Saturday, 1 December 2018

'An Inspector Calls' is a play, lovie, darling!

For years, I have really struggled with the exploring and teaching of the genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’. It’s not that I think it is without genre, but I think the genre is questionable and particularly vague.

Yes, the play has the trappings of a murder mystery play. Yes, it has some elements of a ‘well-made play’. But, arguably, there is much about the play that doesn’t fit these types of story, and play. The play does seem like the ending of Agatha Christie novel with the Inspector (Poirot) working through the possible motives for the death and eliminating each character in turn by revealing their connection and motive to the deceased or soon to be deceased. Yet, there isn’t a murder. The play does seem like a ‘well-made play’ because structurally the play works like one. The majority of action has happened before the start of the story and there is a twist at the end of the play. Yet, most ‘well-made plays’ tend focus on characterisation and a woman’s dilemma in love.

For me, this question of genre has really stuck with me. Each time I hear things about the genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’ I wince. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Until, I had a thought about drama and the styles of theatre common at the time the play was written. What if we are looking at ‘An Inspector Calls’ from the wrong angle? What if our obsession with pigeonholing the story has made us forget two major styles of theatre at the time? On one side, you have natural theatre with the likes of Ibsen attempting to recreate realistic people exploring real problems in real time. And on the other side, you have Brecht with Epic theatre exploring unrealistic story telling with real ideas about life and society at its heart.

What if ‘An Inspector Calls’ isn’t actually a naturalistic play but a Brechtian style play instead?  Stay with me on this one. I have quite a few examples to prove the point.

[1] The lighting starts of ‘pink’ at the start of the play and becomes ‘harsh’ when the Inspector arrives.

I have had quite a few discussions with students and teachers on this one, but there is no explicit reference to the colour white, but there is a general assumption that the lighting goes white when the Inspector arrives. We subtly go from a soft, naturalistic colour to a harsh, bright, revealing colour. The colour white is important in Brechtian theatre because white light reveals the truth and prevents things from being hidden. White light ‘illuminates the truth’ – Bertolt Brecht.

I’d be bold to suggest that there is a specific movement between the natural to the Brechtian approach through the lighting. It’s the only lighting effect in the play really. The play opens up as natural theatre and the arrival of the Inspector Goole turns the play into a different type of theatre altogether.

[2] The characters are repulsive.

Personally, I don’t like the characters: I think they are purposefully repulsive and unpleasant. I’d even say that Priestley goes out his way to make us dislike them. Brecht, as he terms it, uses the verfremdungseffekt in his play. A number of approaches to distance the audience. He actively works to avoid any connection the audience can have with the characters. Several devices are used to distance us from the characters and events unfolding. The purpose of this is to make the audience think rather than feel. If people are feeling things for characters, they are not thinking. For that reason, I think Priestley is distancing us from these characters. Eric is surely and snappy. Sheila is smug. Mr Birling is pompous. Mrs Birling is self-righteous. Gerald is privileged. They all have unpleasant characteristics and personality types. All designed for us not to feel. We are made to think about these characters and not feel. There is nothing, if I am honest, for us to connect with the characters emotionally. Furthermore, they are character types rather than ‘real people’. They are two-dimensional. They are ciphers. They are symbols rather than real people. They are there to clearly represent a part of society rather than act as real people.

It comes to something when you empathise with Edna with only a few lines than the whole cast with pages of dialogue.

[3] Eva Smith is constantly changing

Brecht has other known theatre devices to distance the audience from the character, but I say Priestley uses his own approaches to create the same effect. Eva Smith is never on stage. This purposeful omission in the play helps to distance us from the character. She has no face or body in the play. She is an idea. A thought. And, not a real character for the audience.

To aid this distancing effect, we have the character constantly changing. She is a worker. She is a shop worker. She is a lover. She is a soon-to-be-mother. Her identity changes constantly in the play. Even her name changes several times in the play. Therefore, it is understandable when students consider how there could be more than one person. The theory that the Inspector changes the photograph isn’t just one made by the characters in the play, but one that is often discussed in the classroom.  

The recent BBC version of the play was interesting and it highlighted to me this clear distancing effect. The version places Eva Smith everywhere in the story. On the cover. In the trailer. In the opening. In the middle. At the end. She is visible. Therefore, we care and feel for her situation. We feel rather think as a result of this. The BBC version probably gave her own musical theme tune of the film’s musical score. And, we all know what the purpose of music in television is nowadays – a way to make us feel for the characters. Something, I reckon Priestley didn’t want us to do. If we feel, we stop thinking.

[4] How she dies   

Death is never a laughing matter, but there is almost a pantomime approach to death in the story. The way she dies is considerably dramatic and over the top. I am not an expert on suicide in the Edwardian age, but the drinking of bleach, I think, wasn’t a common approach. In fact, I’d suggest out of the options a woman could have used at the time, drinking bleach would be the least obvious one to use. She gets a violent death to avoid sentiment and emotion. Her death isn’t beautiful and  drawn-out (like Dickens’ characters), but blunt, violent and hard to imagine. I’d even say that the ‘drinking of bleach’ is used because we don’t want to imagine that death. We are socially comfortable with visualising some deaths, yet a car crash or a particularly violent death is not one we want to imagine. Therefore, we mentally avoid it.

