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Back catalogue: Stephen Daldry

A Postmodernist Calls: J B Priestley, Stephen Daldry and the British Stage by Aleks Sierz (1999)

Class is a postmodern issue. I have chosen Stephen Daldry's 1992 production of J. B. Priestley's classic play, An Inspector Calls, as a case study in how class is represented in contemporary British theatre for two reasons. First, because the play itself focuses on the issue of class and, second, because Daldry's version is a good example of how a postmodern style can make an old play look as if it has something new to say about 'now'. The main question is: what does representing class in a postmodern way do to the play's politics?

Although controversial, postmodernism is arguably the best way of describing the condition of today's culture. Since postmodernism is the flavour of the zeitgeist, much of the culture produced in our time bears at least some traces of its influence. Most accounts of postmodernism stress its origins in the failure of the master narratives of the Enlightenment, which used to give us a unified understanding of the world and a clear method for representation in art. As a style, postmodernism is characterised by self-reflexivity, irony, allusiveness. It is cool, stylised, sceptical, parodic, pessimistic. As the cultural expression of a capitalism whose commodities colonise all aspects of life, postmodernism prefers pastiche to authenticity. The political effects of postmodernism are often compared unfavourably with those of modernism - it is seen as an aesthetic that is more concerned with surface than depth, form rather than content, image rather than reality. It prefers a visual playfulness to a deeper engagement with issues. A distinctly postmodern style is usually characterised by a collapse of the distinction between high art and pop culture, a blurring of the boundary between art work and everyday life, and a mixing of different media conventions. Stylistically eclectic, postmodernism often surprises the audience by its daring mix of unusual elements (Lyotard, pp xxiii-xxv, 76-82; Best and Kellner, pp 1-5, 10-16, 25-32, 274-282; Connor, pp 1-23, 132-157; Jameson, pp 1-54; Hutcheon, pp 118-129, 227-231).

Its general popularity has meant that postmodern attitudes touch even a traditional art form such as theatre, especially where theatre is a mass medium - in 1993-4 as many people went to the theatre in London as watched live football (Casey et al, 1996, pp xix-xx). The most popular form of theatre - the mega-musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber - are the most commodified in the global market. Their mix of high art and pop culture owes more than a little to postmodern sensibility. Because the main characteristic of theatre is that it is a live experience which explores the nature of representation, much straight theatre is also affected by postmodernism. When the curtain goes up, many in today's comparatively sophisticated audience will ask: what is being represented and how?

An Inspector Calls was written during the Second World War by the Bradford-born left-wing writer and dramatist John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984). Often praised for being "well constructed" and for its theme of "human responsibility" (Atkins, 1981, pp 217, 230; Cook, 1997, p 202), An Inspector Calls was first staged in Moscow in 1945, apparently because there were no London theatres free at the time. A year later, its first London production at the New Theatre starred Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson. Since then, it has been filmed, shown on BBC television and revived on the London stage in 1974 and 1987. It has also become a staple of amateur drama groups and local repertory companies - most productions use the traditional illusions of a naturalistic drawing-room play to convey its political message.

Its plot combines Priestley's moral socialism with his obsessive interest in theories about the circularity of time. When the mysterious Inspector Goole calls on the Birlings, a prosperous middle-class family celebrating their daughter's engagement, it is gradually revealed that Eva Smith, a young working-class woman, who has just committed suicide, was connected in different ways to each member of the family. The Inspector proves that each member of the family was partly responsible for her death. At the end, while the older Birlings (Mr and Mrs) remain complacent, the Inspector's visit provokes a crisis of conscience in their children (Sheila and Eric). In the play's last moments, the Inspector leaves and time suddenly seems to repeat itself.

Although written in 1944-5, An Inspector Calls is set in 1912, which is Priestley's way of emphasising his point that the middle class is on the edge of destruction (the audience know that this complacent family is just two years away from the abyss of the First World War). In the play script there's a page of stage directions describing the comfort of the Birlings' home: "a fairly large suburban house, belonging to a prosperous manufacturer. It has good solid furniture of the period. The general effect is substantial and heavily comfortable, [] The lighting should be pink and intimate until the INSPECTOR arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder" (Priestley, 1969, p 161).

