On the occasion of my sister’s 50th birthday, we celebrated in London by watching a production of the English classic An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestly.
The production we saw is a famous one. Originally staged in 1992 by Stephen Daldry for the National Theatre, it has been touring off and on ever since; my mother saw it earlier this year in Washington D.C. This production is referred to by nearly everyone who sees it “as the one with the set.”
Well the set is amazing. So much so that it overwhelms just about every other aspect of the play, which is a shame. Because the message of this play, that every woman is our sister / mother / daughter / wife and every man is our brother / father / son / husband and should be treated as such, is just as relevant now as it was in the time period when the play is set, 1912, and as when it was written, in 1945.
As some of you may know, and few of you will be surprised to find out, I have been heavily involved in community, academic and even professional theater for most of my life. So when I was asked to direct for the Kaiserslautern Military Community On Stage this year, I wanted to see if a production of An Inspector Calls could stand on its message alone. My production had a minimal set – eight Greek columns that could be used as stools and tables and four window frames that could be raised and lowered.
Beyond the set, the major changes I made from traditional productions were to cast a woman in the role of the Inspector, to greatly increase the role of the maid, Edna, and to costume the characters so that the first act was set in 1912, the second in 1956, and the third in 2019. All of these changes were made to underscore how little attitudes had changed since 1912 and to present An Inspector Calls as a “Me too” story. It was actually a bit terrifying to see how well the text worked in 2019. The character of Eric, who rapes a young woman at the end of a drinking spree, is accused by the Inspector of having “used her for the end of a stupid, drunken evening, as if she was an animal, a thing, not a person.” Our Eric was a bit more sympathetic than Brock Turner, but only because he saw the error of his ways and committed to changing his attitudes towards women and society.
JB Priestley was not a Unitarian and is not to be confused with the famous Unitarian minister, Joseph Priestley. JB Priestley was not religious in a traditional sense, but his core beliefs were in absolute alignment with our UU Principles. He states this most forcefully in the Inspector’s final speech:
“One Eva Smith has gone—but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. 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. We don’t live alone. Good night.”
Our production in Kaiserslautern was more successful than I could have hoped. From small initial crowds, positive word-of-mouth boosted our audience numbers and community enthusiasm for the project. People went home thinking, discussing, and seeing the world in a slightly different way. We were definitely not “the one with the set,” but I’d like to think we were “the one with the message.”