At the Birlings' home in April 1912, Arthur Birling - a wealthy mill owner and local politician - and his family are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of one of Birling's competitors, Croft Limited. In attendance are Arthur's wife Sybil and their adult children Sheila and Eric. Eric, the younger, has a drinking problem that is discreetly ignored. After dinner, Arthur speaks about the importance of self-reliance. He talks about his impending knighthood and about how "a man has to look after himself and his own."
Inspector Goole arrives immediately, interrupting the evening and explaining that a woman called Eva Smith has killed herself by drinking strong disinfectant. He implies that she has left a diary naming names, including members of the Birling family. Goole produces a photograph of Eva and shows it to Arthur, who acknowledges that she worked in one of his mills. He admits that he dismissed her from Birling & Co. 18 months ago for her involvement in an abortive workers' strike. He denies responsibility for her death.
Sheila enters the room and is drawn into the discussion. After prompting from Goole, she admits to recognising Eva as well. She confesses that Eva served her in a department store, Milwards, and Sheila contrived to have her fired for an imagined slight. She admits that Eva's behaviour had been blameless and that the firing was motivated solely by Sheila's jealousy and spite towards a pretty working-class woman.
Sybil enters the room and Goole continues his interrogation, revealing that Eva was also known as Daisy Renton. Gerald starts at the mention of the name and Sheila becomes suspicious. Gerald admits that he met a woman by that name in the Palace Bar. He gave her money and arranged to see her again. Goole reveals that Gerald had installed Eva as his mistress, and gave her money and promises of continued support before ending the relationship. Arthur and Sybil are horrified. As an ashamed Gerald exits the room, Sheila acknowledges his nature and credits him for speaking truthfully but also signals that their engagement is over by handing the ring, that Gerald had bought for her, back to him.
Goole identifies Sybil as the head of a women's charity to which Eva had turned for help. Despite Sybil's haughty responses, she eventually admits that Eva, pregnant and destitute, had asked the committee for financial aid. Sybil had convinced the committee that the girl was a liar and that her application should be denied. Despite vigorous cross-examination from Goole, Sybil denies any wrongdoing. Sheila begs her mother not to continue, but Goole plays his final card, making Sybil declare that the "drunken young man" who had made Eva pregnant should give a "public confession, accepting all the blame". Eric enters the room, and after brief questioning from Goole, he breaks down, admitting that he drunkenly slept with Eva before meeting up with her several times later and then stole £50 (~ £1570 in December 2016)from his father's business to help her when she became pregnant. Arthur and Sybil are upset by this, and the evening dissolves into angry recriminations.
The implication resulting from Goole's questioning is that each of the people there that evening had contributed to Eva's despondency and suicide. He reminds the Birlings that actions have consequences, and that all people are intertwined in one society, saying, "If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish", alluding to the impending World War. Goole then leaves.
Gerald returns, telling the family that there may be no "Inspector Goole" on the police force. Arthur makes a call to the Chief Constable, who confirms this. Gerald points out that as Goole was lying about being a policeman, there may be no dead girl. Placing a second call to the local infirmary, Gerald determines that no recent cases of suicide have been reported. The elder Birlings and Gerald celebrate, with Arthur dismissing the evening's events as "moonshine" and "bluffing". The younger Birlings, however, still realise the error of their ways and promise to change. Gerald is keen to resume his engagement to Sheila, but she is reluctant, since he still admitted to having had an affair.
The play ends abruptly with a telephone call, taken by Arthur, who reports that a young woman has died, a suspected case of suicide by disinfectant, and that the local police are on their way to question the Birlings. The true identity of Goole is never explained, but it is clear that the family's confessions over the course of the evening are true, and that they will be disgraced publicly when news of their involvement in Eva's demise is revealed.