Despite all this banal detail, Priestley was not naive about the nature of representation: in the 'Introduction' to his collected plays, he explains that he sets his dramas in "respectable" sitting rooms as a way of persuading people that they were watching a real story - once they were hooked, he would regale them with his moral message (Priestley, 1948, pp vii-viii). A naturalistic mode of representing class is thus a means to a political end.

In An Inspector Calls this is reflected in the play's language. Although Mr Birling constantly mentions his knighthood and Mrs Birling is always on about class, the family's speech is less a reflection of individual personality than of class character: as when Mr Birling says that the Titanic is "unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable" or when Sheila calls Eric a "Chump" (Priestley, 1969, pp 166, 164). The Inspector, significantly, speaks in a different, more rhetorical way. He's an iconic figure, a symbol of justice, a moral reformer who, because he wants to change the world, can afford to ignore class etiquette. Often his language has biblical solemnity: "Public men, Mr Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges" (p 195). The working class, however, is not represented. It is an absence. Eva Smith never appears - she is a hidden victim.

In Priestley's play the Birlings are shown as a solid middle-class, northern family. It is a world where you dress for dinner, have maid servants and where the ladies withdraw from the room after the meal. Yet Priestley's message is that under this veneer of respectability lies an uglier reality. By showing Mr and Mrs Birling as hypocritical, he attacks the double standards of a whole class. They can get away with murder, while the working class (even when industrious) cannot prosper. In the Inspector's last speech, the middle class is warned that if there is no change, the country will be engulfed in "fire and blood and anguish" (Priestley, 1969, p 207). The ending is symbolic: while the older generation remains morally irresponsible, Sheila and Eric turn towards change. They have learnt that private behaviour has public consequences. In 1945, this was a call to vote Labour.

However successful, most plays only reach a small, often metropolitan, audience. The way a mass audience got to know about An Inspector Calls was through the film version, directed by Guy Hamilton, and released by British Lion in 1954. Its success at cinemas and its frequent rescreenings on television made its way of seeing class seem natural. The bluff, northern accents, the awkward posture of the actors and the sets - especially the dining-room table, that enduring totem of middle-class family life - all create the solid world of the bourgeoisie. Also revealing is the choice of Alastair Sim to play the Inspector; as an actor, he is both benign and creepy. The advantage of naturalism in film is that it shows how the characters react in close-up: we see the Birlings' guilt written on their faces.

The origin of Stephen Daldry's revisionist version of An Inspector Calls, which was designed by Ian MacNeil, says a lot about the structure of British theatre after a decade of Thatcherite arts policies, when government rate-capping measures forced local councils to cut arts budgets. For although the play got much media attention when it opened at the National Theatre, it began life at a smaller regional venue, the York Theatre Royal. Like many local theatres, York had suffered cuts in its subsidy during the 1980s, with the result that it came to depend more and more on ticket sales for its funding. To achieve good box office, the theatre's programming began to emphasise safe plays rather than riskier fare.

By 1989, when Daldry - then a relatively unknown director - came to direct An Inspector Calls, the theatre allowed him to put it on because it was thought to be a safe product. Paradoxically, because Daldry and his team were working for very little money, they had a lot of freedom to take risks. The main innovation made by Daldry and MacNeil was to take what had once been a standard drawing-room thriller and turn it into a strikingly visual piece of theatre. As Daldry told the local newspaper at the time, "I think there's a need to rediscover Priestley as a radical experimentalist rather than as an old war horse" (Hutchinson, 1989, p 12). So instead of the usual dining-room set, which represents the home life of the middle classes in much postwar drama, Daldry and MacNeil created a doll's house, "a box on stilts" (Turner, 1989).

