English essay analysing JB Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls'.
| An Inspector Calls
Examine the opening scene of JB Priestleys ‘An Inspector Calls’ to the point when the inspector enters. Discuss the dramatic effectiveness of this scene with the dramatic effectiveness of this scene with some reference to the rest of the play.
Preistley wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ for many reasons. He was classed as a socialist, a person that believed in social responsibility, that everyone should look out for one another, in a world that was still in turmoil and chaos from the recent world wars. Priestley experienced world war one and world war two. He unfortunately lost many friends and saw terrible things, things that he believed could have been avoided if there was a smaller gap between the classes. He wrote the play in an attempt to warn the world that a lack of social responsibility could have dire consequences. This is pointed out later in the play when the inspector rants about all of the John and Eva Smiths, and how if the Birlings do not change thir ways they can look forwards to nothing but ‘Fire and Blood and Anguish’, an emotive triplet, which includes the repetition of the word ’and’ for added emphasis upon this vital point, which further conveys Priestleys’ views.
The opening of a play is important as it has to set the scene, whilst also introducing the characters and themes. In ‘An Inspector Calls’ the introduction to the play shows the characters and their relationships with one another, and some of the reoccurring themes of the play (an example of which would be tension or appearance and reality). The play must grip the audiences attention within the first scene, and then finish with a major point or cliffhanger to the plot. This forces the audience to pay attention from the beginning, not giving them a moment to distract themselves and miss some of Priestley’s points, and at the end allows the audience to dwell upon the meanings of the hidden morals in the play, possibly converting strong minded capitalists of the day into a sudden realisation of social responsibility. This would then send a positive message to all, inspiring hope into the lower classes and consience into capitalists, which I believe was Priestley’s ultimate aim.
The setting of the play is conveyed through stage directions at the opening of the script, Priestley has employed a wide variety of dramatic techniques and other options that are available to playwrights when the piece was written to be performed such as the lighting, the stage, and sound effects to name but a few.
The play is set in 1912 Britain, and the scene opens with stage directions used to set the scene, whilst also to depict a scene of both wealth and power, but also to suggest some of the relationships between characters.
The Birlings live in a ‘fairly large suburban home’ which illustrates the fact that whilst the Birlings are a family of wealth and power, they still do not believe they have enough, and their greed controls them as characters, showing they will always want more than they have. The oxymoron ‘heavily comfortable’ which describes the Birlings furniture is used to highlight the fact that the ‘good solid furniture’ is out of place and not at all ‘cosy and homelike’. The use of these contrasts show the Birlings have exhausted too much effort upon their home, achieving the opposite effect to which they intended, and making the home appear strained and un-natural. This above all else would increase the tension of such a place, making visitors and family members alike feel out of place and uncomfortable.
The Birlings own a ‘telephone’ which during the period was both fashionable and expensive, because of the appearance of wealth that would accompany such an object, the Birlings have allowed it the pride of place on a ‘small table’, set apart from the rest of the furniture to draw attention to it. All participents of this social gathering are ’in evening dress of the period’ and all men are described as wearing ‘tails and white ties’. A ‘decanter of port’, ‘port glasses’, ‘cigarettes’ and a ‘cigar box’ are brought into the room by the parlour maid Edna. The inclusion of such seemingly trivial items was purposeful, as Priestley intended to show the wealth of the family. Only the middle to upper classes would be able to afford such fashionable items, and the display of wealth in the parlour maid truly tips the balance to show the family can afford to be waited upon hand and foot.
Overall the settings are used to create an impression of power and class, as it is obviously an upper class family that would live in such a setting. The dining room has been described in such a way that it appears to be a warm, comfortable area enjoyed by all the family, but Priestley has charged his use of language to reflect that the reality of the situation is the family feels uncomfortable and the relationships are strained. A easily recognisable setting which perfectly describes the relationship between Mr and Mrs Birling, is that ‘Mr Birling is sat at one end, his wife at the other’ This shows the distance and coldness in their relationship.
Throught the duration of the play, the only area shown is the dining room. This is seemingly an odd decision for a playwright, however Priesley used this area for his relentless attack upon the Birlings later in the play. This has been used as a vessel for the truth: that despite everything, the Birlings will never change their mannerisms or stray from their traditional paradigms.
Lighting is very important whilst describing the setting, it is used in many ways to intensify the tension, to bring focus upon one character, or to shift the focus from one area to another. Primarily Priestley describes the lighting that should be used is ‘pink and intimate’. This shows that he wants the mood to be light, playful and happy. The use of this to begin is also used to create a great contrast between before the inspector arrives, and after his arrival (which is indicated through the lighting changing from the light playful pink and intimate, into a brighter, harder lighting). This will further show the difference in mood between the two timeframes, and is used to aid the inspector in metaphorically ‘shedding light upon the situation’.
