Priestley’s Savage AN INSPECTOR CALLS Shows Continued Topicality At Everyman
Priestley’s Savage AN INSPECTOR CALLS Shows Continued Topicality At Everyman
Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 14, 2015
The extreme contemporary topicality of J.B. Priestley‘s 1945 play An Inspector Calls, in revival at Everyman Theatre, was inadvertently underlined before the play even started on press night. In the now-nearly-obligatory “welcoming remarks” segment before the show, which is all about classism, Founding Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi made what was apparently intended to be a comically self-deprecating remark, introducing himself as “the janitor.” A high-status individual having fun by contrasting himself with low-status individuals: right on point. My wife remarked to me that if she’d been a janitor, her blood would have been boiling; janitors do important work which does not receive the respect it deserves.
This is not to knock Lancisi, a man whose generosity is well-known and widely-respected, but simply to point out the insidiousness of classism, a force so strong to this very day that even Lancisi slid into it for a moment, despite the fact that classism is exactly what An Inspector Calls denounces, and this denunciation was probably the exact reason Lancisi supported staging this play as the start of the season.
I was struck by how much of the subject-matter of An Inspector Calls resonated today, despite the play being a product of the 1940s set just before the First World War. For instance, there is Priestley’s approach to what we now call a “living wage.” The action occurs in the dining room of Arthur Birling (Bruce Randolph Nelson), a North Midlands industrialist. A few years before the action commences, Birling had fired a young employee named Eva Smith for leading a strike for a small wage increase. Birling lives in “Brumley,” an obvious stand-in for Bradford, the British textile mill capital of that era. In other words Birling is T.S. Eliot‘s archetypal “Bradford millionaire,” a crass, self-righteous, recognition-hungry windbag who finds all the justification he needs in the notion that his only duties are to make as much money as he can and protect his own family, be the consequences for others what they may. The script makes clear in pitiless detail what the consequences were: the un-unionized factory wages of that era (like un-unionized working class wages today) put savings, medical care, and self-advancement almost out of reach to their recipients. Eva Smith’s resulting destitution – and other factors – apparently have led her to take her life.
A complementary up-to-date theme is the frequently unconscious nature of privilege. The extended Birling family have each played some separate part in Eva Smith’s downward course – and each was unaware not only of the others’ roles, but also of the extent of the destruction each person himself or herself visited on the unfortunate woman. But all will be revealed, thanks to the irruption into their midst of a police inspector who appears to be investigating Eva Smith’s death. Thanks to a look at Eva’s diary, Inspector Goole (Chris Genebach), already knows the answers to all his questions, yet his method, bullying confirmatory confessions out of the family members, is great theater. Until the advent of the Cockney-accented Goole, the King’s English-speaking Birlings mostly fancy themselves honorable, kind, and praiseworthy. In reality, they are the beneficiaries of a caste system which, as Priestley depicts it, is a citadel against the poor, whose poverty is an inevitable outcome of the rules that the caste in the citadel impose. Goole exposes the unsavory truths of this arrangement, destroying all the Birlings’ illusions of innocence in the process – perhaps, though the play also makes clear how evergreen and hard-to-eradicate such illusions are.
It’s difficult to get much deeper into the themes of the play without destroying some of the surprises to be found in the second act (Priestley wrote it as a three-acter, but Everyman presents it in two). Suffice it to say there are some plot twists with big thematic implications. Though the revelation of the role of each family member in Eva Smith’s downfall is technically a series of surprises, it is soon obvious that we shall run through that series, even though the details of each family member’s role may not be as obvious in advance. Still, no spoiler alerts are needed as to the general idea. The later twists, though, are not as foreseeable, and certainly took me by surprise. And those I shall not spoil. But it also means I can’t discuss them, which is frustrating, because there is much there to discuss. I understand that the play is a staple of upper school literature courses in England, and no doubt it is exactly this discussable quality that makes it so.
All the serious content does not detract from the fact that much of the play is often quite funny, and often a little creepy in the British thriller manner, though in the final analysis I don’t think the thriller label quite fits. Actually, it’s hard to say exactly what label fits. But it is quite a play, and one I am sure the theatergoer will be digesting mentally for a long time after the curtain calls.
Everyman’s cast does a great job with it, too. Nelson is so much a known quantity in Baltimore that all I need say of it is that this is another memorable performance by an utterly reliable actor. But the entire company turns in work at that level. Genebach as the eponymous inspector, is all balding, mustachioed menace, alternately genial and terrifyingly threatening. The performers enacting the Birlings, his antagonists, make them foils demanding of his mettle. Deborah Hazlett as Birling’s wife Sybil, makes a believably formidable defensive wall out of stuffiness and obtuseness. Josh Adams, as the Birlings’ son Eric, convincingly evinces an alcoholic confusion so profound it blinds him to most of the implications of his own behavior. Sophie Hinderberger, as Eric’s sister Sheila, the only one who comes to see matters clearly, displays well the challenges of her character’s unique position, a sort of one-eyed queen in the land of the blind. And Jason Foreman, as Gerald, Sheila’s somewhat errant fiancé, enacts an interesting dance between denial and acceptance. Praise as well to Olivia Ercolano, as a maid with few lines, but one important bit of business: clearing a table while the family are frozen in what might be taken as a paralysis of indecision at how to process what has been revealed to them about themselves. In wordless fashion, Ercolano conveys how different her character’s life is from those of the family she serves.
Nor are the actors the only ones who provide grist for Priestley’s busy thematic mill. Timothy R. Mackabee‘s set design, an elegant Edwardian dinner table surrounded by what feels like infinite space but is in fact a wall of semi-reflective mirrors backed with chintz wallpaper on which monstrously large patterns are printed, provides a striking metaphor for the world of the play – a metaphor even more striking when, at the end, the chintz panels slide slowly but ineluctably upwards, leaving nothing but the mirrors, in which the family must now more clearly see themselves. And of course, as should be evident from what has been said already, Noah Himmelstein‘s direction seems to have translucently transmitted what Priestley was trying to tell us. Sometimes the absence of evident direction is a sign of achievement in that endeavor; this was, I think, one of those times.
What Priestley produced, then, was a classical British one-set well-made drawing-room dramedy that was simultaneously savage and revelatory. It is hardly surprising that the play was first staged in Moscow, as no West End theater would make space for it in 1945. And yes, as this nugget of history might suggest, it’s a little Bolshie in its tone and message, thank goodness. If Noel Coward and Bertolt Brecht had collaborated, they might have given us this very play.
Not to be missed.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Stan Barouh