“We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
An Inspector Calls, JB Priestley.
My Year 11 class are fascinated by the parallels between what they are currently reading in the news and the world of JB Priestley’s play.
For example, we had a lesson on the morning before America went to the polls and they were wholly preoccupied by the way in which society did not seem to have ‘learn[ed]’ from the Inspector’s warnings. They had followed closely the language of the campaign – with speeches that isolated and marginalised whole communities – and felt they were witnessing a renewed failure to appreciate that people are ‘all intertwined’. Certainly, when we met again the next day – following the news of Trump’s election – there were many frustrated comments about the ‘fire and blood and anguish’ to come.
At the same time, they have also been able to draw strong links between Mr Birling’s insistence that ‘a man has to make his own way’ and the rhetoric of the Leave campaign. Thinking about my teaching of this text over the years – and the socialist societal changes that took place in the years following the Second World War – I had never really emphasised the importance of the development of the EU before. However, one bright spark was very keen to stress how the development of a European community of ‘one body … responsible for each other’ was perfectly in keeping with Priestley’s message. Thus, our desire – she argued – to remove ourselves, in 2016, from this community harkened back to Mr Birling’s insistence in 1912 that ‘man has to mind his own business and look after himself’. As she darkly put it, the ‘hard-headed m[e]n of business’ are in the majority now …
Interestingly, we had discussed, at length, the group’s sense that Eric and Sheila are unfairly treated in the conclusion of the play. After all, they had manifestly listened to the Inspector, had been transformed by the experience and were seeking to make the changes to their worldview he had outlined. We should share in the ‘fire and blood and anguish’ of those who refused to learn? However, over the lessons, they have grown to see that this sense of unfairness was precisely the response of the audience of 1945. Those who first saw the play would be members of ‘the famous younger generation’ who had, in essence, been punished through two World Wars for the sins of their fathers: the 1945 audience are all Sheilas and Erics, if you will. My class felt that their reaction to both Brexit and the election of Trump mirrored this unfairness – that the ‘younger generation’ will now pay the price for the actions of those unable to ‘learn’ the key message of the play.
It certainly does make for some lively lessons.
I am sure all colleagues who teach this text will – at some stage – make reference to John Donne’s Meditation XVII: the sentiments expressed here certainly chime with Priestley’s message in the closing moments of the Inspector’s time on stage. Donne’s key phrase, for me, is that ‘any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind’ and it is this sense of community cohesiveness that the Inspector seeks to instil in the Birlings. Likewise, when Donne notes that ‘every man is a piece of the continent’ we can see how this is a crucial aspect of the Inspector inviting the Birlings to remember that the ‘millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ are as much a part of society as they are. Nevertheless, it is a message which falls on, largely, deaf ears. The key point from Donne, however, is his comment that ‘never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee’. And this feels as appropriate in an age of Trump and Brexit as it does for the Birlings. When Priestley warns the family about the consequences of failing to appreciate the importance of a just social contract, he is as much threatening the audience of 1945 over the imperative of learning from the failures of the past.
I think that, certainly my class, are looking at the events of 2016 and fearing that, perhaps, we have forgotten the importance of the tolling bell. A society that no longer seeks to embrace our fellows and makes a point of recognising difference is certainly one Inspector Goole may need to visit.
Robert Frost teaches English at a school in London. You can follow him on Twitter at (@stoppingfrost) and view his TES Shop.