A mysterious interrogator who introduces himself as "Inspector Goole", claiming that he has seen the dead body of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton earlier that day after her slow and painful suicide by swallowing disinfectant, and that he has been given "a duty" to investigate the Birlings’ responsibility for her death. He makes a brief reference to a diary left by Eva/Daisy although this is never seen or explicitly referred to. Throughout the play, it is suggested that Goole knows everything about Eva/Daisy’s life and the Birlings’ involvement in her death, and is interrogating the family solely to reveal their guilt rather than to discover unknown information. Both during and after his interrogation of the family, the Birlings query whether he is actually a real inspector, and a phone call made by Gerald to the local police station reveals that there is no Inspector Goole in the local police force. Many critics and audiences have interpreted Goole’s role as an "avenging angel" or a supernatural being because of his unexplained foreknowledge of events, his prophetic final speech in which he says that humanity will learn its lesson in "fire and blood and anguish" (referring to the First World War, two years after the setting of the play 1912) and even because of his name, which is a homophone for the word "ghoul" (meaning "ghost"). It is suggested in the final scene that Goole's interrogation of the family will foreshadow a further interrogation to follow by the "real" police force, and that Goole's purpose has been to warn the family in advance and encourage them to accept responsibility and repent for their bad behaviour, like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Goole also forces the characters to question their very own lives, and if the ones they were living were true. In addition he also feels a responsibility to make the Birling family feel guilty for their actions. His identity remains ambiguous at the end of the play.
The unseen working class woman who Goole claims has committed suicide whilst pregnant with Eric Birling's baby, and who has been mistreated by each member of the Birling family and by Gerald Croft. Through reports from other characters, she is described as "pretty" with soft brown hair and big dark eyes, and it is explained that she has no family and must work for her living. Her beauty is commented on by all the characters. Her beauty attracts both Gerald and Eric to her, with Eric sexually exploiting her. Sheila comments disparagingly that Eva looked prettier when she wore a certain dress than Sheila did herself, and seems threatened by Eva's beauty, confessing that if Eva had been plain she would have been unlikely to have had her fired. It is also suggested that Eva/Daisy is morally principled, as she refuses to accept stolen money from Eric, despite her dire financial situation. Eva/Daisy appears to be a victim of her class, and is judged by the (female) characters for not acting appropriately for her class. Sheila imagines that Eva laughed at her and did not act respectfully towards her and so "punishes" her by having her fired. Sybil also criticises Eva for appearing proud and putting on airs and graces, and for being "impertinent" rather than being meek and grateful to her social superiors. The audience is invited to dwell on Eva/Daisy's vulnerability and her suffering at the hands of an exploitative employer, her sexual abuse at the hands of Eric, her powerlessness caused by her sex, class, and poverty and her victimisation on the basis of a sexual double standard.
At the end of the play, Gerald suggests that Eva Smith may not have been the same person but rather a collective personification of different working class women that the family have exploited, invented by Goole to make the family feel guilty. Yet the final phone call, announcing that a police inspector is shortly to arrive at the Birlings' house to investigate the suicide of a young girl, leaves open the possibility that Eva Smith really did exist after all.
The Birlings' eldest child. She is described as a "pretty girl in her early twenties", and delighted about her engagement to Gerald. She starts out as a playful, self-centred girl who loves attention. In addition, she finds Eric to be rather "squiffy" (drunk) often. Throughout the play, she becomes the most sympathetic family member, showing remorse and guilt on hearing the news of her part in the girl's downfall, and attempting to encourage the family to accept responsibility for their part in Eva's death. She is shown to be not as naive as originally thought, revealing her suspicions about her fiancé's infidelity. Despite continual criticism from her father, she becomes more rebellious toward her parents, supporting her brother against them and assisting Goole in his interrogations. At the end of the play, Sheila is much wiser. She can now judge her parents and Gerald from a new perspective, but the greatest change has been in herself: her social conscience has been awakened and she is aware of her responsibilities. The Sheila who had a girl dismissed from her job for a trivial reason has vanished forever. At the end of the play Sheila is also very optimistic and knows her responsibilities of what she has done and takes steps very carefully. Her immense guilt after the death of Eva causes her eyes to open and acknowledge all the wrong things she and her family had been committing. By the end of the play, she represents the younger generation's protests against the morality of the older generation and seems the most responsive to Goole's views about moral responsibility towards others.
He is the Birlings' youngest child, often presented as awkward and embarrassed. Eric is revealed to have made Eva Smith pregnant as well as stolen some money from his father's business to support Eva (although she refuses the money once she knows it is stolen). An alcoholic, his drinking habits are known by everyone except his mother who wants to think of him as a child, and not accept that he is no longer her innocent child but a grown man. When the Inspector is revealed to be a fake, he and Sheila are the only two who still feel guilty over Eva's death. In the beginning of the play, Eric is shown as a rebellious young man who is very full of himself; however, towards the end of the play his true personality is revealed. By the end of the story Eric has learned his lesson and feels as guilty as Sheila does for his part in Eva Smith's death. He feels as if he cannot talk to his family about his problems, so he bottles them up inside himself.
