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How Priestley Dramatises the Themes and Issues in An Inspector Calls

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  • Category: Drama

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‘An Inspector Calls’ written by John Boynton Priestley in 1945 was depicted as set in 1912, two years before the commencement of World War I when there was very high unemployment in Britain and the Suffragette Movement’s activities were peaking. The play was first performed in Moscow in 1945 because of the lack of availability of a suitable theatre in London but despite this, the London premiere followed in 1946 a year later. The play was well acclaimed in Moscow in 1945 as its setting was during a period when the Russian Revolution had taken place in 1917.

The play sent an important message to its audience and others about how the country should be looking after its citizens and how unfortunate people like Eva Smith should not be forced to commit suicide through destitution and homelessness. The play is about a wealthy family celebrating the engagement of the businessman, Arthur Birling’s daughter Sheila Birling. This proves to be a horrifying and revealing experience for the family as they learn that they have all played part in the suicide of a young girl called Eva Smith.

After the cunning inspector brings about confession of all the members of the family he leaves instantly in a peculiar way. They later find out that he was not a real inspector and by calling up the infirmary it becomes known that no girl of Eva Smith’s name or description had committed suicide. The parents, turning to their old arrogant selfish ways receive a call from the infirmary a while later saying that a young girl had just died by drinking strong disinfectant (the way the inspector said how Eva died). The play is set in three acts.

The main setting (the dining room) does not change however the family in chronological order find out how they helped in the demise of a young girl of approximately Sheila’s age (early twenties). As the set is not changed from the dining room in ‘Birling Manor’ a feeling of realism is created. The tension caused seems as if it is happening during that particular moment as if it was set in the present. Furthermore, as it is all set in one room we the audience can see the claustrophobic mood of each character as they learn their own and their family’s role in the girl’s death.

At the beginning of the play Mr Arthur Birling and Gerald Croft his future son-in-law there is a great businessman and wealthy like attitude as they talk about port (a type of fortified wine). Mr Birling is a proud businessman who is formal and believes that class and popularity come first above everything including his family and happiness. Sheila slyly tries to extract information from Gerald trying to find out why he did not come to see her the previous summer, not believing his excuse about being busy at work.

Also there is great dramatic irony during Mr Birling’s speech (page 6-7) ‘there isn’t a chance of war’ (this is set two years before World War One), ‘and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’ (the Titanic did sink) and many others. This dramatic irony is used to show the audience how he is foolish, how far he is from the truth and that he is full in his own self-importance. As we lose our trust in him we cannot trust his opinions anymore. When Birling, Gerald and Eric have their conversation there is a sense of humour because Gerald and Arthur Birling are teasing Eric but what they are saying is actually correct.

Eric is a wild alcoholic who hangs around in sleazy bars. Eric feels uneasy because he thinks they have found out about how he is an alcoholic however they were just joking. To Mr Birling receiving a knighthood, becoming richer and climbing up the social ladder looks as if it is the most important thing to him. Also marrying off his daughter to Gerald Croft is like an alliance as the Crofts are competitors in business. However, Gerald does not want to marry Sheila for business purposes but because he actually cares for her and maybe even loves her.

Eric whose attitudes are very shaded until about three quarters through the play when we find out about his alcoholism gets an innocent girl pregnant as well as stealing from his father. However it does seem like a rebellion from his parents especially his father as is quoted ‘not the kind of father which a chap could go to when he’s in trouble. He looks as if he will take over the family business when he is older. Inspector Goole enters when Mr Birling and Gerald are teasing Eric. He enters with an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness the stage directions show.

He is described as a man in his fifties, dressed in a plain darkish suit of the period and who speaks carefully, weightily and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking. When talking for the first time with Mr Birling, Inspector Goole only speaks when spoken to. He answers the question with as less detail as possible acting as he was investigating for the first time. Before he speaks the audience feel as if he is a man who asks questions, examines and inspects to get to the bottom of the truth.

