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The aspects of social responsibility

In what ways does Priestley explore the theme of social responsibility in “An Inspector Calls”?

In this essay I aim to explore all the aspects of social responsibility shown in “An Inspector Calls”. I will endeavour to do this by using dramatic devices expressed throughout the play and their significance to the play; I will also discuss the effectiveness in which Priestley conveys the theme of social responsibility.

Throughout the 1930's Priestley became very aware of the social inequality in Britain at that time and in 1942 he decided to form a political party with some like-minded colleagues. The party was called the Common Wealth Party and it argued that Land ownership should be given to the public and that Britain should be more democratic in politics. In 1945 the Common Wealth Party was merged into the Labour party, but Priestley was still very influential in the way that the party was being run and helped develop the idea of a welfare state which was implemented after the war. Priestley also made many BBC radio broadcasts to try and promote the idea of socialism within the Labour Party.

Social responsibility is the most discussed and possibly the most important aspect of “An Inspector Calls”. Priestley's message seems to be: Do not only look after yourself but also care for others and that people have to accept the consequences of their actions. Arthur Birling is a perfect example of this. “But take my word for it, you youngsters and I've learnt in the good hard school of experience - that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own.....”.

In this quote Arthur is encouraging selfishness, being irresponsible and having no social responsibility, this is the complete opposite of everything that Priestley stands for as a socialist. Although this happens to work in Priestley's favour throughout the course of the play as the Inspector, who seems to voice Priestley's views as a socialist, frequently overturns Mr. Birling's and others views forcing them to be heard more habitually throughout the audience which will influence their opinions.

The Birling's as a family seem to have no social responsibility, in particular Arthur makes it apparent that he has no social awareness; he illustrates no remorse when talking about Eva's death, or that of his factory workers and the horrendous conditions they work in. In his speech to Eric and Gerald prior to the arrival of the Inspector he offers some ‘guidance' in which he lectures on how he thinks others should be treated.

“...But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you'd think everybody has to look after everybody else as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a bee hive- community and all that nonsense.” Mr. Birling carries qualities such as arrogance, inconsideration, irresponsibility and lacks social awareness. The Inspector's function in the play is to educate the Birling's about collective responsibility, equality, union and consideration of others. He achieves this by using various techniques such as a shock and awe method and forcing them to feel guilt for what they have done by encouraging them to empathise with their victims.

Priestley specifically set the play in 1912; this was because at this time society as a whole was completely different to how it was when Priestley wrote the play (1945). The play has investigated the matter of social class and the restrictions that come with it and also the matter of gender with one gender being dominant over the other. Although in 1945 almost all of these restrictions were gone. For instance, in 1912 it was considered compulsory for women to behave dutifully to men. The expectations on women were high and even women of aristocracy could do nothing but marry on, and for those who were born of a lower social class, it was an opportunity for cheap labour, much like the case of Eva Smith. However by 1945, the consequences of war enabled women's role in society to grow considerably. Priestley liked to see these unusual situations as an opportunity and thought that his audiences would see the potential as he did. All the way through his play he constantly encourages his audience to take hold of the opportunity that the end of World War 2 has given them, to construct a superior more socially responsible society.

When Priestley set the play in 1912 it gave him the opportunity to include references to major historical events such as the HMS Titanic, World War 1 and mining strikes. This allowed Priestley to make the audience involved and one step ahead of the ignorant characters.

At first glance the genre of the play: ‘An Inspector Calls' seems to be a typical murder mystery. Although as the play expands, the genre seems to transform from a theme of ignorance to a ‘whodunit' as the Inspector cross-examines his way through each and every one in the Birling household. The Inspector manages to maintain control of the pace and the tension by dealing with each query individually. The story is revealed gradually, bit by bit.

The lighting plays a significant part in assigning the mood and atmosphere of the play. We start Act One with a description of the scene, followed by an introduction of the main characters. At this point we are told “The lighting should be pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder.” Priestley uses a pink, warm theme of lighting to portray a sense of calm, success and self-satisfaction, ultimately reflecting the characters.

Dan Anahory


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