Director's program notes
By Dr. Brian Cook
In 1945, two months after the Germans surrendered, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government was voted out of office. Nearly 12 million Britons, driven by the aftermath of two world wars, the Great Depression, and the sense that the Empire was at its nadir, elected the first majority Labour government under Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Labour had used the election manifesto, “Let us face the future,” to signal its readiness to lead the effort to deal with post-war issues including economic unease, high unemployment, and strong calls for government-provided housing, health care, and education. What emerged was the British welfare state, including the key legislation creating the National Health Service which continues to provide health care for all Britons from birth to death. As Labour was enacting those very reforms, J. B. Priestley was writing An Inspector Calls.
In An Inspector Calls, Priestley uses a familiar story line – that of a detective investigating a crime – to do more than just entertain. The play (and its inspector) pick apart the world around the dead girl to, in the inspector’s words, “try to understand why it had to happen.” Priestley set the play in 1912, prior to the two world wars, so that his audience could look back from 1947 and compare that world with their own. From our perspective in 2014, we have more to compare: 100 years of events great and small. As the characters talk about death, war, joblessness, love, and theft, we think of all of the events that these characters have not yet witnessed.
At the same time, the play also goes much deeper by exploring the mundane and sometimes selfish acts that we commit daily that we don’t consider significant. Global events, it seems, don’t shape individual lives as much as everyday actions do. The play thus serves as a warning about being too naïve and too inwardly-focused, asking us to think beyond the confines of our own lives. This message is still relevant now, for though 70 years and an ocean separate the world we live in from the world of Priestley and Atlee, many of the leading issues of their day faced were topics in the most recent election cycle: the economy, jobs, health care, and higher education. Since answers to these large questions are difficult to come by, individual and personal actions seem especially important.
So tonight, as you watch Inspector Goole pursue his search for answers, consider the actions you perform everyday. How often do you make choices that simplify or improve your life, even though those very choices may complicate or worsen the lives of others?