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.