What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?
- How can theatre be used as a call to action?
- How has this literary work helped me reach a deeper understanding of myself and my growth as a moral and ethical person?
- Students will explore the power and limitations of theatre to transform society.
- Students will write a scene inspired by An Inspector Calls, making it relevant to modern-day society.
Art has the capacity to move us, to make us think differently about the world, and to challenge our behaviour. It is no exaggeration to say that with the right conditions, art can lead to social change and spark movements. Indeed, the power of art in all its forms to inspire people to promote and fight for great systemic change is evident in the fact that throughout history and the world authoritarian governments have censored and banned books, plays, films, music and art, and even gone to the lengths of arresting, exiling or killing those who produced supposedly inflammatory content. However, art also has the power to exclude people. If art is produced by or represents the identities and views of only a small proportion of the population, it limits those who can relate to it and tells stories that only consider the identity of a few.
In this lesson, students will consider theatre as a call to action, discussing its power and limitations to spark real social change. Students will explore the constraints of theatre: theatre productions (and indeed every art form) tell the stories of those involved in their creation; they, therefore, are more likely to resonate with people who have similar identities and/or experiences to the creators. Students will read an article on this topic, which discusses the UK theatre scene and outlines issues regarding its inclusivity. They will then have the opportunity to modernise An Inspector Calls, outlining a version that is relevant to them and their experiences and writing a scene from their version. This creative activity will encourage them to reflect on the power of sharing stories and of telling their own.
Alignment with the GCSE Specification
- Critical Reading of a Non-Fiction Text (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO1/AO4)
- Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
- Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)
- Spoken Language Skills (Lang-AO8, Lang-AO9)
- Writing for Impact (form, audience, purpose) (Lang-AO5)
Students consider the power of storytelling, engaging in a short debate concerning the statement: People cannot tell the stories of others. This process requires students to think critically and gives them the opportunity to practise their spoken language skills. Students then read a non-fiction article that raises concerns about the UK arts industry, answering questions that utilise both their comprehension skills and their critical reading skills. Next, students reflect critically on whether or not An Inspector Calls is relevant to their own lives before working in small groups to outline a modern morality play, inspired by An Inspector Calls, that they feel reflects their experiences and addresses modern issues. This creative activity requires students to write for impact, considering the audience and purpose of their play, and fosters student engagement as they connect with the task on a personal level. Students then synthesise and summarise their ideas, creating a two-minute pitch to share with other students. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.
Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification.
An Inspector Calls is Priestley’s call to action: he wrote the play to challenge the social structures that dominated before both world wars; social structures that triumphed class, wealth and gender over our common humanity. The play was his warning against returning to the type of individualistic society which did not consider the needs of the greater good. The broad success of his play, the fact that it is still being taught in schools and shown in theatres, highlights the popularity of its message. However, the play is not representative of a broad section of society: it tells the story of a white upper-middle-class family, and whilst it explores their interactions and relationships with people lower down in the social hierarchy, notably Eva Smith and the Inspector, and to a lesser extent Edna, it does not represent a range of voices; nor does it contain characters who are not white or not British.
Priestley’s play, however, is not alone. There are fears that the arts and theatre in the UK currently are unrepresentative of modern society: those who are able to work in the arts tend to come from privileged backgrounds, something that is no doubt aided by the fact that many of the low-level entry positions are unpaid internships. These fears are backed up by Panic! 2018, a project ‘led by sociologists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield that investigates inequalities in the cultural workforce’. At the core of this project lies a paper, Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, which outlines how people of working-class origin have been excluded and continue to be excluded from the creative industries. The paper, which is based on almost ‘300 hours of interviews with creative professionals collected following a national survey in 2015’, touches on various complex issues. Firstly, it outlines the prominence of meritocratic beliefs by those who hold power in the creative industries, which suggests that the situation is unlikely to change as they view effort, not socio-economic background as the root of their success. Secondly, it highlights the continued exclusion of those from working-class origins: in both the 1981 and 2011 census, ‘Young people from upper-middle class origins were disproportionately represented in creative jobs, compared to their numbers in the economy overall’, whilst those from working-class origins were under-represented.1 Thirdly, it outlines the dominance of unpaid internships in the cultural industries, which can exclude those who cannot afford to do them. Finally, it draws attention to the differences in taste that exist between those who work in the creative industries and those who don’t. These differences can act as a barrier to getting a job in the arts and can limit the existence of stories that those from working-class backgrounds can relate to. An unrepresentative cultural scene thus becomes a self-perpetuating problem.
Notes to Teacher
SPAR stands for Spontaneous Argumentation. In this structured debate, students frame their argument in one minute and then react quickly to their opponents’ ideas. This strategy helps students practise using evidence and examples to defend a position. With practice, students become increasingly comfortable with and proficient in using this method to unearth the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ sides of different topics.
