An inspector calls is a whodunnit play set in 1912, but written much after in 1940. The characters are all somehow linked to the death of Eva Smith in one way or another. It is written by J.B.Priestley, who was a socialist at the time, so the play has strong political views leaning towards socialism. Also, the play is based around medieval morality plays, which aimed to teach peasants about the seven deadly sins (greed, pride, envy, lust, gluttony, wrath, sloth). In ‘An Inspector Calls’ each character represents one of the seven sins, which Priestley was trying to make us aware off & teach us about. The fact that this play is set much before it was written gives the audience a greater knowledge than the characters. This is dramatic irony, because the audience know there is going to be another war, but the characters do not.
Mr Birling, a typical greedy businessman, is a capitalist. He has an unshakable belief in the technological progress the UK is undergoing during the nineteen hundreds (such as the apparently unsinkable titanic, etc). We find out that he is self-centred with the way he handles the situation later on in the play. Birling is also quite a hypocrite, as he does not believe in moving up the classes, but clues in the dialogue such as ‘eh’ & the use of apostrophes make us draw the conclusion that he is from humble origins – perhaps working class. He represents the greed sin, in the sense that he wants Sheila & Gerald to marry only to benefit his own well being. In one of Birling’s speeches on page 4, he mentions “I’m going to tell you frankly, without any pretences, that your engagement to Sheila means a tremendous lot to me”, from which we can gather that he is concerned more with his business than his daughter happiness, because since Birling & Croft are getting married, there could be opportunity for the two business to join together.
“We may look forward to the time when Crofts & Birling’s are no longer competing, but are working together”, from this sentence we can gather he has thought about it, & has his mind focused on the joining together for the benefit of himself. Also, he comes over as a big-headed pompous character, who is revealed as a fool to the audience. This is because he doesn’t think there will be a war, he says “just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink & begin talking nonsense, you’ll hear some people say wars inevitable. To that I say – fiddlesticks!”, but the audience know there will be a war (as it has already happened at the time the play will be shown).
This makes Birling seem naive & overconfident in the technology – which we know isn’t all positive, hence the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The titanic is another example of his naivety, as he claims in to be ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’, which again the audience know that it sinks on its maiden voyage. On page 13, whilst Birling Is being questioned by the inspector, his speech is loaded with hyphens, this reveals his nervous, stilted speech & the fact he isn’t a cocky arrogant speaker anymore like he was previously.
Birlings lengthy dialogue on page 6 reveals a lot about the social historical context of the time, such as the way Mr Birling says “there’s a lot of wild talk about possible labour trouble in the near future”. This is referring to the militancy of trade unions in 1910 – 1926. There was also a minors strike in 1920, which Birling refers to, “last month, the minors came out on strike”. Birling believes that the factory owners have ‘passed the worse of it’, & things can only get better for large corporate businesses like his.
He is oblivious to the possibility of war & believes they are in a time of ‘increasing prosperity’. This speech is a key moment in the play, as we can see Birling exposed for the fool that he is. He says in 1 of his speeches ‘Russia will always being behind naturally’, this is because of the Russian revolution where the Bolsheviks seize power from Tsar Nicholas. Also, He says “we can’t let all these Bernard Shaws & H.G Wellses do all the talking. We hardheaded practical business men must say something sometime”. Bernard Shaw & H.G Wells were socialist play writers/novelists from the Fabien society. This shows Birling’s disagreement with socialism, as he believes capitalists like himself should have a say as well.
Mrs Birling is quite the opposite; she knows the ‘proper’ way to act respectively. At several times during the play she corrects Birling such as when she says “Arthur, you are not supposed to say such things”, which implies that she does know what you are supposed to say – so we can presume she has been brought up from a ‘posh’, middle-class background. She is proud, but too proud; to an extent she becomes selfish. She denies a pregnant girl (Eva smith) money; simply because she used the name in her pleading (she called herself Mrs Birling). Thomas Aquinas said of pride: “inordinate self-love is the cause of every sin”, which is what Mrs Birling is guilty of; she has too much self respect & belief in her status to overlook something as insignificant as someone claiming to have the same name as her.