Influenced by Expressionism, the production featured not only the six main characters, but also a crowd of outcasts, "a number of non-speaking extras, the have-nots, gloom-laden with their ragged children" (B. A., 1989). By adding this group of extras, which represent the working class (absent from the original play), Daldry and MacNeil turned a domestic drama into a much more socially conscious epic. As Daldry said, "We are being told by our Prime Minister [Thatcher] that there is no such thing as society. But there is evidence that people are turning against that thinking" (Hutchinson, 1989, p 12). By representing the have-nots, Daldry was clearly making a political point.

Daldry's An Inspector Calls enjoyed a successful run at York from 19 October to 11 November 1989. Later, after he'd directed several successful fringe shows, he was asked to put on a play at the National Theatre in London. He chose An Inspector Calls. When it opened in 1992, it seemed to be the perfect National play - it was well known enough to be popular, but its production was daring enough to look new. The set, with its doll's house on stilts marooned in a symbolic landscape, whose desolate cobbled streets are redolent of factory closures as well as bomb damage, immediately signals a radical departure from tradition. In a final coup de theatre, the house of Birling splits apart and burns to ground. Daldry's An Inspector Calls is certainly spectacular, but how does it relate to postmodernism?

When the curtain rises on An Inspector Calls, it is clear that Daldry is opening out the play as if he's making a film. Daldry says his aim is "to work within a filmic style then re-establish it as theatre" (National Theatre, n.d.). Many critics think he succeeded. Jack Tinker, for example, says, "There is an altogether filmic quality" to the play (Daily Mail, 12 September 1997). The music played at the start of the performance is from Bernard Herrmann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, a classic bit of ironic cross-referencing between film and theatre - and a mixing of previously separate media which suggests a postmodern sensibility. The use of an Expressionist style for the overall look of the production is also a postmodern ploy. Daldry and MacNeil mix two historical eras by dressing the Birling family as typical Edwardians and the crowd of silent onlookers in 1940s clothes (a stylistic reference also to John Boorman's 1987 film Hope and Glory as well as a political reference to the 1945 Labour victory). This kind of playful attitude to the past and the collapse of rigid distinctions between the styles is also typically postmodern.

The production goes further by blurring the boundary between the art work and the audience. When the Inspector delivers his last speech, in Daldry's version he does it directly to the audience, while the house lights go up so that everyone in the stalls feels they are being addressed. While the Inspector says: "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other", the audience is reminded of the programme note which quotes Mrs Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society" (Priestley, 1969, p 207; National Theatre, 1992). This moment underlines another postmodern characteristic of this production - the way it refers to its own conventions of representation.

At the start, a little boy crosses the front of the stage and tries to raise the heavy plush curtains to take a peek at what's behind. Just as directly addressing the audience draws attention to the play's political relevance, the boy draws attention to theatre as an act of representation. While the scene when the Inspector addresses the audience works well because it takes the issue of class into the real world, the spectacular ending of the play is more problematic. Although the collapsing house is an entertaining theatrical moment, it is also postmodern in its love of irony, exaggeration, kitsch and parody. It harks back not only to Expressionism, but also to the Hammer horror film; it mixes film images with theatre, seriousness with fun. Some critics doubt whether this works. As Lindsay Duguid says, "At times, the production seems to be no more than an ironical commentary on the original text." And Peter Ansorge equates the play's entertainment values with those of popular musicals: "The house that visibly crumbled on-stage in Daldry's production equals the shock of the chandelier that the Phantom sends hurtling down on the audience just before the interval of Lloyd Webber's musical" (Ansorge, 1997, p 25).

There are other ways in which Daldry's version subverts the naturalism by which the play usually represents class. The general look of the production suggests the postmodern love of the grotesque. The way the characters are cooped-up inside the doll's house when their meal begins has all the parody, playfulness and pastiche of postmodern style. Their conversation, fractured by the confines of the set, exemplifies the postmodern attraction to fragmented discourse. As the plot develops, the Birlings leave their doll's house (which represents the unreal world of the bourgeoisie) and come down onto the battered landscape (which represents reality). By the end, the younger Birlings are literally stripped of their evening dress: Sheila is down to her petticoat and Eric in shirtsleeves. The play's moral message about class being a protective cover is thus represented in a visual and playfully punning way.

