On their face, how could two plays be more different than An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes? (Both are in repertory at the Shaw Festival throughout its 2008 season; I review An Inspector Calls in this post and The Little Foxes in this post) In one play, a police detective explores the life and untimely death of a young woman in an English industrial town; the other deals with greed and infighting in an Alabama family.
Yet these plays — a British mystery classic and a classic American drama — were cut from the same cloth. They have parallel plots, parallel themes, even parallel characters.
Two capitalist families
In The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman gives us the Hubbards, a family of Alabama cotton merchants whose money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.
In An Inspector Calls, written only six years later, J. B. Priestley gives us the Hubbards’ English counterparts, the Birlings, a family of manufacturers in an English industrial town. The Birlings’ money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.
Two unholy business alliances
Each play begins with a dinner party. In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards are toasting a proposed business alliance with an industrialist from Chicago. The new partners count on avoiding the labor agitation that plagues industry in the north by building a cotton mill in the Hubbards’ southern town.
At the dinner party in An Inspector Calls, the Birlings are also celebrating a business alliance, the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of their principal business competitor. Arthur Birling and Croft expect the marriage alliance to lead to business understandings that will yield higher prices and suppression of labor agitation.
Two lead characters motivated by social ambition
In The Little Foxes, Regina Hubbard intends to leverage her new business relationship into a prominent social position in Chicago society.
Similarly, An Inspector Calls finds Arthur Birling angling for a knighthood. With a title and a connection with the socially superior Crofts, he hopes to vault into the upper echelons of English society.
Each family has a dissolute son in his early twenties. Leo Hubbard works in his uncle Horace’s bank and embezzles. Eric Birling works in his father’s office, drinks, and embezzles. Both young men patronize brothels.
Each family has a daughter in her late teens. The Hubbards plan to marry Alexandra off to her wastrel cousin Leo to keep all the money in the family. Alexandra is the only member of the family with a moral or social conscience (her aunt Birdie has strong humane instincts, but she is one of the Hubbards’ victims, not properly a family member).
The Birlings plan to marry Sheila Birling off to the son of a competitor to consolidate their financial and social standing. Sheila is the only one of the Birlings with much of a conscience; she sees that her father’s factory workers “aren’t cheap labour — they’re people.”
Each of these two plays indicts a capitalist family on multiple counts of crimes both personal and social.
By the end of The Little Foxes, we know that the Hubbards strike their women, teach their sons to steal, hunt for sport while the poor go hungry, beat their horses, keep mistresses, blackmail one another, cheat black folk, charge usury, corrupt public officials, and beat down attempts by working people to organize. (I complain about Lillian Hellman’s use of the Hubbards as whipping boys for American capitalism in this post.)
Initially, the Birlings seem far less dreadful. We learn, however (as do the characters themselves), that they are guilty of the same sorts of crimes. Arthur Birling has discharged and blackballed a factory employee for having the temerity to ask for two shillings more per week (think Oliver Twist) and trying to organize a strike. Sheila Birling gets the same unfortunate girl discharged from a job as a shopgirl for looking at her the wrong way. Crofts, the future son-in-law, finds the girl unemployed and hungry, makes her his mistress, then abandons her. Then the Birlings’ wastrel son meets her, now a prostitute, uses her, and gets her pregnant. At the end of her rope, the girl seeks charity from a private aid society controlled by Mrs. Birling, who turns her away.
Two soap boxes
Each playwright divides the world neatly into those who take and those who are taken from. In The Little Foxes:
Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.
In An Inspector Calls:
Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”
The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”
Putting out somebody’s talking points
In an otherwise excellent essay in the program for the Shaw Festival‘s production of An Inspector Calls, Professor John Baxendale softpedals the play’s political implications. Far from implicitly condoning violent Soviet-style revolution, he says, Priestley was not even promoting his political party’s radical legislative agenda. The essay maintains that Priestley was merely seeking to foster feelings of mutual responsibility among his countrymen.
The play is not about social reform [says Professor Baxendale], better health care or full employment, important though these things are, but about a vision of how life could be different if we acknowledge the truth that we are all members of one another.
Indeed, at first blush that seems to be what the Inspector is saying when he deliveres his grand, melodramatic, climactic speech:
One Eva Smith has gone — but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with 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.
But warm fuzzy communal feelings and private charity were not what either J. B. Priestley or Lillian Hellman were about. Nor did they have in mind the Biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor”; nothing could have been further from Priestley’s mind than the Christian communalism of the second chapter of Acts.
His message, instead, was that if Britain and America refused to accept socialism, bloody times were ahead, and mercy could not be expected. And so Priestley ended the Inspector’s grand lecture with exactly such a grim warning:
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.
Professor Baxendale asserts that the Inspector’s “fire and blood” language refers to the two world wars, rather than to revolutionary violence, but this is not a fair reading. Priestley made no attempt in this play to disguise his admiration for Soviet socialism. In explaining the methods of the Inspector to her family, Priestley has Sheila Birling allude explicitly to Lenin’s famous boast about capitalist rope when she says, “No, he’s giving us rope — so that we’ll hang ourselves.”
One can almost believe that these two extraordinarily talented dramatists, Hellman and Priestley, were working from a list of Marxist “talking points” for their plays:
* Portray all capitalists as instinctive monopolists and enemies of organized labor
*Caricature capitalists as holding extreme, selfish, individualist points of view
*Portray them as willing to pimp their own daughters for gain
*Portray their sons as thieves and as sexually ravenous
*Portray private charitable institutions (like Mrs. Birling’s) as corrupt and degrading
*Portray private ownership of land as unjust
*Show the world as divided into “us” (the worker class) versus “them” (the capitalist class)
Little wonder that An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes turned out to be practically the same play!
Priestley preached the party line that capitalists were on the wrong side of history and that Soviet-style socialism represented the best hope for mankind. Early in An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, he has Arthur Birling complacently telling his family how nicely the world is shaping up. There’s no war coming, he says, just “a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing.” Look at the new aeroplanes, look at the automobiles, “bigger and faster all the time,” look at the huge new ocean liner set to sail the next week, the Titanic. In thirty years, Birling assures his family, labor troubles will be a thing of the past, and the world will have forgotten “all these silly little war scares.”
Writing in 1945, Priestley expected his audience to smile sadly at Birling’s unfilled prophecies. How short-sighted Birling and the capitalists were, we are to think! And not only that: Birling was predicting “peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere — except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.” Wrong about the Titanic, wrong about Russia!
In fact, Priestley was worse than a poor prophet; he failed to see what was before his own eyes. Like so many other fellow travelers, Priestley believed that the great socialist experiment in the U.S.S.R. had already succeeded; in fact, the blood of millions in eastern Europe had been shed only to sustain a brutal Soviet regime in which the tyrannical old bosses had been replaced by murderous new bosses.
In his preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (also part of the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, but not scheduled to open till early July), Shaw was forthright about what he intended to accomplish in his plays: “I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective means of moral propagandism in the world . . . .” In An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley proved himself Shaw’s staunch disciple.
See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of An Inspector Calls in this post.
See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of The Little Foxes in this post.