An Inspector Calls Our Bluff

Yesterday’s gloomy afternoon gave way to a splendidly sinister evening at the theater. The play was J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which I had previously seen back in 1995, with 80’s heartthrob Maxwell Caulfield in his Broadway debut. In that production, the set pretty much upset the text—a huge, dark house confronting the audience from behind a curtain of rain. It was an impressive spectacle calculated, it seemed, to veil or countermand Priestley’s directives, the stark simplicity and artifice of his didactic play. Yet, as I realized last night, watching a touring Clwyd Theatr Cymru production directed by Barry Kyle, An Inspector Calls loudest when the lines are clear and the stage bare.

I had prepared for the evening by reviewing the 1934 film adaptation of Priestley’s Dangerous Corner, starring Virginia Bruce and Melvyn Douglas. The movie struggles to open Priestley’s play to the demands of a dynamic camera. The cinema audience wants, or is at any rate accustomed to, something other talking heads and sedentary bodies. Even Martyn Bainbridge’s design, while effectively sparse compared to the melodramatic Broadway treatment of An Inspector Calls, at times displayed a doubt in the sufficiency of Priestley’s script by underscoring his words with visuals, turning walls into movie screens and tilting the stage to demonstrate the downfall of a supercilious and self-centered family.

Do we need images to get the picture? The theater of ideas is best accommodated by radio, a non-visual medium that forces our mind to focus on the spoken word and telling silences. Back in the early 1930s, Priestley may not have been convinced of this. After all, Dangerous Corner is a rather scathing commentary on the wireless as a soundcarpet under which the unspoken and unspeakable can be swept: the receiver has to break down to crack the surface of idle chatter among the civilized yet rotten. In An Inspector Calls, which reworks the central idea of the earlier play, the part of the radio is performed by a telephone that rings to shut up a group of culpable and contemptible individuals talking themselves back into a state of calm. Unreliable or intrusive, both means of telecommunication are called upon to penetrate the walls of bourgeois conventions, obliging those standing apart to connect and disclose what has been carefully concealed from others.

Priestley could and did rely upon the wireless to spread the word and to popularize his ideas. His novels and plays were often heard on American and British radio during the 1930s and ‘40s, among them adaptations of Angel Pavement and Laburnum Grove, as well as the two works discussed here. The author-dramatist even made an appearance on Rudy Vallee’s show, as I read in a September 1939 issue of the Radio Times, and agreed to let the BBC serialize one of his novels prior to publication, with its author reading the first installment.

While expressing his reservations about the experiment and its effect on book sales, Priestley nonetheless decided to reach out to the populace he was eager to unite. Perhaps, some six years prior to the completion of An Inspector Calls, he had already gotten the call from his inquisitive messenger. It is a call that still resonates strongly today, not so much as socialist propaganda, but as an appeal to think beyond economics, beyond present self-interest, for the sake of turning a Dangerous Corner in the path of the planet we share.

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