Arthur Birling is described as "a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties", husband of Sybil, and father of Sheila and Eric Birling. He represents the capitalist ruling class, repeatedly describing himself with pride as a "hard-headed businessman", and the head of a patriarchal family structure, and is arguably the main subject of Priestley's social critique. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred, and morally blind, he is insistent throughout about his lack of responsibility for Eva's death and quotes his economic justification for firing her as being the importance of keeping his labour costs low and quelling dissent, which he says is standard business practice. Although he is authoritative and has risen to a position of economic and social prominence, he reveals his lower social rank to that of his wife, when he compliments the cook right at the start of the play, and by his continual need to assert his social importance. His status as an alderman and former Lord Mayor of Brumley is repeated several times in the play, with increasing comic effect. Early in the play, he also makes a series of thoroughly explained and justified predictions about the future world which the audience know will not come true. He appears pleased at the economic and social cachet brought by his daughter's engagement to Gerald Croft, and resents Goole's intrusion on the family. He remains unaffected by the details of Eva's death, and his own concerns appear to be retaining his social standing, avoiding public embarrassment by the leaking of a scandal, insisting that Eric accounts for and repays the stolen company money and that Sheila should reconsider her relationship with Gerald to maintain a promised Croft-Birling merger.
Sybil Birling is the wife of Arthur and mother of Sheila and Eric Birling. She is her husband's "social superior" and is keen to show him the correct etiquette that is expected from an upper-middle class family. As the leader of a women's charitable organisation, she assumes a social and moral superiority over Inspector Goole, whose questioning style she frequently refers to as "impertinent" and "offensive". Like her husband, she refuses to accept responsibility for the death of Eva Smith, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation, even going so far as to lie and deny recognition of the photograph of Eva. She fearlessly expresses her prejudices against working class women like Eva, whom she accuses of being immoral, dishonest, and greedy. It is Eva's use of the assumed name "Birling" that makes Sybil turn her away from her charity and she doesn't see why she did this until it is too late. Also, she seems detached from the rest of the family as she does not realise Eric's alcohol problem (either she's blind to it or fails to accept it and still insists on unsuccessfully covering it up around the Inspector).
The son of Sir George Croft of Crofts Limited, a competitor of Birling and Company, he is at the Birling residence to celebrate his recent engagement to Sheila Birling. Gerald is revealed to have known Eva and installed her as his mistress, becoming "the most important person in her life", before ending the relationship. After the revelation of his affair, he is not blamed as heavily as the other characters (Sheila commends him for his honesty and for initially showing Eva compassion, even though he is shown as cowardly and thoughtless for taking advantage of a vulnerable woman). He is caused to confess as soon as he shouts out in shock at hearing the name he had known Eva by (Daisy Renton), allowing the Inspector to investigate Gerald's involvement in Eva's life. Gerald thinks that Goole is not a police inspector, that the family may not all be referring to the same woman and that there may not be a body. Initially he appears to be correct, and does not think the Birlings have anything to feel ashamed of or worry about. He seems excited at the prospect of discovering the 'fake' Inspector and seems almost desperate for others to believe him.
Edna is the maid at the Birling household. The character has limited contribution in the play; however she is the only person in the play that can provide an insight into the life of Eva Smith, a character to whom Edna has a similar working-class background. It is she who opens the door to allow the Inspector into the Birlings' lives, although she is often taken for granted and treated somewhat poorly at times, as if she were not actually there.
Highly successful after its first and subsequent London productions, the play is now considered one of Priestley's greatest works, and has been subject to a variety of critical interpretations.
After the new wave of social realist theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, the play fell out of fashion, and was dismissed as an example of outdated bourgeois "drawing room" dramas, and became a staple of regional repertory theatre. Following several successful revivals (including Stephen Daldry's 1992 production for the National Theatre), the play was "rediscovered" and hailed as a damning social critique of capitalism and middle-class hypocrisy in the manner of the social realist dramas of Shaw and Ibsen. It has been read as a parable about the destruction of Victorian social values and the disintegration of pre-World War I English society, and Goole's final speech has been interpreted variously as a quasi-Christian vision of hell and judgement, and as a socialist manifesto.
