Seventy years ago, in September 1945, a great English play had its world premiere. J.B. Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the USSR to see An Inspector Calls staged in Leningrad and Moscow. Since its rapturous Russian reception, and a rather cooler (“almost hostile”) one in London the following year, the play has been seen, enjoyed, and studied by thousands worldwide.
Front cover of Russian Journey, a pamphlet by J.B. Priestley
It uses the device of a mysterious inspector to explore how each member of a prosperous family contributed to the fate of a young girl who has killed herself. Inspector combines Priestley’s fascination with the nature of time and reality with a powerful moral message. While many aspects of the play are ambiguous and open to interpretation, its message could not be clearer – and remains highly relevant: “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”.
So why the USSR? No theatre was available in London, and Priestley’s work was popular in the country. He was at the peak of his fame, so it would be something of a coup to host his new play. Not to mention that Inspector would be seen favourably, as it can be interpreted as an expose of capitalism.
Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)
Visiting Britain’s ally so soon after the end of the Second World War was an extraordinary experience for the Priestleys; fortunately both wrote about it. They found a warm welcome and wonderful cultural life, but also extreme poverty, repression, and squalor. This weekend’s Guardian Review featured a lively account of their Russian Journey, written by Valerie Grove and based on the vivid letters Jane wrote to her children. You can find out more about the fascinating poster and photograph album featured in the article (and shown here) in our 100 Objects exhibition.
Priestley’s birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)
If this has tantalised you, you can see two interpretations of Inspector in the next few months:
- A new tour of the 1992 production by Stephen Daldry, which led to a great revival in the popularity of the play. Touring from 5 September 2015.
- A new BBC Drama, filmed in Saltaire and featuring David Thewlis as the Inspector, will be broadcast on Sunday 13 September 2015. A DVD will be available from the 21 September.
If you don’t know the play, now is the time to catch up and see what all the fuss is about!
Credits: quotations from An Inspector Calls and Margin Released.