The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production of JB Priestley’s classic thriller

An Inspector Calls

February 19

March 10, 2019

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

A WorldStage Production from the UK
directed by Stephen Daldry

The Philosophy and Politics of JB Priestley

The mellowing effects of time mean that, in recent years, JB Priestley has been looked upon as being something of an establishment figure, but back in the mid-20th century he was among the most cutting-edge of thinkers and became a prime mover in the mini-socialist revolution that heralded the immediate post-war Labour Party victory in 1945. A committed socialist whose father had been equally passionate about the cause, he was greatly concerned about the consequences of social inequality in Britain, the disparity caused by wealth and class divides and unchecked capitalism, and the unsavoury social consequences that he saw as being a direct result of such a set-up: greed, selfishness, exploitative tendencies and power-lust on the part of the "haves" and despair, resentment, and lack of opportunities for the "have-nots". Further, he regarded the mistrust and dysfunction caused by social inequality, along with a capitalist disregard for working people, as being responsible for the outbreak of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, directly attributing the causes of the First World war to the social set-up of the day—a point he addresses in An Inspector Calls—and the Second World War to lessons not being learned.

As a result, on 26 July 1941 he joined with similarly minded thinkers and members of the Labour Party who were unhappy with the electoral truce between the main political parties during the war, to found the 1941 Committee. Led by Richard Acland, Vernon Bartlett, and Priestley, this in turn saw the creation of a new socialist Common Wealth Party, which argued for a more egalitarian and progressive political discourse than that offered by any established party. In particular it advocated the three principles of Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics, of which the first, public ownership of land, led Acland to donate his own 19,000-acre Devon family estate to the National Trust. Priestley himself became the CWP’s first Chairman, but resigned shortly afterwards.

The party did not exactly prosper, although many have attributed that to poor recruiting policies rather than a discordant message, but it did win several by-elections, at Eddisbury, Skipton and Chelmsford, beating the Conservatives in each case. However, by the time the 1945 General Election came around, public support had swung behind the Labour Party cause and only one of the CWP’s 23 candidates was successful—at Chelmsford, where no Labour candidate was standing. The CWP quickly dissolved and most members joined/returned to the Labour Party.

More successful and ultimately enduring was his powerful 1957 New Statesman piece, Britain and the Nuclear Bombs, which aroused such a response that it led to the formation of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Priestley was reacting particularly to the government’s abandonment of their plan for unilateral disarmament. In his view, the only way to prevent future wars and conflicts from engulfing the world was through cooperation and mutual respect between countries—a belief that also saw him become an active proponent of the United Nations. And to this end he felt that Britain should set an example to the world by taking the difficult, but morally justified, decision to pursue unilateral disarmament. Although this view was rejected by the government, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, established by Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Denis Healey and other major figures of the time, endures to this day.

Priestley’s political views and stances often resulted in much criticism from the establishment. His stint as presenter of the BBC Radio program Postscripts, which followed the Nine O’Clock News every Sunday evening from 5 June 1940, was so successful that after just as few months it was estimated that 40% of the country’s adult population was listening to him, a following second only to Churchill’s. Graham Greene described him in The Spectator (Dec 1940) as "a leader second only in importance to Mr. Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us—an ideology."

Naturally, this led to great criticism from the Conservative Party, who claimed that he was using his position to spread left-wing views via the BBC, which should remain impartial. Pressure from above resulted in him being removed from the role after just a few months, although exactly who was responsible remains unclear: Priestley himself claimed apropos his removal that "I received two letters…one was from the Ministry of Information, telling me that the BBC was responsible for the decision to take me off the air, and the other was from the BBC, saying that a directive had come from the Ministry of Information to end my broadcasts."

Selected quotes from the works of JB Priestley

"A man is a member of a community and the fact that he is a member of a community immensely enlarges his stature as increases his opportunities…But as well as being a member of a community a man is also a person, a unique individual, and it is in fact the business of the community not simply to glorify itself but to produce better persons, to enrich its individual sphere…"
Thoughts in the Wilderness, 1957

"My own personal view, for what it’s worth, is that we must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation…We want a world that offers people not the dubious pleasures of power, but the maximum opportunities for creation. And, even already, in the middle of this war [World War II], I can see that world shaping itself.
"…Property is that old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things on that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property, instead of thinking of that country as the home of a living society, and considering the welfare of that society, the community itself as the first test."
Postscripts, 1940

"In plain words, now that Britain has told the world that she has the H-Bomb she should announce as early as possible that she has done with it, that she proposed to reject in all circumstances nuclear warfare.
"We ended the war high in the world’s regard. We could have taken over its moral leadership, spoken and acted for what remained of its conscience, but we chose to act otherwise. The melancholy consequences were that abroad we cut a shabby figure in power politics and at home we shrug it all away or go to the theatre to applaud the latest jeers and sneers at Britannia."
New Statesman, 1957

Originally printed in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s West End program for An Inspector Calls.

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