Priestley says ‘at the moment’ with regard to their ‘good dinner’ as they are ‘celebrating a special occasion’ and are ‘pleased with themselves’. This is used as a forewarning of what was to come later in the play, and by implication suggesting that their dinner would soon become terrible, and rather than celebrating a special occasion, they would be mourning and regretting a terrible one.
The play was set in 1912, a time only two years before the breakout of world war one, a time when people were anxious about many issues, but many were laughed away as superstitions or people trying to cause trouble. Some will ultimately argue that it was the lack of social responsibility in this timeframe which lead to such a vicious and bloody war. It is believed Priestley employed the use of writing in a historical setting to allow his use of huge dramatic irony, primarily to undermine and undervalue Mr Birling, making the audience see him for the true comical character that this portrays him as, right from the outset of the play.
When speaking to his family and Gerald, Mr Birling starts a long tirade against many things, finally ending with Mrs Birling interrupting him (despite the role of women in that period). This speech is long winded and used only to employ dramatic irony to such levels, by the end of it all the audience finds him nothing but big headed, arrogant, and comical. He says such things as ‘We are in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity’ which was utterly untrue as just two short years passed between his speech and the breakout of war, food rationing, and economic depression. Again, Mr Birling says Gerald and Sheila will ‘Be marrying at a very good time’, this is again nonsense as Gerald was most likely conscripted into the army, and separated from his wife. He believed that Britain had ‘passed the worst of it’ and upon hearing claims of war, declared that it was ‘nothing more than silly pessimistic talk’ and that ‘the Germans didn’t want war!’ when they did. Mr Birling continues in this way, unrelentless in his proclamations of ‘there not being a chance of war’. By far the best piece of dramatic irony comes at the pinnacle of his speech, when he declares the Titanic as ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’, through the repetition of the word unsinkable he shows the audience that he truly believes in what he is saying, was stuck in his ways and would not change his opinions for anyone, which only further undermines his character and makes him look rather foolish.
There is other irony used by Priestley, which foreshadow events to come. The reader only realises the truth and the irony behind these statements after viewing the entire play and contemplating what had been said and done. When Sheila tells Gerald ‘You be careful’ and he replys ‘I will, I will’ It is ironic because further into the play he is exposed as having cheated upon Sheila. He is telling her that he will be careful but he is eventually found out. Eric guffawing at this statement leads the reader to question weather he knew about Geralds previous affair. Mr Birling states that ‘I’m not sorry that we are celebrating quietly like this’ which is highly ironic as he prefers speaking to a larger audience, and he most likely wanted to be the center of attention to a larger audience at such an occasion. Later in his speech, Mr Birling declares (with regard to Eric) ‘when you’ve a daughter of your own’ Which is massively ironic as we later discover that Eric has in fact conceived a child. All of this irony hints at trouble to come in the future, however it is highly unlikely that the audience will pick up on these hints until after watching the rest of the play.
Characterisation is yet another important dramatic technique, it is used to convey traits and mind sets of individual characters to others, aswell as describing the physical appearance of these characters.
The Birlings are used by Priestley to respresent not only themselves, but all middle class families of the time. Priestley used these characters to represent society, and allow them to be put to shame over their irresponsible actions, they represent both the period in which it was set, and the period in which he lived, and hoped his messages and morals would transfer from one to another through the audience.
The Birlings are used to represent the faults in mankind as a whole, to allow him to criticise anything which he didn’t believe in, or thought was socially and morally unacceptable.
The opening stage directions introduce Mr Birling as ‘heavy looking’ and ‘portentous’ This suggests that he metaphorically ‘throws his weight around’ so to speak. The word ‘portentous’ shows he has an ominous aura about him, like a vessel of hurt and pain. He is described as having ‘easy manners’ and is rather ‘provincial in his speech’ This shows he is relaxed and not from the upper classes, it shows however much he wishes to be higher class, he still has some unbreakable habits that link him to his roots.
Before speaking, after gaining the attention of all gathered, Mr Birling ‘Holds them a moment before continuing’. This shows his ignorance, and clearly shows his love of power, and the feeling of being in charge.
Whilst Mr Birling is making his speech, he repeats that he is a ‘hard headed buisnessman’, which when repeated as it was and combined with the vast array of dramatic irony employed against him, makes him become less believeable and appear more foolish in the eyes of the public.