Sheila is sort of a role model in the play. Whilst Mr & Mrs Birling brush aside the responsibility at the end of the play & don’t learn their lesson, Sheila does learn something. She is perhaps the most effected by the events. At several times throughout the play, she rebels against her parent’s beliefs & take the inspector’s side. Later on in act 3, she says “But mother, don’t forget that he showed you a photograph of the girl before that, and you obviously recognised it”, this shows she has sided with the inspector, & purposely attempts to be awkward/questioning towards her parents. But she still helped contribute to Eva Smith’s death, by getting her fired from her 2nd job.
Eva gets a stroke of luck, as she was taken on at a high-class shop (Milwards). At the time there was a flu epidemic which increased the amount of jobs available. But Sheila was envious of Eva’s beauty one time, when she went in the shop to purchase a hat. This means Sheila is responsible for the sin of envy. Sheila feels angry at Eva, because she smirks when Sheila tries on a hat – knowing that it doesn’t suit her – this triggers Sheila’s temper making her act on impulse & she uses her power as the daughter of a wealthy businessman to get her fired (which she regrets doing later). The inspector sarcastically says “in a kind of way, you might have been said to be jealous of her”, she unwillingly agrees with this statement replied ‘yes, I suppose so”, this quite strongly shows the sin envy.
Gerald represents lust. He has an affair of ‘Daisy Renton’, which doesn’t come out until being questioned by the inspector, whilst he claims to Sheila he was busy working. From this we can draw the conclusion that Gerald is a manipulative character as he tries to persuade Sheila he was elsewhere during the time he spent with Daisy. But we can tell Sheila isn’t so easily fooled because she comments “Except for all last summer, when you never came near me & I had wondered what had happened to you”, implying she knows something was up, which will be revealed to her later on in the play. Gerald’s manipulative natures sees him using Eva as a play thing, to get what he wants when he is bored.
“It’s a favourite haunt of women of the town…” shows Gerald is a bit seedy, retreating to a bar because he had a ‘long dull day’ & ‘the show wasn’t very bright’, and shows he is easily bored & craves womanly company to brighten up his life. This is how Gerald becomes involved with Eva. He says “I want you to understand that I didn’t install her there so that I could make love to her”, which shows Gerald’s sensitive side, as he is trying to calm the hype surrounding the new found out affair down. Gerald also comes from upper middle class backgrounds, because his parents have the titles ‘Sir George’ & ‘Lady Croft’, which means he could come from aristocratic origins, therefore Mr & Mrs Birling are out to impress him, trying to give off the right impression.
Eric, the young lad, represents gluttony as he is a very heavy drinker. His parents aren’t aware of Eric obvious drinking problem but Gerald is, he says “I have never seen much of him outside this house but, I have gathered he’s a pretty heavy drinker”, therefore we can accuse Eric of representing gluttony. We believe he drinks so much because of his middle-class lifestyle, he has enough money to play about with to go out every night & get drunk. He has a low self-esteem & has insecurities such as the fact he has nothing else to do.
The stage directions further back up Eric’s gluttonous behaviour by saying “his whole manner of handling the decanter & then the drink shows his familiarity with quick heavy drinking”. Also, he’s a lonely figure, so he seeks company of a vulnerable Eva Smith. “Yes, I wasn’t in love with her or anything – but I liked her – she was pretty and a good sport”, he tells the inspector, proving he wasn’t in it for a long term relationship, just for a bit of company. After the inspector reveals that Mrs Birling denied Eva help, Eric seems to lose it showing signs of the sin wrath. “(Nearly at breaking point) Then – you killed her. She came to you to protect me – and you turned her away – yes, and you killed her”, the use of repetition here emphasises Eric’s anger, he is really not happy at this point.
The inspector doesn’t represent a sin – he is more of a socialist figure who tries to teach the other characters the error of their ways. He is a physical embodiment of Priestley’s beliefs, which helps the audience understand what Priestley was trying to teach us with this play, that people should take more care of people around them. He is an omniscient (all seeing) god-like character, because he can see Eric’s forthcoming arrival before he enters. “Inspector holds up a hand, we hear the front door”, this is Eric coming through the door after his break. This shows the all seeing inspector can pre-tell this event before it happens – resembling his ‘god-like’ powers.
