time Plays' - experiment disguised as
convention -DANGEROUS CORNER, TIME & THE CONWAYS and I HAVE BEEN HERE
BEFORE, but also his uproarious Yorkshire farce, WHEN WE ARE MARRIED. More openly
experimental were MUSIC AT NIGHT and JOHNSON OVER JORDAN. During the 1930s he
was partner in a production company, putting on most of his plays, from EDEN END on. It
was an incredibly busy time, with plays to develop, books to publish, film scripts to write,
and the endless sequence of articles looking forward to the oncoming war. Two notable
books were his so-called 'Chapters of Autobiography' -MIDNIGHT ON THE
DESERT and RAIN UPON GODSHILL - reflections on his activities and the times he was
living in, with especial reference to America. He had been visiting the USA since the early
30s and the whole family had spent two winters in Arizona, while he picked up work from
Hollywood.

WORLD WAR II

Once the war began in 1939, he established yet another branch of his career, this time as
a broadcaster. He referred to this as his contribution to the war effort, and his wartime
writing and speaking focussed largely on the need to sustain morale while beginning to
plan for a better life post-war. His 'Postscripts', short talks which followed the evening
news, were immensely popular, though not appreciated by those on the Right. The text of
the Postscripts appears in its entirety in PRIESTLEY'S WARS. He also broadcast regularly
to the USA and the Commonwealth countries. But he continued writing novels and plays,
some with the background of the war such as BLACKOUT IN GRETLEY and DAYLIGHT ON
SATURDAY, and the plays HOW ARE THEY AT HOME and DESERT HIGHWAY, written
specially for the Army. Towards the end of the war he put his hopes for a better future
into his playTHEY CAME TO A CITY, and his belief in society in AN INSPECTOR CALLS.
There was no theatre available in London at that time, so he allowed the latter to open in
Russia, and was invited there for an extraordinary seven week tour immediately after the
war ended in the autumn of 1945. He wrote about his experiences in articles in the Daily
Express, later published in pamphlet form asRUSSIAN JOURNEY.

POST WAR

In the 1950s he wrote with Jacquetta Hawkes a striking book about their combined trip to
the USA;JOURNEY DOWN A RAINBOW. Unexpectedly he stood as an Independent in the
1945 General Election, and perhaps luckily failed to be elected. Though never a member
of the Labour Party, he supported many of their policies and was encouraged by their
landslide victory. His next foray into the political world came when an article he had
written in the New Statesman attacking the folly of nuclear weapons led to the founding of
the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and he travelled the country speaking at
numerous meetings.
He was influential in the establishment of the Arts Council, and lectured on the need for a
properly organised Theatre. He was a UK Delegate to UNESCO, where he met his third
wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, and presided over an International Theatre Conference.

LATER WORK

A much more serious novel was LOST EMPIRES, to be followed later by one of his
favourites THE IMAGE MEN. In his later writing life he did write several lighter novels,
comedies like LOW NOTES ON A HIGH LEVEL and detective stories like SALT IS LEAVING,
written for his own enjoyment as well as the readers'. His two last significant plays
were THE GLASS CAGEand his adaptation of A SEVERED HEAD, which had a good run in
London. He returned to non-fiction with his brief memoirs MARGIN RELEASED, and his
masterly conclusion to a lifetime's reading, LITERATURE & WESTERN MAN; he then wrote
three social histories THE PRINCE OF PLEASURE, VICTORIA'S HEYDAY and THE
EDWARDIANS, as well as a summing up of his interest in Time, MAN AND TIME. His last
works were a final chapter of autobiography, INSTEAD OF THE TREES, and a nice
collection of short pieces, OUTCRIES AND ASIDES.

After a remarkably productive lifetime, spanning most of the 20th century, the Grand Old
Man of English letters, J.B.Priestley OM, died on August 14th 1984. His ashes are buried at
the charming old church at Hubberholme in the Yorkshire Dales. But not forgotten, his
plays are performed all over the world, spurred on by Stephen Daldrey's triumphant and
imaginative production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS, and his books are gradually being
reprinted and revived by Great Northern Books. There is an active J.B.Priestley Society.

Links between Priestley’s life and ‘An Inspector Calls’

 Priestley lived through the period that he explores in his play, including the time
alluded to by the Inspector.

 Priestley fought in the war that the Inspector predicts: “Fire and blood and
anguish”. Priestley saw the suffering of war at first hand and wanted to avoid
further wars.

 Priestley was always interested in historical events and politics. His play presents
the conflicting views behind Capitalism and Socialism.

ACT ONE:

The Birling family (Arthur, Sybil, Sheila and Eric) and Gerald Croft, are having a meal to
celebrate the engagement of Sheila and Gerald. Arthur Birling makes a toast. In it, he
informs the younger members of the family that their future looks bright and that it is
important to look after themselves. Priestley makes use of dramatic irony to undermine
Arthur Birling – Birling says there won’t be a war and talks about the success of the
Titanic.Just as Mr. Birling says, “a man has to mind his own business and look after
himself and his own”, the doorbell rings. Shortly after, the maid shows Inspector Goole
into the room.The Inspector explains that a young woman has died after drinking bleach.
He questions Mr. Birling, who admits to having her sacked after she was involved in a
strike at the factory. The Inspector then questions Sheila, who admits to having the girl
sacked from Milwards because she was jealous that the girl looked better in the dress she
liked than she did.