Mr Birling makes several statements which show his tremendous lack of social responsibility ‘A man has to mind his own business and look after his own’ shows that he lacks the capacity to care for anyone other than his own family, those who directly influence his life, whereas other ‘less important’ members of society he deems are below his interest.
Mrs Birling is introduced as ‘a rather cold woman’ which suggests she is not a loving mother, and has distanced herself from both her children and husband. She is depicted as ‘her husband’s social superior’. This raises the question of weather Birling married for money rather than love. It suggests she often believes she is better than her husband, but because of the role of women, it is likely that she is unwilling to speak out and protest against her husband.
When Mr Birling asks Edna to thank the cook for a good dinner, Mrs Birling exclaims ‘Arthur! Your not supposed to say such things.’ This is out of role for the women of those days, and shows her contempt for her husband, as well as being embarrassed by his poor manners.
Sheila is presented with a ring from Gerald, and whilst showing it to her mother, she advises Sheila should ‘be careful with it’. This suggests that Mrs Birling has not accepted that her children have grown up, and she still tells them what to do. She believes her daughter clumsy and forgetful as a child and cannot resist warning her to be careful.
The role of women is portrayed through her acceptence Sheila would ‘have to get used to it, just as I did’. This shows she has noticed Mr Birling has most likely cheated on her on occasion, but has accepted there are different rules for men and women.
Gerald is described as an ‘attractive chap’ which shows he is likely to gain the attention of many women, this is further shown by being described as an ‘easy well-bred young man’, which shows he is laid back about life, and is likely to be promiscuous. He is ‘too manly to be a dandy’ which shows he acts like a man, and likely looks rugged and muscular.
Gerald brushes off his absence from Sheila’s side over the previous summer as he was ‘awefully busy at the works’ we later learn that he had an affair with Daisy Renton during that time period, and this shows he cannot be trusted, and isn’t as he appears. This shows the theme of appearance and reality, he appears to be hardworking and have a genuine reason for his absence, but in reality he was off having fun with another woman.
Mr Birling refers to ‘Sir George and Lady Croft’, Geralds parents, which shows Gerald is rich, and distant to others (especially the lower classes). Because of his laid back upbringing, Gerald is now likely to be irresponsible in his actions.
When presented with her wedding ring, Sheila enquires ‘is it the one you wanted me to have?’ This shows the role of women in those days, they had no power or say in events, and relied upon their family, and later husbands, to support them in financial matters.
Later in the play after the inspector leaves, all are filled with a sense of self doubt and worry about what would happen in the future. Upon finding out that the inspectors enquiry was false, Mr Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald all revert to their previous paradigms, their true lack of social responsibility showing again mere minutes after the inspectors departure. It has been debated weather Priestley was showing his belief that the middle and upper classes complacency and utter disregard for social responsibility will continue far into the future, and mankind will pay for its stupidity with many more wars, bloodshed, pain, poverty, terrorism, and many other challenges facing todays world.
Mr Birling shows this through his disregard for Eva Smiths life, taking it in his stride but saying ‘when this comes out.. It isn’t going to do us much good’ This emphasises his uncaring attitude towards others, even his blatent disregard for his own family, he is only shown to care about what others think of him.
He states ‘There will be a public scandel.. I’ve got to cover this up’ and yet again this shows he is still unaffected by Eva Smiths death and is only concerned with himself.
Mrs Birling gives an impression of looking down her nose at ‘girls of that class’, and shows her lack of social responsibility by saying ‘I accept no blame for it at all’.
Gerald openly admits to Sheila that ‘Everything’s alright now, theres still no proof’ This underlines his disreguard for social responsibility, if it doesn’t affect him, its not worth thinking about. He immediately reverts back to his old ways and carrys on as before, showing he was not affected by the death as he had claimed to be beforehand.
In the opening stage directions, Sheila is described as a ‘pretty girl in her early twenties. This shows that despite her clear entry into womanhood by her age, she is still regarded as a girl by her parents. It states she is ‘pleased with life’ which is again, ironic as later in the play she is distraught with grief at what she had possibly caused.
When the Inspector was interrogating Sheila, he told her ‘you might have been said to be jealous of her’ to which she replied ‘yes, I suppose so’. This shows that Sheila, through a lack of responsibility, was able to take out her own insecurities on Eva Smith.
After her rather made a rude and flippant remark about the girls that used to work for him, Sheila replied ‘Those girls aren’t cheap labour, they’re people!’ This suggests that she deeply cares about others and she can see her father is selfish and insensitive in his views.
When she says ‘he probably gave us the rope needed to hang ourselves’, it highlights Sheilas intelligence, and how she realised the inspectors power over her family.
Sheila takes full responsibility for her actions ‘I know I’m to blame’ which emphasises the fact Sheila knows responsibility towards others is necessary.
