Monday, January 28, 2019
Douglas Messerli | "The Circle of Time" (on An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley)
the circle of time
by Douglas Messerli
J. B. Priestley An Inspector Calls / directed by Stephen Daldry for The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark / the production I saw was with Howard Fox at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater on January 26, 2019
J. B. Priestley’s 1945 “thriller,” An Inspector Calls—at least as represented by director Stephen Daldry in The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production—begins with a young street boy moving quickly down the aisle of the theater onto the apron of the stage, trying to make his entry into this play. Given the heavy, seemingly velvet red curtains of the old style of British theaters, however, he cannot enter. He is excluded from the reality of the world the socialist Priestley represents as surely as all the other figures of the day, the young men spinning off into World War I—the time of the play is just prior to the First World War, and by extension the soldiers of World War II, during which this play was first performed in the USSR before it finally reached the stages of war-time England. By the time it reached the American stage in October 1947, the war had ended—the year I was born, but still with some significant resonance. The play was selected as one of the 10 best works of that year by the renowned Burns-Mantle historical annuals of plays of the American stage.
When the curtains do, rather dottily, rise, the young boy is immediately shooed off by the maid for the Birling family, who in a rather elegant corner-place house, are celebrating an elegant dinner, announcing the marriage between the Berling’s daughter, Sheila (Lianne Harvey) and the son of the competitor of the father of the Berling clan, Arthur (Andrew Maclin). Arthur is particularly delighted by the new alliance, as is his wife, Sybil (Christine Kavanagh), who together perceive the new relationship will surely help Arthur to achieve knighthood, possibly providing even greater wealth to their already well-endowed lives.
Performed in a narrow, cornered doll-house in a rather frightful and claustrophobic conception of an elegant British townhouse, these characters, we can even perceive through the windows, are convinced of their entitlement, even though when they come to the balcony to look out over the world they believe they control, they must crouch down in order to move out—the perfect metaphor that Daldry’s brilliant set designer, Ian MacNeil, created to help us perceive their ridiculous pretensions. Despite their industrial power, they are as removed from the real world as the young boy and other fleeting street figures are from theirs.
Quite stunningly, Priestley has recreated a world so close to the just-post-World War I world of masterwork of George Bernard Shaw’s 1920 play Heartbreak House, that it almost convinces you that it might be as witty. Indeed, Harvey had previously played, in England, in a production that great play.
Unfortunately, An Inspector Calls is not as truly a clever play except in its sort of well-made-play conceits. Enter Inspecter Goole (Liam Brennan), a Scottish version of Hercule Poirot, who seems always to know more about the figures he is interlocuting than they know about themselves. Reminding each member of the family of Eva Smith, late Daisy Renton, by showing them photographs of the young girl, who, he claims, has just committed suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of disinfectant—one imagines the only way she might have been able to cleanse herself of this family’s behavior to her—he spins an incredible tale wherein the patron the family first fired her from her job in his factory when she, along with other union members, argued for slightly higher wages; followed by the sterling young Sheila, who demanded she be fired from a local dress shop “on a whim,” since the beautiful woman seemed to smile when the wealthy girl suddenly perceived herself as not looking good in a dress.
It appears that even her fiancé, Croft, had an affair with her, a young woman he felt sorry for when he encountered her in a bar. Mrs. Berling, the head of a local charity denied any money for Daisy Renton, now impregnated with their son, Eric’s child (Hamish Riddle). If there were ever a better case for the idea of a family circle squaring off against the working-class world, whether or not Eva/Daisy represents many or simply one woman, I cannot imagine it.
So, we perceive, this family, the Burlings are truly representative of the evils of social strata which helped create World War I—and by implication World War II as well. Case closed.
But Priestley’s play, oddly enough, has yet more on its mind, which truly does make this work a much darker condemnation of the social order of things. Despite the total destruction of their household—literally played out in the crash of the entire contents of the house upon the stage with their supposedly precious dinnerware spilled across the stage—they suddenly regain a strange sense of possibility when Croft returns to say that, in fact, there is no Inspector Goole. He has checked it out, and he is not on the force. What’s more, after a phone call, they discover, no suicide has been reported for weeks. No one has died. The entire “inspection” has been a fraud.
Croft and the elders celebrate their redemption, yet Eric and his sister, the youth of this play cannot embrace this shift in sensibility. They truly embrace their guilt, recognizing their own involvement in a world of horror their elders have created. It is a horrible moment, a recognition, as in our own time, that the only hope of true redemption can come from our youth.
As the elders nearly dance in joy to what they perceive as a celebration of their righteousness, the phone rings again, this time reporting that indeed a young girl has just been found dead after swallowing an entire bottle of disinfectant; the inspector is on his way.
Like J. W. Dunne, by whom he was influenced, Priestley believed in a sense of precognitive time, suggesting that time was in fact “serial,” and that what we often saw might happen, in dreams and perceptions, before it occurred. Investigating dreams of many of the English population both Priestley and Dunne were convinced that we often perceived things before they might happen. If nothing else, however, we might perceive that Inspector Goole in this play, a “ghoul” or a “ghost”—who also keeps disappearing off stage at moments in the production of the play—is a figure who is both reminding the family of their sins and warning them of their fates as in a Greek drama.
The War (I and II) was there already, and their doll-house of reality had been destroyed, just as the German’s strafe of the wealthy, lit-up mansion of the family in Heartbreak House. And just as in the Shaw play, if they are saved for the moment, they will be faced soon after for the failures of their lives. Fate may be circular after all.
Los Angeles, January 28, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2019).