The struggle between the embattled patriarch Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole has been interpreted by many critics as a symbolic confrontation between capitalism and socialism, and arguably demonstrates Priestley's socialist political critique of the perceived selfishness and moral hypocrisy of middle-class capitalist society. While no single member of the Birling family is solely responsible for Eva's death, together they function as a hermetic class system that exploits neglected, vulnerable women, with each example of exploitation leading collectively to Eva's social exclusion, despair and suicide. The play also arguably acts as a critique of Victorian-era notions of middle-class philanthropy towards the poor, which is based on presumptions of the charity-givers' social superiority and severe moral judgement towards the "deserving poor". The romantic idea of gentlemanly chivalry towards "fallen women" is also debunked as being based on male lust and sexual exploitation of the weak by the powerful. In Goole's final speech, Eva Smith is referred to as a representative for millions of other vulnerable working-class people, and can be read as a call to action for English society to take more responsibility for working-class people, pre-figuring the development of the post-World War II welfare state.
An Inspector Calls was first performed in 1945 in the USSR in two theatres (Kamerny Theatre in Moscow and Comedy Theatre in Leningrad), as a suitable venue in the United Kingdom could not be found. The play had its first British production in 1946 at the New Theatre in London with Ralph Richardson as Inspector Goole, Harry Andrews as Gerald Croft, Margaret Leighton as Sheila Birling, Julien Mitchell as Arthur Birling, Marian Spencer as Sybil Birling and Alec Guinness as Eric Birling.
The first Broadway production opened at the Booth Theatre on 21 October 1947 and ran until 10 January 1948. The production was staged by Cedric Hardwicke.
The play was produced and performed at the Ferdowsi Theatre in Iran in late 1940s based on the translation by Bozorg Alavi.
In 1986 Richard Wilson directed a production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester with Geraldine Alexander as Sheila Birling, Hugh Grant as Eric Birling and Graeme Garden as Inspector Goole.
Tom Baker played Inspector Goole in a 1987 production directed by Peter Dews and designed by Daphne Dare that opened at the Theatr Clwyd on 14 April then transferred to London's Westminster Theatre on 13 May 1987. The cast included Pauline Jameson as Sybil Birling, Peter Baldwin as Arthur Birling, Charlotte Attenborough as Sheila Birling, Simon Shepherd as Gerald Croft and Adam Godley as Eric Birling.
A revival of the play by British director Stephen Daldry opened at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre in September 1992. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play, and was widely praised for making the work involving and politically relevant for a modern audience. The production is often credited with single-handedly rediscovering Priestley's works and "rescuing" him from the reputation of being obsolete and class-bound, though the production had some detractors, including Sheridan Morley who regarded it as a gimmicky travesty of the author's patent intentions. The success of the production since 1992 has led to a critical reappraisal of Priestley as a politically engaged playwright who offered a sustained critique of the hypocrisy of English society. A Broadway transfer of the production starring Philip Bosco opened at the Royale Theatre (now the Bernard Jacobs Theatre) on 27 April 1994 and played 454 performances.
The Stephen Daldry production went on a tour of the UK in 2011 and 2012, with Tom Mannion as Inspector Goole. The production returned to the Playhouse in London's West End in November 2016, with Liam Brennan in the name part.
The first film version of An Inspector Calls was produced in the United Kingdom by Watergate Productions Ltd; the 1954 screenplay was adapted by Desmond Davis and directed by Guy Hamilton. Alastair Sim starred as Inspector Goole, renamed "Poole" for the film, with Jane Wenham as Eva Smith (the character not seen in the play), Eileen Moore as Sheila Birling, Arthur Young as Arthur Birling, Brian Worth as Gerald Croft, Olga Lindo as Sybil Birling and Bryan Forbes as Eric Birling.
It was also adapted into a comedy film in Hong Kong, released on 19 February 2015.
The first television version was shown on live BBC Television on 4 May 1948, with a second live performance three days later. Running to 105 minutes, it was produced and directed by Harold Clayton, and starred Julien Mitchell as Arthur Birling (reprising his role from the first British stage production), Mary Merrall as Sybil Birling, Joy Shelton as Sheila Birling, Derek Blomfield as Eric Birling, Alastair Bannerman as Gerald Croft, Madeleine Burgess as Edna, and George Hayes as Inspector Goole.