ACT TWO:

The Inspector’s attention falls on Gerald. When questioned, he admits that he knew the
girl. After meeting her at the Palace Music Hall in Brumley, Gerald set her up in the flat of
a friend and they became lovers. After a happy period, it came to an end and Eva / Daisy
left Brumley and went to the seaside. After the questioning, Gerald goes for a walk.The
Inspector questions Mrs. Birling next. She admits that the girl came to her charitable
organisation and asked for help, as she was pregnant and could not ask the father for
money. Mrs. Birling believes the girl is putting on graces and is offended that she uses the
name “Mrs. Birling”. She therefore persuades the other members of the charity to refuse
her request. Mrs. Birling is defiant and refuses to accept she did anything wrong. She tells
the Inspector that the father of the child is to blame and it is the Inspector’s “duty” to
arrest him.Instead of leaving as Mrs. Birling hoped, the Inspector waits to “do his duty.”

ACT THREE:

Eric returns to the house. He knows that his secret is already out but does explain what
happened – he had an affair with the girl and she fell pregnant. He offered to marry her
but she declined, knowing that he didn’t love her. Eric gave her money to begin with,
which he stole from his father’s business. When she realised the money was stolen, she
refused to take any more.The Birling family appear to have learnt their lesson and the
Inspector leaves. Shortly after, Gerald Croft returns from his walk. He brings into doubt
the identity of the Inspector (having spoken to a policeman who has never heard of him)
and even explains that it is possible that Eva Smith never existed.Quickly convinced by
Gerald’s arguments, Mr. and Mrs. Birling decide that it was a joke and laugh the whole
thing off. They have not really learnt anything.Eric and Sheila are not so easily swayed.
They argue with their parents that this doesn’t change anything – they are still responsible
for the terrible things they did.The telephone rings – it is for Mr.Birling. A young woman
has just died at the infirmary and a police inspector is on his way to the house.The play
ends on this bombshell.

SETTING:

All three Acts, which are continuous, take place in the dining-room of the Birling`s house
in Brumley, an industrial city in the North Midlands. It is an evening in spring, 1912.
CHARACTERS:

Arthur Birling
Husband of Sybil, father of Sheila and Eric. Priestley describes him as a "heavy-looking
man" in his mid-fifties, with easy manners but "rather provincial in his speech." He is the
owner of Birling and Company, some sort of factory business which employs several girls
to work on (presumably sewing) machines. He is a Magistrate and, two years ago, was
Lord Mayor of Brumley. He thus is a man of some standing in the town. He describes
himself as a "hard-headed practical man of business," and he is firmly capitalist, even
right-wing, in his political views.

Sybil Birling

Married to Arthur. Mother of Sheila and Eric. Priestley has her "about fifty, a rather cold
woman," and--significantly--her husband's "social superior." Sybil is, like her husband, a
woman of some public influecnce, sitting on charity organizations and having been
married two years ago to the Lord Mayor. She is an icily impressive woman, arguably the
only one of all the Birlings to almost completely resist the Inspector's attempts to make
her realize her responsibilities.

Sheila

Engaged to be married to Gerald. Daughter of Arthur Birling and Sybil Birling, and sister of
Eric. Priestley describes her as "a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life
and rather excited," which is precisely how she comes across in the first act of the play. In
the second and third acts, however, following the realization of the part she has played in
Eva Smith's life, she matures and comes to realize the importance of the Inspector's
message.

Eric

Son of Arthur and Sybil Birling. Brother of Sheila Birling. Eric is in his "early twenties, not
quite at ease, half shy, half assertive" and, we discover very early in the play, has a
drinking problem. He has been drinking steadily for almost two years. He works at Birling
and Company, and his father, we presume, is his boss. He is quite naive, in no way as
worldly or as cunning as Gerald Croft. By the end of the play, like his sister, Eric becomes
aware of his own responsiblities.

The Inspector

The Inspector himself adds drama:


He controls the pace and tension by dealing with one line of enquiry at a time. Slowly the
story of Eva's life is unravelled, like in a 'whodunnit'.He is a brooding, inescapable
presence, very much in control.He is very mysterious and seems to know what is going to
happen before it does

Gerald Croft
Engaged to be married to Sheila. His parents, Sir George and Lady Croft, are above the
Birlings socially, and it seems his mother disapproves of his engagement to Sheila. He is,
Priestley says, "an attractive chap about thirty ... very much the easy well-bred young-
man-about-town." He works for his father's company, Crofts Limited, which seems to be
both bigger and older than Birling and Company.

