”England with a bad Dickensian cold”

This is how Charles McNulty, in the Los Angeles Times of 25/1/19, sums up the landscape in Stephen Daldry’s production of the 1945 play An Inspector Calls, by J B Priestley (died 14th August, 1984). It stormed the London theatre scene in the early 1990s, and a remounting reached Beverly Hills early this year. McNulty comments:

“….the real crime being investigated is unconstrained capitalism…

An Inspector Calls is not subtle. The sensibility is more Edwardian than modernist, but Daldry serves it up with expressionistic elan. Rather than shy away from the moralising, the production embraces a critique of inequality that never seems to lose any of its pertinence.”.

In Act I, the Inspector arrives at the Birling home to tell them that a young, local, working class woman has taken her own life:

“INSPECTOR….Eva Smith lost her job with Birling and Company because the strike failed and they were determined not to have another one….Now she had to try something else. So first she changed her name to Daisy Renton –

GERALD. (Startled. Pulling himself together.) Can I get myself a drink, Sheila? (SHEILA merely nods, still staring at him, and he goes across to tantalus on sideboard for a whiskey.)”

In Greek mythology, Tantalus (shown above in a 1535 image by Joseph Heintz the Elder) was eternally punished by standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink.

George Betjemann, a cabinetmaker from the Netherlands, took out the original patent in 1881 for the Tantalus: a small wooden cabinet containing two or three decanters. Its defining feature is that it has a lock and key. This is with the aim of stopping unauthorised people drinking the contents (in particular, “servants and younger sons getting at the whisky”), while still allowing them to be on show.

George was the grandfather of the poet John Betjeman (died 19th May, 1984), who wrote Summoned by Bells (1960), a “blank verse autobiography”. In Part II, The Dawn of Guilt, we read:

“The smell of sawdust still brings back to me

The rambling workshops high on Pentonville,

Built over gardens to White Lion Street,

Clicking with patents of the family firm

Founded in 1820. When you rang

The front-door bell a watchful packer pulled

A polished lever twenty yards away,

And this released the catch into a world

Of shining showrooms full of secret drawers

And Maharajahs’ dressing-cases.”.

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