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How to Teach J. B. Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls'

Of course there is no one definitive way to teach anything, but this advice is based on the experience of over fifteen years of teaching teenagers literature, and about ten years teaching them about this particular play. It may be a useful approach for other teachers to take, as it has ‘been through the mill’, as it were.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that An Inspector Calls is not a difficult play in terms of vocabulary. Apart from one or two periodisms (referring to being drunk as ‘squiffy’, for example), there are no particularly hard words, outside the ordinary experience of a teenager, to hold anything up. It’s also a fairly simple play in terms of stagecraft, taking place, as it does, in ‘real time’ in one room. Stephen Daltry’s famous production (which I have taken school groups to more times than I can remember) takes this premise and expands upon it, transforming the straightforward dining room of the tale into a kind of giant doll’s house which opens up for the audience, allowing the cast to emerge and make use of the wider stage, but this is an unusual take on the events of the story, which can be grasped easily enough from the text, without such grandiose treatment.

The most successful way I found of teaching the play was to rapidly introduce the characters by writing them up on the board and then just launching into a reading of the text. I never found it advisable at first to split the parts up and have the class read it -they have no idea of what is going on during a first reading, and therefore no concept of where to place emphasis or the relationships between the characters. Having the group read it would therefore most likely kill it and create an uphill battle for you in terms of trying to get them to engage with it. If you want the thing to have an impact -and there’s plenty of impact there to be had- then read the text completely to them. But do the voices -the provincialism of Mr. Birling, the simperingness of Sheila Birling (at first), the half-drunkenness of Eric Birling, and so on. Act it out, solo. And keep the Inspector fresh and uncluttered so that the listening students immediately recognise that there is something powerfully different about him.

Once you have done one read-through of the play yourself -which doesn’t take that long, but shouldn’t be hurried- you will probably notice several things: some students in the class will simply not ‘get’ the ending, for example. They will quite literally expect an explanation, and won’t be able to abide the unanswered and unanswerable questions which Priestley poses in the final few lines of the tale. This is the ‘quite literal’ band in the group. Other students will come up with theories to ‘explain’ the Inspector and the action (and many of them will be novel); some will try to pin the blame for the death of Eva Smith on one character or another. But in my experience, hardly anyone will be completely unmoved. Priestley’s command of the language, mastery of structure, and understanding of human nature will have captured their attention to some extent.

What you will probably find universally, though, is that the group as a whole will lack sufficient understanding of history and politics to appreciate the full power of the play. I used to allow at least one lesson for background, and I tackled this by putting a timeline together of the twentieth century, with as much class participation as possible. This was where it could get quite depressing: the assumption was, when I first started to teach this play, was that the teenagers in front of me would have at least some idea of what had been going on in the world over the last hundred years, even if the exact dates were confused. It was unsettling, to say the least, to find that hardly anyone knew anything about the world in which they lived. Even those who had studied or were studying history knew only about the Second World War (and often disturbingly little about that). Some had never heard of Churchill; almost all had no concept of politics at all and no idea of who any of the Prime Ministers of the last few decades were.

On the timeline, I teased out of them gradually the main events, beginning usually with the sinking of the Titanic, which of course is mentioned in the play. Then I would plot in the First World War, the ‘blood, fire and anguish’ prophesied by the Inspector if humanity did not learn its lesson. After that, I needed to draw their attention through the much-travelled rise of fascism and its consequences in another world war, and to the momentous occurrences of 1945, with victory for the Allies, followed by a landslide Labour victory in the polls in Britain. To this event in particular I had return, as not only was Priestley’s play written in 1945, its theme significantly reflects on what happened in that election and why.

I used to quickly sketch in the rest of the century, touching on major events and bringing things as quickly as possible to the present day -but it was already extremely evident by then that another, tangential briefing was needed if the play was to be grasped, this time on politics.

I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a group of teenagers to know much about politics. They don’t have to vote, they have as yet no financial responsibilities of any real measure, why should they care? But it is a little alarming to find that they are normally taking part in a society with zero grasp of the levers or corridors of power. They don’t even recognise the main players, usually, and certainly have never thought about the concepts involved. So I used to take another lesson -well worth it in terms of imparting general knowledge, apart from the value for understanding the play- and draw four identical faces the board: one I labelled Charles Darwin, one Sigmund Freud, one Karl Marx and one Father Christmas. Of course, Darwin, Marx and Freud didn’t look exactly alike, but many a successful educational point can be made with humour, especially with teenagers. I would then rapidly and in a highly summarised way, describe each of these gentlemen’s chief contribution to the history of ideas (leaving Santa Claus out of it) and the impact each had on the way the world operated and thought, focusing on Marx. I would go into a little more detail about Marx’s theories of how society evolved, describing at some length what capitalism and socialism were and are, both in his terms and in reality.

All of this would take some time, with lots of diagrams and jokes, but it is possible to hold a class’s attention while this is covered before returning to the play. At this point, if we hadn’t already mentioned it, it would be good time to go into Priestley’s background as a socialist and what that means for an understanding of An Inspector Calls. Then the play starts to look more three-dimensional and its message starts to dawn on many.

Then I would read the play again. If I had a reasonably competent group in front of me, I would divide up the parts and tackle it that way; more often than not it was more effective to read it to them again myself. Now they could start to see the clues that Priestley lays out in the first act; now they could begin to appreciate the slow unravelling of the social niceties with which the play begins, under the relentless onslaught of the Inspector. More significantly, as the conclusion is reached for a second time, most of the class could appreciate its real power as a socialist message. Then the class discussions can veer into the way in which the playwright has created his intended effects, and perhaps some unintended ones. Stagecraft comes to the fore; Priestley’s use of detailed stage directions becomes important. By the time this second reading is done, it’s likely that at least a portion of the class are significantly engaged.

Whether or not you then try to get essays out of them, or put them through a series of quizzes, or whatever other activities you follow this with, by the time you at least do the above with them, you can have confidence as a teacher that they will have grasped the essentials of the play -and perhaps learned something about life around them as well.

(There’s much more to be said about An Inspector Calls from the point of view of How Stories Really Work, but that deserves an entirely separate article for a different day.)

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