Inspector Goole

The Inspector "need not be a big man, but he creates at once an impression of
massiveness, solidity and purposefulness." He is in his fifties, and he is dressed in a plain
dark suit. Priestley describes him as speaking "carefully, weightily ... and [he] has a
disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before he speaks." He
initially seems to be an ordinary Brumley police inspector, but (as his name might suggest)
comes to seem something more ominous--perhaps even a supernatural being. The precise
nature of his character is left ambiguous by Priestley, and it can be interpreted in various
ways.

Eva Smith

A girl who committed suicide two hours before the time of the beginning of the play; she
drank strong disinfectant. It is possible, though, that the story is not quite true and that
she never really existed as one person. Gerald Croft's suggestion that there was more than
one girl involved in the Inspector's narrative could be more accurate.Daisy Renton is the
other name that Eva assumes.

Edna

"The parlour maid.” Her presence onstage is a timely reminder of the presence of the
lower classes, whom families like the Birlings unthinkingly keep in thrall.

Character’s Analysis

 Although Arthur, Sybil and Gerald seemed to be round characters when they realized
what they have done to the girl, after they found out that it probably was a joke, they
felt relieved and forgot what they have learnt so they become flat again.
 Sheila and Eric are round characters because they changed. They still felt sorry for Eva
even though it could all have been just a joke.
 The inspector, Edna and Eva are flat characters because they remain the same
throughout the story.

Dramatic Irony and Tone


There is a lot of tension as each member of the family is found to have played a part in
Eva's death. New pieces of information contribute to the story being constructed. The
audience is interested in how each character reacts to the revelations.

The Ending

The ending leaves the audience on a cliff-hanger. In Act 3 the Birlings believed
themselves to be off the hook when it is discovered that the Inspector wasn't real and that
no girl had died in the infirmary. This releases some of the tension - but the final
telephone call, announcing that a real inspector is on his way to ask questions about the
suicide of a young girl, suddenly restores the tension very dramatically. It is an
unexpected final twist.

THEMES AND SYMBOLS

Youth and Age

 The play implicitly draws out a significant contrast between the older and younger
generations of Birlings. While Arthur and Sybil refuse to accept responsibility for their
actions toward Eva Smith (Arthur, in particular, is only concerned for his reputation
and his potential knighthood), Eric and especially Sheila are shaken by the Inspector’s
message and their role in Eva Smith’s suicide. The younger generation is taking more
responsibility, perhaps because they are more emotional and idealistic, but perhaps
because Priestley is suggesting a more communally responsible socialist future for
Britain.

Responsibility

 Responsibility is arguably the most important theme in the play. The words
‘responsible’ and ‘responsibility’ appear a considerable number of times.

 Personal responsibility – each character is forced to consider to what extent they are
responsible for Eva’s death;

 Towards the end of the play the Inspector tells the family that they can divide
responsibility amongst themselves after he has left;

 The different generations respond differently to the Inspector’s visit – who really takes
responsibility for their actions?

 Mrs. Birling is part of a Charitable Organisation – is this because she wants to take
responsibility or because it makes her look good?

 Eric tries to take responsibility for Eva and the baby but does it by stealing;

 The characters’ failure to fully take responsibility leads to the second telephone call –
would the telephone have rung if they’d learnt from their mistakes?

 Who else is supposed to learn to take responsibility?


Time

An Inspector Calls explicitly deals with the nature of time in its final twist: has the play, we
might wonder, simply gone back in time? Is it all about to happen again? How does the
Inspector know of the “fire and blood and anguish,” usually interpreted as a
foreshadowing of the First and Second World Wars?

Supernatural

The Inspector’s name, though explicitly spelled “Goole” in the play, is often interpreted
through an alternative spelling: “ghoul.” The Inspector, it seems, is not a “real” Brumley
police inspector, and Priestley provides no answer as to whether we should believe his
claim that he has nothing to do with Eva Smith. What are we to make of the police
inspector who rings to announce his arrival at the end of the play? Is the original
Inspector, perhaps, a ghost? What forces are at work in the play to make the Birlings
really accept their responsibility and guilt?

Social Duty

“We do not live alone,” the Inspector says in his final speech, “we are members of one
body.” This perhaps is the most important and central theme of the play: that we have a
duty to other people, regardless of social status, wealth, class, or anything else. There is,
Priestley observes, such a thing as society, and he argues that it is important that people
be aware of the effects of their actions on others. The Birlings, of course, initially do not
think at all about how they might have affected Eva Smith, but they are forced to confront
their likely responsibility over the course of the play.

Cause and Effect

The Inspector outlines a “chain of events” that may well have led to Eva Smith’s death.
Her suicide, seen in this way, is likely the product not of one person acting alone, but of a
group of people each acting alone; it resulted from several causes. If Birling had not
sacked Eva in the first place, Sheila could not have had her dismissed from Milwards, and
Eric and Gerald would not have met her in the Palace bar. Had she never known Eric, she
would never have needed to go to the charity commission. This series of events is closely
associated with Priestley’s fascination with time and how things in time cause or are
caused by others.