- Classroom-ready PowerPoint Slides
Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.
- Consider the Power of Storytelling
- Debate on Storytelling
- Tell students they will be participating in a short debate on the following statement: People cannot tell the stories of others.
- Guide students through the SPAR strategy, assigning half the class the position of proposition and the other half, opposition. Give them 1–2 minutes to prepare their arguments before having them debate the statement.
- Ask students to then reflect on the statement themselves in a journal response and then a class discussion, using the following prompts:
- What makes it problematic for people to tell the stories of others? Explain your response.
- Why might it be helpful for people to tell the stories of others? Explain your response?
- How would you feel if someone told your story?
- Discuss Representation in the Arts
- Explain to students that Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls as a call to action and a way to promote social change in 1945. However, there are fears that the arts and theatre in the UK are not representative of society. Tell students that to explore this idea further, they will be reading two articles about the creative industries.
- Divide students into pairs, and give each pair either the reading Working-Class Creatives: Excerpt One or the reading Working-Class Creatives: Excerpt Two. Give students ten minutes to read their text and answer the Connection questions with their partners.
- You may want to project the following definitions on the board:
- Obliged (v.) – bound to do something
- Concrete (adj.) – reliable and steady
- Alienate (v.) – push away/make to feel like they don’t belong
- Airs and graces – behaving in a way that suggests you are superior
- Creative economy (n.) – art, film, TV, theatre and publishing industries
- Nepotism (n.) – the act of using power unfairly in order to get friends, family or people you know desirable jobs/benefits that put them ahead of others
- Internship (n.) – a work placement in which people often work for free in order to gain work experience
- Cognisant (adj.) – be aware of
- Next, have each pair join up with another pair who had the other reading to create groups of four. Then, have them take turns to summarise their excerpt and briefly discuss the following questions: What is the most surprising, interesting, or troubling idea in your excerpt? What makes you say that?
- Finally, facilitate class discussion using the following questions:
- What did you find surprising, interesting, and troubling in the article excerpts?
- What do the excerpts suggest about the relationship between the entertainment industry and working-class creatives?
- What might the consequences be for society if the entertainment industry only tells the story of some people?
- How do current entertainment offerings (art, film, plays, television, books, museum exhibits, murals) reflect or not reflect your identity and your experiences? Explain your answer.
- Reflect on An Inspector Calls
- Ask students to journal using the following prompts:
- Whose story does An Inspector Calls tell?
- In what ways is the play relevant to you and your experiences? In what ways is it not?
- What could be done to make the play relevant to you? How could it be made relevant to modern Britain?
- Plot a Play Inspired by An Inspector Calls
- Explain to students that they will now be thinking about plotting their own play, inspired by An Inspector Calls. Their play will be a morality play, and while they can use ideas and themes from An Inspector Calls, they should write for a modern-day audience. If students wish, they can reimagine An Inspector Calls in a different setting and with characters relevant to modern society.
- Divide students into groups of three and encourage them to imagine that they are playwrights, who are creating a two-minute pitch to promote their play to a theatre. To help them think about what their play is about and what they can include in their pitch, project the following questions on the board and give students fifteen minutes to answer them:
- What is your central message?
- Is there a key warning (like Priestley’s ‘fire and blood and anguish’ warning)? What is it?
- Where is the play set?
- Who are the characters? Consider different factors of identity: race, gender, age, sexuality, class, education, language.
- What happens in the play? (outline the beginning, middle and end)
- Who are the target audience?
- How is this story relevant to you and your experiences?
- How will this story change society for the better?
- What will you title your play?
- Next, give students ten minutes to create their two-minute pitch from their ideas.
- Finally, ask each group to join up with two or three others and give them ten minutes to share their pitches with each other.
- If there is time, you may wish to invite some groups to share their pitches with the whole class.
- Final Reflection
- End the unit with a final reflection. Project the following prompt on the board and give students some time to consider how they would complete it: One valuable idea from An Inspector Calls that I want to remember and apply to my own life is. . .
- Invite students to share their ideas in a wraparound.
Develop a Play
Invite your students to develop their play for homework. First, ask them to write a plot summary to outline the main events of the play and get a clear idea of the beginning, middle and end. Then, ask your students to write the opening scene of the play, thinking about how it links to the play’s wider message.
Encourage them to use the same layout that is used in An Inspector Calls, setting the scene with stage directions and writing the names of the character speaking on the left-hand side of the page. You may want to give students the opportunity to practise and then perform their scenes in a class showcase. After students have performed their scenes to the class, invite them to share the plot summary and message of their play, and give the class the opportunity to ask them questions about it.