The Washington Times, September 4, 1994
"An Inspector Calls"
Nearly 50 years later, J.B. Priestley's thrilling melodrama is still worthy of
By Bruce Kluger
fundamental reasons for reviving a piece of theater:
To give a worthwhile but previously misunderstood
work another shot at immortality; or, more simply, to
revisit a perennial favorite just for the fun of it,
dusting off the years to enjoy once again the
awesome journey that only good theater can
Yet in the case of Broadway's multi-Tony Award-
winning play, An Inspector Calls (which opened in
April, transplanted from a well-received stint on
London's West End), I can think of another motive
for theatrical resurrection: To reframe an otherwise
ordinary piece of writing against the backdrop of a
prism of passing years.
And wait—while we're at it, we may as well mention still another reason a play like
Inspector merits a comeback: To allow genius stage craftsmen—in this case
director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil—to gussy up an aging work with
their own brand of modern day theatrical magic. It is perhaps in this last endeavor
that An Inspector Calls best earns its return.
But first the story. Written by J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls is part melodrama,
part passion play, part good old-fashioned thriller. It is 1912, and the upper crust
(though not as upper as they'd like to be) Birling family is celebrating the
engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft (now he's upper), the son of the
All goes swimmingly until the arrival of one Inspector Goole (Kenneth Cranham), a
squat, trench-coated, irritable man with a mission. Goole informs the celebrants of
the death of a local woman, a commoner who has apparently committed suicide by
Naturally, the Birlings and Croft deny knowing anything about the incident—or the
woman, for that matter. But Inspector Goole presses on, summoning each
interviewee, one at a time, from their twinkling house on stilts to the dirty, buckling
cobblestone street below. Before you can say "I didn't do it," the entire crew is
implicated in the girl's death, all the while spilling to one another the kind of dirty
family secrets not usually discussed at the dinner table.
In the end, the characters clatter back and forth between embracing their
responsibility in the matter ("We aren't the same people who sat down here to
dinner; we have to start all over again") and flat out rejecting it ("There is nothing to
be sorry for, nothing learned, nothing happened"). And therein lies the conflict.
It is an easy and linear narrative, and one that clearly invites its audience to search
for the not-so-hidden symbolism. An Inspector Calls was first staged in 1946, a year
in which humanity was wildly rebounding from the horrors of World War II.
Accordingly, the play's message was—and remains—simple and succinct: We must
all care for one another or we will be forced to pay dearly, individually and as a
Like any good metaphor, the subtext of An Inspector Calls plays both long and
short. On one hand, playwright Priestley sounds a warning cry about the dangers of
a next worldwide conflagration (or, more presciently, perhaps, about the perils of
attempting to rewrite history to exclude the hideousness of the Holocaust). On a
plainer level, though, Priestley asks us simply to be good and kind people, "We
must care for each other," one character begins to understand out loud during the
evening. "We have to share our guilt," admits another.
Back in the late 1940s, such an acknowledgement was more or less retrospective,
a post-game, locker-room rehash of the century's worst war. But today, in a world of
drive-by shootings and vanquished African tribes and passenger jets that are sent
plummeting to the earth by terrorists, Inspector's plea for goodness and social
responsibility strikes a uneasy chord, one that reminds us that we're yet again
speeding toward the brink of something awful and that we'd best step on the brake.
But, alas, theater is not Sunday school, and to keep Inspector narrative from
becoming overly sermonizing, the team of Mr. Daldry and Mr. MacNeil captivates
the audience with an unrelenting sensory onslaught. (Not since the magnificent
triple-whammy of M Butterfly's costumes, set and staging can I remember getting
that much bang out my orchestra seat's buck.)
An Inspector Calls opens with a rainstorm on stage. Literally. From there, the
director and designer seem bent—obsessed, almost—on illustrating for us the kind
of class division that leads to societal calamity; a world that is "a battlefield, not a
home," in which "criminals and citizens" share the same interests.
Perched high on rickety legs, the Birling family home is glittery but cramped. Below,
street urchins and townsfolk (looking for all the world like the supporting cast of Our
Town: The Dark Side) swarm around the house, quiet but rapt, envious but
emotionally detached. Even the outer reaches of the set—the decaying gold-leafed
proscenium, the too-short rear cyclorama—pen the players in, suggesting a sort of
deadly limbo-land outside the tiny universe of center stage and the inspector's
But director Daldry doesn't demand that his actors stay within the play's contextual
confines. With casual audacity, the beleaguered characters frequently face front
and dispassionately fire their lines through the ever evaporating fourth wall,
charging the audience to weigh the playwright's words on their own. Such a device
provides just enough spectacle to keep the play's didacticism in check.
Courtesy of Stephen Warbeck, a perpetual current of music—primarily deep,
disturbing cellos—swells from the pit arrogantly, lifting the action to melodramatic
heights, then just as suddenly dropping it, undercutting its own rich melodies with
dead silence as if to play a practical joke on our senses.
Rick Fisher's lighting, meanwhile, paces Inspector's Goole's interrogation perfectly,
growing starker and eerier as Goole zeros in—from a mysterious gray-blue to an
unsettling yellow. Mr. MacNeil's costumes similarly deconstruct over the course of
the inquiry. Having begun the evening draped in gowns and black tie, the cast is
ultimately reduced to soiled skirts and gray blankets, as the playwright strips them
of the trappings that had once convinced them that they were above reproach.
The cast of An Inspector Calls could not be better. Stage veterans Rosemary Harris
and Philip Bosco march through their performances as Sybil and Arthur Birling with
the precise dose of haughty indignation—Miss Harris clinging to her airs and
matching the inspector's unyielding paroxysm bit by brazen bit, and Mr. Bosco
puffing away at his cigar, only occasionally arching an eyebrow to let us know he's
beginning to buckle.
Understudy Harry Carnahan found the appropriate marks as the Birling's weak,
alcoholic son, Eric, while Mr. Cranham's turn as Inspector Goole strikes the
appropriate blend of preachiness and provocation (though his pique sometimes
drifts a bit over the top.)
But it is Jane Adams and Aden Gillett (as Sheila and her fiance, Gerald) who
provide the truest engine for Priestley's prose. Sheila is the first to catch on that
she and her family are culpable for the crime, and Miss Adams' fine texturing of this
bit of dawning is touching and deft. As her less-than-upright betrothed (let's not
give too much away), Mr. Gillett hangs tough, posturing defiantly in the face of
accusation, but backing off his manly resolve when he knows that the inspector—
and Sheila—are on to him.
By itself, An Inspector Calls is not a historic piece of writing, nor are its showy
presentation and fine performances, in a vacuum, unprecedented. But when taken
together and hoisted onto the stage of the Royale Theatre, it is a compelling and
handsome piece of theater—all the reason for this landmark and worthy revival.
Three-and-one-half stars (out of four)
WHAT: An Inspector Calls
WHERE: Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th Street, New York City
WHEN: Opened April 27; no closing date
TICKETS: $40 to $65
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes