An Inspector Calls
By Katie Cook 10S1
J. B. Priestly was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, 1894. After surviving the First World War, he went on to study literature, history and political science at Bradford and at Cambridge. Priestly wanted to ensure life after the First World War was better than before and he hoped that through his writing he could influence people's ideas and change society. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play set in 1912 about the capitalist Birling family who are visited one night by an Inspector, Inspector Goole, who reveals that a young woman, Eva Smith, has died after swallowing a lot of strong disinfectant. He questions all the Birling family who are all revealed to have played a part in Eva’s downward spiral of depression and ultimately, suicide.
J. B. Priestly wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1945 but deliberately set it in 1912, a time where socialism was often losing out to capitalism. He was particularly concerned about the living conditions of the lower classes, represented by Eva, and the way the upper classes behaved, represented by the Birlings’ and Gerald Croft, Sheila Birling’s fiancé. Priestly believed that we should all help each other, which is the total opposite from what the Birlings believed. Priestly set the play 33 years after he’d wrote it, this gives the audience a knowledge that the characters don’t have. Priestly often uses this to make certain characters appear stupid and foolish. For Example, Mr Birling talks about "a time of steadily increasing prosperity." He also mentions that the Titanic is “unsinkable… absolutely unsinkable,” and that there will be no war in Europe. He was of cause wrong about all three of these statements. Mr. Birling is the most 'stupid' character in the play. Priestly portrays Arthur as a man who is very confident in his own beliefs, when we see Birling make these statements which we know to be false, the audience distrusts Arthur and all his views and beliefs. Priestly used his characters to show his own personal views. Through the dialogue and actions of the Birling family we, the audience, learn that Priestly is a socialist man who is trying to communicate with us through his plays. In the first act we are shown the unfairness of capitalism and made to think about our own actions and how we can better the lives of less fortunate people. He wanted people to feel sympathy and care for each other and take responsibility for their actions.
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J. B. Priestly uses several dramatic devices as a way of getting the audiences attention and establishing his themes and characters. Priestly uses dramatic irony to make certain characters, mainly Mr Birling, appear very foolish and stupid. Dramatic irony is where the audience knows more than the characters and because the audience is watching a play set in the past, the audience has a huge knowledge of things that the characters don’t. One example of this is when Arthur Birling refers to the Titanic as being “absolutely unsinkable.” We, the audience, know as a fact that the Titanic sank and so was very much sinkable! This gives us a reason to doubt Mr Birling who appears so confident in his views and often presents them as facts. Birling continues to gain our distrust as he talks about how “nobody wants war,” and that 1912 is "a time of steadily increasing prosperity." All three of these statements are false and it gives the audience very strong reason to distrust any of Birling’s other views and philosophies. By making a character seem untrustworthy, Priestly can use the character to discredit all the things that the playwright sees as be bad. Mr Birling believes himself to be “a hard-headed man of business,” this shows Birling in a capitalist light which we are led to believe is a bad thing judging by Birling’s past mistakes. Again Priestly uses dramatic irony, though in a slightly different way. Mr Birling confidently tells his family “so long as we behave ourselves, don’t get into the police courts or start a scandal – eh?” this gives the audience reason to believe that something will happen, involving the Birling’s in a scandal. We believe this as Arthur’s past statements are proved to be false so we believe that this one will be false.
Stage directions tell the characters about how they’re dressed, their appearances, how they act and talk and describe the setting around them. For the older characters their behaviour is consistent throughout the play, like Mr and Mrs Birling. The younger characters, such as Sheila Birling, begin the play acting ‘very pleased with life and rather exited’ and ‘playful’. This behaviour changes in the play and Sheila ends up becoming ‘distressed’ and ‘miserable’. This is a very important factor in the play. Priestly is using the inspector to symbolise the conscience of the nation and through him challenges each of the characters that represent a part of society. In this way he shows how the younger generation are more likely to change their social views (Sheila and Eric) rather than the older generation (Arthur and Sybil) or the upper classes symbolised by Gerald Croft.
Dramatic use of Timing is used to either make certain characters look stupid or to emphasis a point to the audience. For example Mr Birling is in full flow of a capitalist speech that makes his views very clear. He talks about how ‘a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own.’ Inspector Goole’s arrival interrupts this speech. It shows that the Inspector is trying to stop this kind of belief before he’s even spoken, just by arriving and stopping Mr Birling’s speech. Later on in Act 3 the Inspector contradicts Mr Birling’s speech when the Inspector tells the Birling’s ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,’ this is the complete opposite to Arthur Birling’s views and it leaves the audience with J. B. Priestly’s view of social classes rather then letting Arthur have the last word. Another use of dramatic timing is where at the end of Act 1 we are left at a cliffhanger with Gerald and Sheila preparing to face the inspector. This cliffhanger ending is repeated again at the end of Act 2 and again at the end of the play. This is to keep the audience interested; it builds tension and makes the play more interesting by keeping the audience waiting when they want to know what’s going to happen next.
Priestly uses props to help show a better picture of some of the characters. For example Eric is often seen with a drink in his hand that leads the audience to believe he’s an alcoholic. Lighting is another prop that is used to show the different connotations. When the Birling family are sat down eating at the beginning of the play, the lights are dimmed but when the Inspector enters the stage directions read “the lights become brighter”. This shows that the Inspector is more important than the Birling’s and needs to be shown as a light, heavenly figure that lightens up the room with his presence. During the questioning of the Birling’s by the Inspector, Inspector Goole shows them a photograph. But, he only shows one person at one time. They never see the photograph at the same time as someone else. Arthur is shown the picture first, followed by Sheila, then Gerald, then Eric and finally Sybil Birling. As an audience we wonder why the characters are not shown the photograph at the same time. Later on in the play, towards the end of Act 3, Gerald shows some concerns towards Inspector Goole and begins to doubt the death of Eva Smith. Gerald believes that the reason they were not shown the picture at the same time is because the Inspector held many pictures, he never showed the same one twice. This is an important part of the play because all the Birling family starts to believe that no girl has died and there will be no public scandal. We see here the different reactions of characters and see which characters have learnt their lesson and which haven’t. Sheila and Eric Birling still feel remorse and sadness and are both angry when their parents carry on with life as they have done before. Gerald Croft, Sheila and Eric all take responsibility for their actions and we see a dramatic change in their behaviour compared with how they acted at the start of the play. Mr and Mrs Birling are just relived that their public image will not be harmed and are quick to forget what the Inspector has taught them about responsibility for their actions and the people they affect. Priestly then punishes all of the characters because of Mr and Mrs Birling’s actions and the telephone rings to announce that a young girl has committed suicide and a police Inspector is on his way round to questions the Birling family. The play ends here leaving the audience wanting to find out what happens next. It shows the audience that you have to take responsibility for your actions and if you don’t, you will be punished.
All these dramatic devices help to show the audience the behaviour of the characters, the importance of some characters, they show certain characters as being “foolish” and “stupid” and all together they help to show J. B. Priestly’s message, Capitalism is unfair and wrong. The Inspector is shown as a socialist man and we feel that he stands for all J. B. Priestly’s views. Through this character we find out that Priestly is a socialist man who is angered by injustice and unfairness in the world. We notice that the Inspector’s name is ‘Goole’ which reminds us of Ghouls or Ghosts, this gives us the impression that the Inspector is a ghostly man and he appears at the Birling’s house unannounced. When the Inspector gives the Birling’s a talk about responsibility he appears to represent the conscience of the nation. This idea of the Inspector being a ghostly symbol is further built on in the play when Gerald shows his concerns towards the Inspector and upon investigation, Gerald discovers that no girl has committed suicide but yet the Inspector was able to find out so much information about the characters actions. This makes the audience wonder how this could have happened, how the inspector could get all these characters to admit to their wrong doings when no girl had even died. We are also shown through out the play the stubbornness and ignorance of the older generation. Priestly is trying to show the audience that it is very important that we, the younger generation, change are actions and views just as Gerald, Eric and Sheila did in the play.