An Inspector Calls – Historical and Social context

An Inspector Calls – Historical and Social Context
The play was written and first performed in 1945. However, it was set in 1912. This is
what creates the dramatic irony; the fact that the audience in 1945 (and beyond) is
aware of all the events that have occurred since 1912 and of which the characters on
stage are unaware.
Historical Context
“Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two.” (pg 6)
 German Empire became established after the downfall of Napoleon III. This led
to fears of German domination.
 France forged an alliance with Russia.
 Germany linked with the Austrian Empire and partly Italy.
 Great Britain was gradually forced into close association with the Franco-Russian
Group when the German navy became more developed.
 It was Kaiser Wilhelm who made enemies of Great Britain, Japan and the US for
Germany and all countries armed themselves.
 Germany and Austria struck at France, Russia and Serbia.
“Nobody wants war, except some half-civilised folks in the Balkans” (pg 6)
 From 1908 the Balkan states were in a bit of turmoil.
 Austria decided to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Turks and Serbia
objected to this and mobilized their troops.
 Russia backed Serbia.
 Britain backed Russia.
 October 1912 – First Balkan War
An audience in 1945 would, of course, have just experienced the horror of the Second
World War.
Social Context
J B Priestley was a socialist (left wing), but had trouble settling down to the policies of
any one particular political party. His socialism can be said to be based on compassion
and caring for others. He came from a working class background and felt compassion
and empathy with the factory workers who were exploited by the industrialist such as
Arthur Birling.
Although King Edward VII died in 1910, the term ‘Edwardian Era’ is usually used for up
to 1914. Many people saw the end of the Edwardian Era and the onset of war as the end
to a time of peace and stability. Harking back to this time nostalgically was an escape
from an uncertain and unpleasant future. BUT, it was a period of false security and
Priestley uses this to emphasise the dramatic force of his play.
Social Class
Social position was far more important in 1912 than it is today. Industrial production
expanded massively in the nineteenth century and many industrialists made huge
fortunes. Men such as Arthur Birling may have come from humble backgrounds but this
new wealth allowed them to climb up the social ladder. Marriages between these
nouveaux riches families and aristocratic (but often impoverished) land-owning families
helped to secure new social positions.
The Labour Party, which was founded by James Kier Hardie in 1893, was only just
beginning to make an impact on the political life in the country and the rights of
workers, such as Eva Smith, were still not taken seriously by many employers in 1912.
Industrial Setting
Priestley has set the play in the fictional industrial city of Brumley. Brumley would have
been typical of many towns where the factory owners, who provided much needed
employment, were able to run their businesses exactly as they wanted to.
At the time, there were many women who were poor and needed help; this is indicated
and acknowledged by Priestley by the existence of the Brumley Women’s Charity
Organisation. Organisations like this were dependent on the support of rich people and
were often found in the large, industrial cities. It is interesting that whether someone
received help depended on whether the women like Mrs Birling thought that they
deserved help or whether they deserved to suffer.
Priestley was fascinated with the theories of time of Ouspensky and Dunne, and An
Inspector Calls is referred to as a ‘Time Play’.
Ouspensky’s Theory of Time (1931): when we die we re-enter our life once more from
the beginning. We are born again into the same house to the same parents and continue
to repeat all the events of our life. This cycle would go on if we changed nothing of
significance. If, however, we improved in some spiritual way we could eventually open
the way for us to escape into a new life.
Dunne’s Theory of Time (1927): Dunne laid out the idea that you could be given the gift
of seeing forward in time as well as looking back. This would mean that, just as you
could look back and see what actions led to your present situation, you could look
forward and see the consequences of your actions. So, if you wished, you could change
those actions and so avoid the consequences.