‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in the mid-1940’s following the Second World War. At the time it was a highly successful play, and whilst times and social morals have changed, it remains to this day entertaining and thought provoking. Its success can be viewed as largely related to the tension that grips the audience in ways similar yet also dissimilar to a horror movie. Instead of using typically over-exaggerated shock, Priestley has used confrontation and emotionally dramatic tension to create suspense that appeals to the audience.
This play has numerous similarities to a ‘who-done-it’ style play and also clearly resembles a morality play. Priestley has adhered to a strict structure when writing ‘An Inspector Calls.’ He has used the three unities of time, action, and place, which originate from Greek literature. ‘An Inspector Calls’ also bears resemblance to Scribe’s idea of a well-made play, crafted to arouse suspicion, suspense and tension. Scribe’s idea includes beginning with an exposition, entrances and exits timely placed to create tension, an obligatory scene, and acts ending at a moment of high tension. ‘An Inspector Calls’ meets all of these points.
One important thing to remember when watching this play is that these characters are not people. Instead they are dramatic devices through which Priestley shows his views. The play opens with brief descriptions of the characters. We find out their relationship to each other and a few other small pieces of information, but very little is given, as it is clearly irrelevant.
The opening of the play is perhaps deceptive. It opens with a happy party scene portraying a typical blissful family without any problems or secrets. No sign of the later crimes are apparent, although in retrospect we can spot hints of unease and disruption. Tension is first felt between Sheila and Gerald as slight undercurrents. This is purposely unobvious and can be seen as early as page three, in particular during stage directions such as ‘half serious…’ or ‘trying to be light and easy.’
The play becomes of real interest to the audience when “An Inspector Calls.” The Inspector’s arrival adds tension as he is unexpected and his business is a mystery to all members of the family. His manner is very formal and direct. At the time the Inspector would have been considered very rude. “I’d like some information, if you don’t mind Mr Birling.” Where other people would perhaps feel awkward or reluctant, the Inspector appears not to feel this at all- he is unaffected by Mr Birling’s mannerisms and authority. During the 40’s, society was clearly affected by social status and position. Mr Birling tries to use this to support his actions, but Inspector Goole dismisses any attempts. This in turn adds to the tension felt.
There are many contrasts in the play; between guilt and innocence, or the merry party scene that is followed by grim interrogations. Using contrasts such as these allows Priestley to create tension by showing complete opposites- truth and lies (between Gerald and Sheila), happiness and sadness, or the differentiating views between young and old.
Another feature used throughout the play is dramatic irony. This is used most during Act 1. As the play is set in 1912, Priestley has been able to use dramatic irony. Mr Birling talks about the Titanic as ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable,’ or of World War One, saying, ‘You’ll hear people talking about war as inevitable. To that I say- fiddlesticks.’ As the play was written in the 1940’s we, the audience, know for certain that the Titanic did sink and that there was not one, but in fact two world wars. Priestley ha also used Gerald as a narrator of this irony, saying ‘You seem to be a nice well-behaved family-.’ Using hindsight this becomes extremely mocking and verges on comical.
Act One ends with the tension peaking. Firstly Sheila exits in tears which proves her connection to the crime- “What, I’m really responsible…?’ The act is concluded as Gerald recognises the name ‘Daisy Renton,’ an alternative name for Eva Smith. The Inspector re-enters saying ‘Well?’ This cliffhanger ending leads to a great amount of tension, as the audience are eager to see what happens next.