J.B. Priestley's classic drama "An Inspector Calls" has a sturdy allegorical ring that reminds me of another great British author's work, "A Pilgrim's Progress" by John Bunyan. The Birling family, prominent society figures of Brunley, a North Midlands town, are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila to the son of a prominent local family when a man calling himself Inspector Goole arrives unannounced.
Whatever triumphal joy they earlier felt is soon washed away as the Inspector informs them that a young woman by the name of Eva Smith has just died in the local infirmary, a painful suicide victim prompted by taking disinfectant. Gradually he draws everyone in the household into the picture. All are implicated in the tragic downfall leading to Eva's suicide. Mr. Birling fired her after she was a leader in a strike at his factory, resulting from her asking for a fair weekly wage. His daugher Sheila caused a dismissal from Eva's next job at a department store in a jealous rage over the young woman's good looks. Sheila's husband to be Gerald found a room for her temporarily, had an affair with her, then let her go. Eric Birling, Sheila's brother, impregnated her, after which she sought help from the charity committee headed by Mrs. Birling, who coldly spurned her.
The only two members of the Birling household who feel appropriately contrite are Eric and Sheila. When it appears that the incident might be a hoax the others are relieved, ignoring their abominable behavior toward the girl.
Just when it appears that they might all be in the clear, and it is learned that the mysterious Inspector Goole was no more than an apparition or hoax of some kind, a call is received that a girl has indeed died in the infirmary from ingesting disinfectant and that an Inspector is on his way to question the Birling family! And at a time when Mr. Birling expects to be offered a knighthood, no less!
The dialogue is crisp and the mysterious Inspector Goole forces the family to look for once beyond their own selfish interests and contemplate the tragic consequences of conduct stemming from their ruthless mindset. "An Inspector Calls" reads brilliantly and plays mesmerizingly until the final curtain. It has been playing for better than a decade at London's West End, where I have seen it 3 times and intend to see it more times in the future. Its timeless message remains as vital now as when it premiered starring Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson in 1946.