Since Goole sounds like Ghoul (a spirit which preys on corpses) this adds a mystery to him and makes him seem frightening and intimidating. His first impression is like an inspector who is new and who is investigating a crime for the first time with no such experience. As the inspector tells Eva Smith’s story bluntly all at once they are all quite horrified. They do not know why they were told this and why the inspector had come to their house. The audience see him as an unknown character interrupting the good mood.

The new character is used as a dramatic device to inform the audience of the story of Eva Smith, to create tension which spoils the cheerful moods. As the start of the play was a very joyous occasion Sheila was ecstatic as she had just been proposed to by someone she loved. After she eaves drops on the conversation with Mr Birling and the inspector and then finding out how she helped in making another girl of similar age commit suicide she became very distressed and guilty unlike her father. The women in the play are treated very differently compared to the men.

They are not allowed to be involved in business or important matters where they would make a real difference. Mr Birling tries to guard the women in the play from being exposed to all the scandals that involve the people they know but Sheila refuses to leave the room with Mrs Birling when Gerald tells of his relation with Daisy Renton (which her name was changed to). Furthermore, in Eric’s story of when he himself met Eva Smith and when insisted on taking her back to her lodgings, she did not want him to come in but he was in a state where any man would turn nasty and then he threatened her.

This sort of behaviour occurred with women who men had fun with without any commitment. This would never happen to a respected woman. However, Eva was treated like a common tart who was treated with no respect. At the end of page thirty two Gerald tries to protect Sheila from hearing unpleasant and disturbing stories. ‘Why should you? It’s bound to be unpleasant and disturbing’. ‘And you think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things? ‘ ‘If possible – yes.

In those times women were protected from troubling things which men were supposed to deal with that is why Mrs Birling never interfered with the inspector’s call and left for the three men to sort it out until she found out she was involved. One could say that Mrs Birling is a perfect example of what a lady during those times should be. She keeps well out of business, does not have to earn money, is married and has a respected family and also is the head of a charity organisation. In those times men and women were treated unequally.

Women were like trophies rather than people (to look good and behave). Women during those times did not have the vote. They were expected to be mothers and homemakers. Poor women had to be mothers, homemakers and had to go to work. Younger women spent time shopping, attending parties, expected to look good, find a suitable husband and settle down as soon as possible. They had very little to worry about and if they were like women in today’s times they would seem unworldly, silly and immature.

As far as men were concerned these were the women they married and it was their duty to protect them from the unpleasant and sordid things that went on in the world outside. However the other women were the women who men had fun with without any commitment. They tended to be poorer women. There was no thought of protecting them from anything, rather the thought that they got all that they deserved. In 1912 the Suffragette Movement (political movement in Britain that demanded the right of the vote for women.

The term is specifically applied to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most notorious of the women’s suffrage groupings, who campaigned for the parliamentary vote to be given to women on the same terms as it was granted to men) and was at its most violent. Sheila even though she was upper class had few rights but Eva Smith being working class had even fewer rights. Eva was very vulnerable as she was a single working girl with no family and was at risk of being mistreated by voracious men like Mr Birling or by foolish men like Eric and Gerald.

In 1912 people who were ill, unemployed or homeless had no Welfare State to turn to. They had to go to charity organisations like Mrs Birling’s which raises for and gives aid to ‘deserving causes’ but in fact most do it for a good reputation for their family and as a pass time. Since there was no free health care, no income support or unemployment benefits the only help possible were these charity organisations. The only place Eva Smith could turn to being pregnant and with no money were places like Mrs Birling’s charity.

The entrance of the inspector at the end of act one is so dramatic because the name that he had mentioned, Eva Smith’s new, changed name Daisy Renton and this name was familiar to Gerald Croft. As the audience finds out Gerald was familiar with Daisy Renton we know that they knew each other and we would soon find out their connection and story. The entrance of Eric in the end of act two is also very dramatic as we find out that Eric was the young man who got unfortunate Eva Smith pregnant and as Eric had just entered the house we knew we were going to find out what had happened and what the inspector was going to do.