Eric is introduced as ‘Half shy and half assertive’. This paradox is used to create an intuition that he is either hiding something from his family, or these are the mood swings that come with being drunk. He is ‘not quite at ease’ which shows something is wrong and he is possibly trying to hide something from the rest of his family.
Sheila exclaims that Eric is ‘squiffy!’ which shows he looses the ability to behave appropriately, which raises the question why? He has been heard saying such slang terms as ‘Steady the buffs!’ which are inappropriate at such a gathering.
During his fathers tirade, Eric tries to interupt with ‘Yes! I know, but still-’ and despite his clear disagreement with his fathers views, but is unable to assert himself enough.
During the inspectors enquiry, Eric could be heard to ask his father ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages?’ Which suggests that like Sheila, he feels a sense of community, and social responsibility.
The Inspector is irrefusibly the most important character in this piece of work. He is used as the mouthpiece for Priestleys views, he is used to respresent the lower classes in 1912, and is a very emotive speaker. Thruought the play he slowly transforms from an average police inspector into a preacher of social responsibility. His name (Inspector Goole, is a known pun for the word Ghoul.) This suggests that he is not of this earth, with a different set of objectives to the average police inspector which may call upon the Birlings.
Before the Inspector enters the room, the tension had slowly been mounting, from Mr Birlings bold proclamations and the other’s inability to stop him. Mr Birlings speech to Gerald was reaching its climax ‘-that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own - and--’ This is however interrupted by the doorbell. The fact that the doorbell rang at that moment is significant because it symbolically illustrates the inspector will interrupt or disapprove of Mr Birlings theories and views.
The fact that we hear a ‘sharp’ ring of the doorbell is almost a premonition of how the Inspector will deal with the Birlings- sharply.
After the doorbell has been rang, Edna enters the room and announces ‘An Inspector’s Called’, this is the title of the play which makes the audience sit up and pay attention, this increases the tension onstage. She then announces that it was indeed a ‘police inspector’ who says his name’s ‘Goole’ which again is a pun relating to the supernatural.
The Inspector ‘Need not be a big man, but he at once creates a impression on massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.’ This offers a stark contrast with Mr Birling, as Mr Birling relies on his physical size and physical intimidation to gain control, whereas the Inspector has a strong personality which is emphasised in the triplet ‘of massiveness solidity and purosefulness’. The Inspector is dressed in a ‘plain, darkish suit of the period’ which contrasts the Birlings in their evening dress, and shows physically that Inspector Goole is there to represent the working class. The Inspector is shown to have ‘a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking’, this increases the amount of tension and menace that the inspector radiates.
The inspector begins as an average police officer starting an enquiry ‘I would like some information if you don’t mind’ ‘and it’s my duty to ask questions’, this shows his normalcy at what he does. He then goes on to only allow ‘one person’ to view his photograph at a time. We thing this seems a tad unorthodox for an average police investigator, but the audience goes along with it as it does not seem too far out of the ordinary to concern yourself with. He further shows he is not from the upper classes when he mentioned ‘I don’t play golf’ which was a sport for the rich in that time.
When the inspector says ‘It would do us all a bit of good if sometimes we tried to put ourselves in the place of these girls’ This is the moment when he starts to show signs that he is the vehicle in which Priestly suggests his own socialist views on social responsibility.
It is when the inspector says ‘there are millions and millions and millions of Eva and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all interwined with our lives’ and ‘we don’t live alone, we are members of one body. We are responsible for each other’ that the audience finally realises the extent of Priestleys control over the Inspector. The Inspectors sentences become longer and are broken up into strong rhythmic phrases. This speech highlights Priestleys concern with social responsibility and treating everyone equally, and how we should treat each other. This highlights the important and reoccurring theme of social responsibility.
The structure of this play is essentially circular, it both begins and ends with a ring (through the doorbell and the telephone). Priestley could have made this play circular for a few reasons, it could be possible that Priestley is giving both the Birlings and the audience a second chance to mend their ways and not to repeat their actions. I however believe Priestley is suggesting that things will never change, like the never ending wheel of life and death, so too will the wheel turn of collective irresponsibility, and wars and pain and suffering will never end.
Despite everything, Priestley certainly made the opening of ‘An Inspector Calls’ effective, primarily through the use of literary and dramatic techniques. I am of the opinion that the most significant technique used was that of Dramatic Irony, implemented through Mr Birlings speech. It is well placed and most certainly makes an impression upon the audience, making Mr Birling appear to be an utter fool, in achieving this Priestley certainly surpassed any other technique he used, as I do not believe any to be as effectively implemented as this.