Central to Daldry's project in reviving An Inspector Calls was a desire to return to Priestley's main political message. "I wanted very much to reclaim the production", to restore Priestley's original politics, says Daldry (Seavill, 1995). "If we have the moral courage and resources to examine our recent past perhaps we can qualify to 'live our lives again'" (York Theatre Royal, 1989). While Daldry succeeds in making the play an exciting evening in the theatre, not all the results of adopting a postmodern sensibility are equally positive. The main problem is one of characterisation. A naturalistic way of playing Priestley's characters allows the audience to identify with them, to see in their representation of class attitudes its own feelings writ large - the effect is that the audience is implicated and forced to examine its own prejudices. But by turning these characters into fanciful figures who inhabit a doll's house, Daldry lets the audience off the hook. For example, Sheila's fiance, Gerald, acts as if he's "oblivious, in a way that is characteristic not only of himself, but of his whole circle and (the play implies) his whole class" (Lesser, 1997, p 22). "The Birlings are emblems, not people. In creating high drama, Stephen Daldry has lost the very thing Priestley prided himself on: the common touch" (Duguid).

The moral problem of representing class through emblems - a postmodern tactic - arises when this distances the audience from the action, allowing it to see the play as about "them" rather than "us", thus freeing it from any pangs of guilt. So while Daldry's An Inspector Calls is a daring piece of theatre, it also one that depends on a specific economic framework to find its audience. With subsidy concentrated at the centre of British theatre, people who want to take their experimentation further than resources at the margins allow, are forced to work at the big national institutions. It's where the money is. When Daldry and MacNeil put on An Inspector Calls at the National, they had a their disposal the huge resources of one of the best equipped theatres in Britain. The theatre's board at first had doubts about reviving such an old-fashioned author as Priestley; then it almost had cold feet about the huge expense of the set (the design concept was the same but had become much more technically sophisticated). In the event, the popularity of the play vindicated Daldry and MacNeil. Whatever was spent on the production was recouped when it was sold to a commercial producer, who put up the money to transfer it to the West End and then Broadway. Its success led to large profits not only for Daldry (who as director gets a share of the box office receipts), but also for the producer. The National also received a sum from the transfer. In this way, low government subsidies force managements to make arrangements with the private sector to recoup their loses. Policy affects distribution as well as aesthetics.

Watching a live show can involve unexpected additions to the meaning of the performance. When I saw An Inspector Calls at the National in September 1992, just after it opened, heads turned as Neil Kinnock (who had resigned the Labour leadership in July after losing the General Election in April) took his seat in the stalls. His presence gave the play an added political charge. For while most of the audience was middle-class and middle-aged, their sentiments were liberal. For this reason there was something a bit unsettling about complacent greyhairs hearing a sermon from the stage, then going out into a rainy night, ignoring the homeless begging for money, and getting into their taxis. The issue of class is not just a question of representation, but also a matter of the social circumstances of cultural production.

Although Daldry's An Inspector Calls started off with a comparatively privileged audience, it soon found a mass following, becoming the most successful revival of a straight play in the 1990s. While most productions run for a few weeks and are seen by thousands, this blockbuster has been running for six years and has been seen by about 1.5 million people worldwide. Although some musicals score such successes, it is extremely unusual for a straight drama to reach these figures (Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has run for about 50 years in the West End, is a rare exception). After being in repertory at the National, An Inspector Calls toured Britain, then transferred to the West End, first to the Aldwych, then to the Garrick theatre. It toured Broadway and the United States. It was also seen in Japan, Australia and Austria. By September 1997, when the production had its seventh cast change, it had garnered "19 major awards" (PW Productions, 1997). These include Olivier awards for best revival, best director and best designer, plus London's Evening Standard awards and Critics Circle awards (1993-4), as well as four Tony awards on Broadway (McCabes, 1997). If, as anecdotes suggest, a handful of people walked out because they thought this version of the play was "socialist propaganda", the great majority of audiences were moved by the experience.

