‘An Inspector Calls’ is a political play written by J. B Priestly in 1945. Set it 1912, it unravels the mystery of a working class girl’s suicide and how her death was entwined with a family from a middle class background. The Birling family are Capitalists and believe that every man should look after himself, until a suspicious inspector arrives at the house and interrogates each of them as he aims to prove to them that we are all responsible for one another. Timing and stage directions are crucial to the building of suspense in this play and was one of the reasons why it was, and still it, such as success.
The author wanted to express his views about the 1912 vision of society and how socialism was going to change it all. The story of ‘Eva Smith’ reflects the injustice of Edwardian society and emphasizes the point that we should help out everyone in the community, instead of putting ourselves first. In the Inspector’s final speech, Priestly sums up socialism in a few paragraphs, including the phrase ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body’. The play begins with an engagement party being held for Sheila Birling, daughter of successful business man Mr Birling, and her fianc.
Gerald. Mr and Mrs Birling are at the dinner party along with their unmarried son, Eric. They are seated around the dining table in a ‘fairly large, suburban house’ which shows that the family are wealthy. The lighting is pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, where it changes to bright and bold. This symbolises that the Birlings are looking at life ‘through rose-tinted glass’, which means that they only see the things they want to see and are oblivious to suffering, until they are brought back to reality by the Inspector.
Mr Birling is described as “a rather portentous man in his middle fifties with fairly easy manners but rather provincial in his speech”. This description alone gives us a negative opinion of him as we can guess he thinks a lot of himself before he even speaks. His wife, Mrs Birling is described as “about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior”. This tells us that Mr Birling wasn’t always rich and upper class, and that he has obviously bettered himself. From these descriptions, we can tell they are not a very nice couple.
In the first few minutes of dialogue, the atmosphere is merry, but slightly uneasy. Gerald is saying how long he has been trying to become one of the family, to which Sheila says “Yes- except for all last summer, when you never came near me, and I wondered what had happened to you. ” We can almost guess what Gerald has been up to already, so we know that the relationship is not one based on trust and dependency. We know something is bound to go wrong and spoil the good atmosphere.
Mr Birling volunteers to make a speech; he talks about the current global situation, saying that it is an excellent time for marriage and that things are looking up. The play is rich in dramatic irony, which is used to portray Capitalism as wrong, and Socialism as right. Here, Mr Birling is making predictions about the future which, as a reader in 1945, the audience know was incorrect. He says such things as ‘There will never be a war’ and ‘The Titanic is unsinkable’, which tells us that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
It was written at a time when labour government was coming into power, a time when socialism was being put into practise. Here we realise that Mr Birling isn’t all he thinks his is, as all his predictions are wrong. He goes on to explain the importance of looking after oneself and one’s family, instead of looking after the whole community. He says “a man has to look after his own business and look after himself and his own -and -” At this point, the Inspector knocks on the door.
This is an example of timing being used to create a dramatic effect as the Inspector has come to teach Mr Birling exactly why that statement isn’t true. Inspector Goole is described as a man who ‘creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’ and is said to speak ‘carefully, weightily and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking’ These phrases are used to conjure an image of a man who is not to be messed with, but is not full of himself in the same way as Mr Birling.
This is because he represents socialism and Priestly wanted to express his opinions of how socialism was strong yet compassionate. In the first minute of his arrival, the atmosphere changes. He brings the news that a young working class girl called Eva Smith has killed herself in the infirmary by swallowing disinfectant, and he needs to ask some questions. The feeling is now uneasy and suspicious, unlike the happy, positive atmosphere before. It now feels like a murder mystery, and although is isn’t murder you get the feeling that it is a similar situation.
Someone is definitely guilty. The Inspector interrogates everyone, and successfully gets the story out of them bit by bit. His movements show that he is always in control, for instance he “interposes himself between them and the photograph” He questions each of them separately so as to build tension and suspense until everything is uncovered. As this happens, each character reacts differently. Mr Birling is questioned first about his involvement in the sacking of Eva Smith from his works, to which he remains impatient and apathetic.
He refuses to take any kind of responsibility, which makes the audience dislike him even more. The use of a cliff hanger at the end of act 1 creates more suspense when Gerald confesses to Sheila that he had an affair with Eva Smith, and suddenly the Inspector enters and says ‘Well? ‘ When Gerald is interrogated, he takes a little while to confess, which shows he is ashamed of what he has done, but also quite untrustworthy. He says “In that case – as I am more – upset by this business than I probably appear to be,” and (distressed) “Sorry – I – well, I’ve suddenly realised – taken in properly – that she’s dead -“.
He sounds remorseful and upset so as an audience we like him a little more and respect him for telling the truth eventually. Last for interrogation is Eric. Previously in the play he has remained a little mysterious, we know he drinks too much and is quite unsure of himself, but he has been kept in the background. He comes into the room just as Mrs Birling is saying exactly what she thinks should happen to the father of the child. Sheila begs her mother to stop as she has guessed what is going on, but it is too late.
The last secret is revealed and the family is distraught. The use of timing here is important as logically this secret would have been revealed when Eric was questioned, but Priestley has it so Mrs Birling knows Eva Smith was pregnant, before she knows that the father is her own son. She says “He should be made an example of. If the girl’s death is due to anyone, it’s him,” Timing is used at the end of act two when everyone begins to realise who is the father, and the audience is left desperate for more.