[5] Titanic

The Titanic is ‘unsinkable’ and there will never be a war are two predictions at the start of the play that make some in the audience chuckle. Their inclusion is always seen as the arrogance of the character and a clear example of dramatic irony. What if their inclusion is actually breaking down of the fourth wall? They are ‘knowing jokes’ to the audience. They make the audience aware that this is a play and a construct and not real life. A bit like when Buffy includes cultural references like Scooby Doo in the dialogue. It is subtle, but it is interesting when looking at the rest of the play, because it doesn’t happen again. We even get several mentions to playwrights:  we have a playwright mentioning playwrights in a play. It is all becoming a bit post-modern.

I’d say that these cultural references are, therefore, purposefully used her to make us aware that this a play and not real life.

[6] Stage directions

I have read quite a few plays in my time and there are very few plays that have the same amount of stage direction that ‘An Inspector Calls’ has. In fact, it is incredibly annoying from a teacher’s point of view, because every line includes precise direction as to how a line should be read.

I studied quite a bit of drama at university and one of the things actors do is work out for themselves how to read a specific line. My drama scripts from university is full of notes on how a line should be said or where I should pause in a line or even when I need to place emphasis on syllable. Priestley has given actors a step by step guide to the reading of the lines. This, dare I say it, could be so that actor doesn’t seek a ‘truthful’ or ‘natural performance’ but a one that is structured and formulaic. It’s an attempt to reduce a natural performance.   

[7] Inspector Goole

For me, there are two type of characters in the play. First there are the symbolic ciphers. The main cast of characters. And, then, there is Inspector Goole. He is a complete contrast to the rest of the cast and, in my opinion, the closest character to a Brechtian character. A character whose role is to tell the story. A character who is designed to make us think. He is the character who turns the story into a parable. He is our narrator. He tells the story.

For years in the classroom, we have debate over the character. Is it a ghost? Is it God? Is it the playwright? Now, I’d say it is a Brechtian character designed to move us away from naturalism. Note how the Inspector stops the emotional journey of characters. We never get poignant, meaningful character moments. Instead, we get the Inspector breaking it up by showing a photograph to characters. Quick show them a photograph before it gets emotional and natural.

The name alone is also cartoonish. It symbolises his unnatural role in the story telling. He isn’t a real person. He is something fantastical. Something of no substance.

Even the Inspector’s speeches and comments throughout the play are largely social comment.

“…but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do.

He is a walking soundbite for political ideas. Is he a realistic character? No. I can’t imagine him having several failed marriages and a drinking problem. In fact, there are very few character touches. That’s because his role is largely the narrator. A narrator who every so often talks to the audience about the political message behind the story.  

[8] Setting the play in Edwardian England

For years, we have taught students that the Edwardian setting is used as a sense of nostalgia and to highlight how the old class structure was detrimental society. What if the selection of a time before war is a purposeful attempt alienate the audience? The world presented in the play isn’t a world that the audience is living in. It is remote from their own experience. It isn’t their daily experience of life. It is incredibly far removed from their own life to be alien. Two World Wars helped to blot that memory.

Plus, the general consensus after a conflict is to look at building the future. A desire to be positive even when the situation is terrible. Instead of focusing on the here and now, or the future, we get a focus on what was destroyed.  After bombing, death, fear and sacrifice, we get a picture of a time when that hadn’t happened yet. The past is distancing the audience from the now. How can the feel for characters who have no idea of the experiences the audience have lived through? Another reason why the audience might find the characters repulsive.   

[9] Pauses

If you are familiar with naturalistic theatre, then you’ll be familiar with pauses. In fact, lots of them. Natural theatre tends to have lots… of… pauses…because real life involves characters thinking, considering and wondering what to say next. In ‘An Inspector Calls’ there tends to be very few pauses. What we have as a result of this is a bombardment of plot points and character’s talking. There’s no room to understand the characters. We aren’t given little character moments. We don’t see Sheila’s unconditional love for Gerald in a small pause after something Gerald says to her. We don’t see those touches that make the characters real. The depth. The subtleties. The tiny nuances are missing. If you want to develop a character, you slow the plot. Therefore, in an attempt, to stop us feeling we are given less to feel about. We get the equivalent of modern day films. We get three acts of CGI storytelling without the slow bits where we understand the characters.

There are just no slow bits.

So, where does this leave us with the play? For a start, I don’t think people to should be citing that the play is Brechtian. Labels are bad. Boo. So, don’t for a start to label the play as Brechtian. I think the play has Brechtian elements, but there are many elements missing too. The key thing I think students need to possibly think about is the audience’s relationship with characters and events on stage. Are we meant to feel something? Or, are we meant to think something? That perspective depends on your opinion on whether Priestley is distancing from events and characters or not.

I studied English and Drama at university - yes, I am one of those people. I think the understanding of Brecht will help teachers to teach ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students don’t need to be quoting Brecht, but if we teach plays from a place of knowledge, we’ll help students to understand drama better.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. Really helpful new angle on an old favourite of mine!


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