In conclusion, it is surely ironic that the most successful political play of the 1990s is not a acerbic critique of Tory policy but a revival of a 50-year-old classic. By using daring stylistic devices, Daldry and MacNeil took "a relatively serious, extremely admonitory play" and gave it "the thrill and glamour of spectacle" (Lesser, 1997, p 14). But the way their An Inspector Calls represents class has negative as well as positive effects. On the positive side, the shock of the lights going up and the stalls being exposed to the merciless harangue of the Inspector's last speech, emphasises the play's political message. On the negative side, the huge entertainment value of the costumes and set tends to distract from the humanity of the story. This depoliticises the play by turning it into a cartoon. On balance, Daldry's An Inspector Calls is both more thrilling and less human than other versions. A new aesthetic style often has such contradictory meanings. Just as, in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin saw the art work as both civilising and barbaric, so in the 1990s the best theatre is often both experimental and entertaining at the same time (Benjamin, p 258). Even if Daldry's An Inspector Calls is not a completely postmodern work, it still contains the tensions of the postmodern condition - where a belief in change co-exists with sceptical irony.

Notes and references

Atkins, J. (1981) J. B. Priestley: The Last of the Sages. London: John Calder.

Ansorge, P. (1997) From Liverpool to Los Angeles: On Writing for Theatre, Film and Television. London: Faber.

B. A. (1989) 'An Inspector Calls', review in the Yorkshire Post, 21 October.

Benjamin, W. (1970) Illuminations. London: Jonathan Cape.

Best, S. and D. Kellner (1991) Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London: Macmillan.

Brome, V. (1988) J. B. Priestley. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Connor, S. (1989) Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell.

Casey, B., R. Dunlop and S. Selwood (n. d. [1996]) Culture as Commodity? The Economics of the Arts and Built Heritage in the UK. London: Policy Studies Institute.

Cook, J. (1997) Priestley. London: Bloomsbury.

Cranham [reference to theatre museum session] in Daldry, S. et al. (1996) 'Do new writers have hearts?' New Sceptics session 1, 15.10.97. Video tape of discussion at the Theatre Museum, London.

Duguid, L. (1992) 'An Inspector Calls', review in Times Literary Supplement, 25.9.92.

Hutcheon, L. (1988) A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge.

Hutchinson, C. (1989) 'Under closer inspection', Yorkshire Evening Press, 18.10.89.

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso.

Lesser, W. (1997) A Director Calls: Stephen Daldry and the Theatre. London: Faber.

Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McCabes (1997) 'Awards for An Inspector Calls', publicity list of main awards, Michael McCabes Associates, London.

Priestley, J. B. (1948) 'Introduction' to The Plays of J. B. Priestley, vol. 1. London: Heinemann.

Priestley, J. B. (1969) 'An Inspector Calls' in Time and the Conways and Other Plays, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

PW Productions (1997) An Inspector Calls, publicity leaflet for the Garrick Theatre, London.

Royal National Theatre (n. d. [1993]) Platform Papers no. 3: Directors pamphlet. London: Royal National Theatre.

Royal National Theatre (1992) An Inspector Calls, programme for the production, London.

Seavill, R. (1995) 'J. B. Priestley's utopian vision', interview with Stephen Daldry in the programme of An Inspector Calls, Garrick Theatre, London.

Sierz, A. (1994) 'Polishing the kitchen sink', New Statesman & Society, 11.3.94.

Turner, F. (1989) 'An Inspector Calls', review in the Guardian, 6.11.89.

York Theatre Royal (1989) An Inspector Calls, programme for the production, York.

© An earlier version of this chapter appeared as 'A Postmodernist Calls: Class, Conscience and the British Theatre' in Jane Stokes and Anna Reading (eds), The Media in Britain: Current Debates and Developments, London: Macmillan, 1999: pp 236-245.

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