A second BBC Television version was screened on 19 February 1961 as part of the Sunday Night Play series. Produced and directed by Naomi Capon, it starred John Gregson as Inspector Goole, Heather Sears as Sheila Birling, Nora Swinburne as Sybil Birling, William Russell as Gerald Croft, Edward Chapman as Arthur Birling, Hilda Campbell-Russell as Edna, and Alan Dobie as Eric Birling.
A selection of scenes from the play were broadcast in the ITV series Conflict on 15 May 1967. Produced by Associated Television, the 25 minute programme was directed by George More O'Ferrall, and starred Reginald Marsh as Arthur Birling, Julian Curry as Eric, Margo Andrew as Sheila, Pauline Winter as Mrs Birling, Stuart Saunders as Inspector Goole, Michael Graham as Gerald Croft, and Ann Dimitri as Edna.
In 1973, a Soviet made-for-television film Он пришел (On prishel) was produced, starring Vladimir Etush as Gull (Goole), Irina Kupchenko as Sheila Birling and Oleg Shklovsky as Eric Birling.
Also, in the Soviet Union in 1979, a made-for-television two-part film Инспектор Гулл (Inspector Gooll), was produced starring Juozas Budraitis as Gull (Goole), Vladimir Zeldin as Arthur Birling and Ivars Kalniņš as Gerald Croft.
A BBC Schools version of An Inspector Calls was produced in three 30 minute episodes, shown between 22 September and 6 October 1981 on BBC One. Directed by Michael Simpson, it starred Bernard Hepton as Inspector Goole, Sarah Berger as Sheila Birling, Nigel Davenport as Arthur Birling, Simon Ward as Gerald Croft, Margaret Tyzack as Sybil Birling and David Sibley as Eric Birling. It was repeated on primetime BBC One in three episodes between 17 and 31 August 1982, and as a single 85 minute version on 2 September 1984.
An 86-minute An Inspector Calls film was produced for BBC Television, and first screened on 13 September 2015 on BBC One. Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Aisling Walsh for Drama Republic, it stars David Thewlis as Inspector Goole, Chloe Pirrie as Sheila Birling, Ken Stott as Arthur Birling, Kyle Soller as Gerald Croft, Miranda Richardson as Sybil Birling and Finn Cole as Eric Birling.
The first radio production was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 27 March 1950 in the Contemporary European Theatre series. This was followed by a BBC Light Programme production on 10 June 1953. Adapted by Cynthia Pughe and produced by Donald McWhinnie, it starred Frank Pettingell as Arthur Birling, Gladys Young as Sybil Birling, Angela Baddeley as Sheila Birling, David Enders as Eric Birling, Alastair Duncan as Gerald Croft, Dorothy Smith as Edna, and Richard Williams as Inspector Goole.
A second version of Pughe's adaptation was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 12 November 1960. Produced by Alfred Bradley and directed by Geoffrey Ost, it starred the Sheffield Repertory Company: George Waring as Arthur Birling, Ann Woodward as Sybil Birling, Jeanne Davies as Sheila Birling, Keith Barron as Eric Birling, Patrick Stewart as Gerald Croft, Geraldine Gwyther as Edna, and John Pickles as Inspector Goole.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a BBC Manchester production on 14 December 1979. Directed by Alfred Bradley, it starred Ronald Baddilet as Arthur Birling, Derrick Gilbert as Gerald Croft, Ann Rye as Sybil Birling, Barbara Flynn as Sheila Birling, Christian Rodska as Eric Birling, Teresa Moore as Edna, Geoffrey Banks as Inspector Goole.
A full-cast unabridged audio adaptation and analysis was released on audio CD and MP3-CD in the United Kingdom by SmartPass in 2004 as part of their Audio Education Study Guides series.
On 14 July 2007 BBC Radio 7 broadcast an adaptation by John Foley originally aired on the BBC World Service, starring Bob Peck as Inspector Goole, John Woodvine as Arthur Birling and Maggie Steed as Sybil Birling. The production was directed by Rosalyn Ward.
A second 90-minute BBC Radio adaptation was transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on 29 May 2010 in the Saturday Play slot. It starred Toby Jones as Inspector Goole, David Calder as Arthur Birling, Frances Barber as Sybil Birling and Morven Christie as Sheila Birling. The production was directed by Jeremy Mortimer.Awards
1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival
1994 Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Play
1994 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play