I am pretty late to An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley- it’s the A Level English Lit staple that I missed out on in favour of 1930s Brighton. But thankfully there is the BBC to bring me back up to speed, culturally speaking. It’s an exceptional play, centred on the revelation that each member of the well-respected Birling family have abused their nouveau riche privilege in small, apparently harmless ways, that have all contributed to the suicide of a beautiful but isolated working-class girl. They have fired her or had her dismissed, seduced her and cast her aside, got her pregnant, or denied her charity. And they have thought nothing of it. But with each act, she has been made increasingly desperate, until she has nowhere else to turn, and she takes her own life. Of course, it wasn’t their hands around her neck, and yet they remain responsible. The play’s question is how then will they deal with their newfound awareness that selfishness has a cost, and that since their stories are interwoven with countless others, that cost is a human one.
I wish I could say that I was moved by the play’s artistic quality alone. But what really got my guts churning was the fact that the story stretches not ninety minutes but two thousand years. That sweet, disadvantaged beauty is Christ. And the snooty, self-centred bunch? That’s me. Because, sure, I wasn’t Judas, Pilate or the Roman centurions. But I might as well have been- it was my sin that took Jesus to that place of utter rejection and humiliation, where he was truly forsaken.
That part I can deal with painlessly. I shouldn’t be able to, but I can- it takes psychological effort to switch off autopilot when I receive communion. It’s the same for the Birlings: they can all look grief-stricken when they’re confronted by the inspector. But then they can push their feelings of guilt aside and concentrate on the more pressing business of covering up their shame. Only two realise that simply everything about their lives must change in order to make amends. They have to become repulsed by everything about their old life, and see every inch of it laced with their guilt. Then they have to be prepared to not just make small adjustments here and there, but forsake every well-trodden pattern of thought and behaviour. They have to step into the unknown for one who is no longer physically present, but to whom they remain beholden. (Oh crumbs does that sound unnervingly familiar…)
So it wasn’t being imaginatively caught up in the story that got me so worked up. It was the terror that maybe I don’t stand on the right side of the Birling family. Maybe I’m better at polishing up the externals than I am at accepting that I am a truly new creation and the old man really is dead and buried, as Paul says. Maybe I play down the importance of the most world-shaking event in history, in order to keep within my self-centred comfort zone. It is maybes like that which jolt me out of shrugging my shoulders at the cross.
“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”
1 Corinthians 12:
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit….21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.