The chain begins! How Priestley’s 1946 cast bridge the past and present… (#LivesIntertwined pt. 3)

Here’s something that I didn’t notice for many years: the late, great Alec Guinness – THE Alec Guinness – played Eric in the first British production of An Inspector Calls! Obi Wan Kenobi himself (albeit aged 32, long before Star Wars) played ERIC. It used to be the case that whenever I taught this play I’d cast only the most cursory of glances over this page in the printed edition. Now, though, I wish that I’d taken a bit more time to appreciate just how strange and wonderful it is to look back at the original casting and the sense it creates of time folding in on itself.

Seeing Guinness’ name listed here feels a bit like somebody playing a chronological perspective trick. Of all of the actors here (and it’s a marvellous group of performers!), Guinness is the most widely known because of his role in the Star Wars franchise, and still has a presence in modern entertainment in a way that Priestley could never have anticipated. As I type this in 2022, a Disney+ series all about his most famous character (played by Ewan McGregor, who inherited the role of Obi Wan) has just concluded, while Guinness’ voice was featured in 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker. His name here, then, is a bridge between the past and the present; it reminds us of how the Inspector’s final warning that “we are members of one body” relates to the connections between individuals not only in a society, but across time as well. The actions of a single person can spark reactions that reverberate for generations to come. To put it another way, the first performance of AIC may have been 73 years ago, but 73 years is no time at all, really…

Pontifications on time and the universe aside, I love the sound of this original cast. There’s a frankly staggering level of talent on display here, and there are layers to these casting choices that must have added enormous depth to their performances. Both Guinness and the iconic Ralph Richardson, who played the Inspector, had served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. When at the end of the play the Inspector warns of the “fire and blood and anguish” to come, both Richardson and Guinness would have understood from firsthand experience the horrors to which Goole refers. In the performances that I’ve seen, these lines always are always made to feel so angry, so bitter. But there’s sadness here too, and perhaps even fear, that perhaps only somebody with Richardson’s talent and life experience could have brought to life. One imagines that these lines might have resonated strongly with Guinness, given that Eric would likely have been conscripted for service in WW1 just a few short years after the play is set. The Inspector may be anticipating the future, but in this moment the actors playing Goole and Eric would have had little choice but to remember the past.

Elsewhere, I especially enjoy the idea of Julien Mitchell and Margaret Leighton as Arthur and Sybil respectively. Not only are both perfectly suited to play these characters (Mitchell in particular is exactly how I always imagined Mr Birling to look), but both were born in the Midlands – the very area where the play is set. Both would likely have been familiar with the lives of people in industrial towns like the fictitious Brumley, and their connection to the Midlands may very well have given their performances an extra air of authenticity. It’s fun to imagine Mitchell playing up his regional accent for the purposes of this role: Priestley makes a point of telling us that Arthur is “provincial in his speech” in a way that marks him as his wife’s social inferior! More importantly, as with Guinness and Richardson with their military careers, Leighton and Mitchell were put in roles that enabled them – encouraged them, even – to channel their personal experiences in ways that heighten the drama but also ground this play in reality. That, after all, is the point: for all that these characters feel at times like caricatures, Priestley never lets us forget that they reflect vital truths about our society and ourselves.

Image Credit: The Independent [https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/star-wars-obiwan-kenobi-was-originally-meant-to-live-through-a-new-hope-a6985311.html]

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