The dining-room of the Birlings’ house in Brumley, an industrial city in the North Midlands.
An evening in Spring, 1912.
In 1912, J.B. Priestley was 18 years old. When the First World War began two years later, he volunteered for the infantry and fought on the front lines of France. He later described the Edwardian era as “the lost golden age… all the more radiant because it is on the other side of the huge black pit of war.”
An Inspector Calls opens in that radiant golden age as the Birling family celebrates the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, son and heir of Sir George and Lady Croft. As the men linger over port and cigars, the women withdraw to the drawing room for coffee and talk of wedding clothes. What we learn of Sheila and Mrs. Birling’s lives echoes in Lady Mary’s words from Downton Abbey (whose first season also begins in 1912): “Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes, and pay calls, and work for charity, and do the season. But really we are stuck in a waiting room until we marry.”
Unlike the world of Downton Abbey, with its army of servants, the parlour maid Edna is the only visible servant of the Birling household, a maid-of-all-work within their affluent middle-class home. Women comprised nearly a third of the workforce, the majority of whom were employed in domestic service and manual labor, such as textile spinning, weaving, and dressmaking. Going into service was considered a cut above working in a factory, and even those skilled jobs were preferable to surviving by prostitution. For a woman without much education, employment options were very narrow in Edwardian England.
In contrast to the multi-course dinners of the upper classes, countless working class families only had the resources for one good meal a day, primarily consisting of bread, butter, and tea. Because of this malnourishment, the Edwardian well-to-do “could literally look down” on their social inferiors, who tended to be several inches shorter and many pounds lighter than the well-fed upper classes, according to Paul Thompson’s The Edwardians. 63% of the population died before age of 60.
It is this gulf between the classes that Priestley explores in An Inspector Calls. Writing about this “golden age,” which was golden for some but not others, from the far side of a worldwide depression and two world wars, JB Priestley invites his mid-twentieth century audience––and every subsequent audience––to look at their own interconnectedness in a new light.
Alexandra Harbold (Dramaturg) and Mary B. Robinson (Director)
This production is sponsored by:
The Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation
with additional support from S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Foundation
U.S. Bank Foundation