Another striking point about the inspector is the fact his name is Inspector Goole which adds an element of mystery to his character because it makes the audience draw a conclusion he isn’t human. It’s not spelt the same as a ghostly ghoul, but this name was obviously picked for an effect. Ghouls usually foretell bad fortune & bad events, like the inspector does. He claims Eva Smith died on that night, but when Gerald rings the infirmary he claims they say ‘no girl has died in there today’. But not long after, they receive another phone call, and Gerald guiltily says “that was the police. An inspector is on his way here – to ask – some questions-“. This shows the ability of the inspector being able to foretell this girl’s death, but also makes him seem rather un-human, because he isn’t a real police inspector but he has convinced them all he is. This phone call is an example of coup de theatre as there is a sudden change in the plot of the play.
An inspector calls is a naturalistic play, where the setting reflects the environment of a real early 20th century household. Although the setting isn’t quite as cosy/comfortable as you would expect from a middle-class family home. The stage directions at the very start of the play indicate ‘the general effect is substantial & heavily comfortable, but not cosy & homelike’, which suggest there is something missing emotionally from the family – perhaps Mr Birling has been corrupted by money, making him a worse parent. Eric’s gluttonous behaviour (drinking in excess) may also reflect the emotional insecurity the Birling family suffers as a result of his upbringing.
Priestley uses a large paragraph of stage directions at the start of the play to establish setting & continues with the stage directions throughout the play, which indicates to the reader what the actor should be feeling. During Sheila’s & Gerald’s conversation on page 5, there are a lot of quite strict stage directions such as (smiling), (trying to be light & easy) & (excited), which set-up an atmospheric mood of jubilance. The liveliness sets up a contrast from later on when the inspector comes who makes the mood awkward & unwelcoming.
The stage directions at different stages of the play can help us to witness a change in characters actions from act 1 to 2 or 3. For example Gerald, who is delighted at his engagement, is described as speaking ‘amused’ ‘lightly’ & ‘laughing’, but whilst being interrogated by the inspector the stage directions indicate he is ‘startled’ & ‘pulling himself together’. This shows 2 things; the inspectors unrivalled ability to crack-down characters comforts & shows Gerald’s deep down insecurities – as he isn’t perfect & has flaws like everybody else.
The lighting here is used for an effect. Originally it should be ‘pink and intimate’, which lulls the audience into a false sense of security, by making the opening set seem mellow & relaxed, perhaps removed from reality. But when the inspector arrives the lighting should ‘be brighter and harder’, which implies the inspector is shining light upon the characters, as he makes them admit their involvement with Eva. This lighting is used as a metaphor for their exposure; this implies there is no escaping from the Inspectors enquiries, just like what Sheila says to her mother, “mother – stop – stop!”. She is trying to warn her not to dig herself into a deeper hole, seen as though the inspector has already sabotaged Mrs Birling’s confidence. The light is similar to the police interrogation rooms in the 1940’s society; this signifies that the inspector is using intimidation techniques similar to what the real police would use. Also, the lighting is used as a dramatic technique used to set up an opposition between the Birlings & the inspector, Priestley uses this in many ways – the use of light is one of them.
This play is traditional in the sense of an early 19th century play. At the start, the 4 Birlings are seated at the table, with Mr Birling sat at the top end & Mrs Birling sat on the bottom. This shows the control + power the head of the house (the male) has over his family/wife. Also, Mr Birling tries to hide his beloved wife from the shock of Eric admitting what he did with Eva. Birling sharply says “Sheila, take your mother along to be drawing-room-“, this be could be a protection of the woman in the family, which is a chivalrous act from Birling.
Socialism is the main theme of this play. Priestley expresses his feelings throughout the acts of the inspector. He says “because what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards. A chain of events”, which is a socialist principle, as they believe in responsibility of others. The inspector uses some powerful religious imagery straight before he leaves the Birling house. “Their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do”, this quote from the inspector forces the audience to think about the responsibility everyone has – a socialist view. He says “we are member of one body”, which refers to Christ’s body in a communion, where people will eat bread (Christ’s body) & drink wine (Christ’s blood).
Overall, Priestley’s aim to show his personal views are represent well throughout the use of the inspector himself & the dramatic devices. Particularly dramatic irony which is used a great deal in this play.