As a director I would ensure that tension is built up at these points because they are the ends of the acts and need to be left in suspense in order to attract the audience attention to find out what is going to happen next. People would be curious to know what has happened and how the person is involved. The ends of acts have to be very tense as so do the ends of television soaps, end of a book in a series and stories on the radio. The Inspector makes a speech which sums up how he and Priestley feel about how people pay no attention to other peoples’ feelings especially poor people.

In this speech he (Priestley) tries to make people understand just how serious problems can get when we do not realise that as quoted ‘we are responsible for each other. ‘ This speech gives an opposite message to that which Birling gave where he said that ‘a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own which was where the Inspector had entered as if to prove him wrong. In his speech, the inspector makes reference to the forthcoming war with the idea that if people do not learn that ‘we are members of one body…. then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.

This is a very powerful statement and it would seem that the inspector is implying that the war was made to occur to punish people for not working together, and at the same time forcing them to do so. The war did break down barriers between classes and all people had to work for the country not for personal gain. So what the inspector spoke of was correct unlike Mr Birling. I think Priestley used the idea of war to convey his message of the population of a country having a lack of collective responsibility of the individuals of the country.

It was a major issue during the time and everyone would have suffered from it and would care greatly about it. Priestley making the inspector’s final speech the whole moral of the play uses many language devices. He uses a lot of repetition especially at the beginning on his first line. ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us…… ‘ He uses the word millions three times trying to emphasize the sheer extent of the number of people who are as unfortunate as Eva was.

Eva Smith is like a symbol showing all the poor working class with no rights and who are not treated like humans. ‘…… with there lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering……. ‘ ‘…… what we think and say and do. ‘ ‘…… will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. ‘ There are also many lists of three in this speech. These above being some examples. These lists of three help us remember the point being made. ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. ‘ Repetition of the word ‘we’ emphasises the idea that we are not individual but are part of a whole community of people.

We all have collective responsibility for each other. Mr Birling’s speech is a dramatic irony because in 1945 the audience knew that men did not learn the lesson of collective responsibility and that is why World War I took place. The ‘fire and blood and anguish’ refers to the suffering caused by World War I. At the end we find out that inspector Goole was not actually a real police inspector and we do not actually find out who he is. After the inspector leaves, Gerald returns and tells the family that he had an encounter with a police sergeant who he knew.

Asking the other sergeant who was an acquaintance of Gerald’s of an inspector Goole, Gerald found out that no such person of that name was in the police force. After telling the Birlings’ of the knowledge he found out they call up the infirmary finding out that no such girl has died and then thinking this was all a hoax. No such girl of that description was at the infirmary and the parents were going back to their old arrogant selves. The children however were not and actually did learn from this experience but then they receive a call saying a girl has just died by drinking strong disinfectant.

We (the audience) find out that the inspector was a person who wanted the Birling family to find out and feel guilty about the death of a young girl. This is very shocking because through out the whole play we actually think the girl is already dead and he is a real inspector of the police. However, while the inspector was questioning Gerald and each of the Birlings poor Eva Smith was getting ready to commit suicide when in fact she could have been saved. The whole play also builds up tension until the very end when the inspector leaves where the tension slowly decreases as Gerald unpicks the story (by saying there was more than one girl).

However, the phone later rings and they find out the Eva had just died and the tension rises straight to the top. The mystery of the inspector’s identity is one that the play does not answer. The characters are left speculating as to whom the inspector actually is and the audience are left confused. He is a dramatic device because without him there would be no play or story. However, he is unrealistic of his part because he is too knowing of Gerald and the Birling’s atrocity and can make the others confess; he has a power over them. There are many possibilities of the inspector’s identities.

There are many different views of who or what the inspector maybe; he’s the voice of Priestley, he’s God, he’s the voice of conscience, he’s the child Eva Smith was pregnant with, he’s a dream, he’s a time traveller, or a real police officer. I personally think he is the voice of Priestley. Since the play was written in 1945 the two world wars must have influenced Priestley greatly. Also since the play was set in 1912 the Suffragette Movement was at its strongest. During the early twentieth century there were a great number of unemployed people.

This was exploited by factory owners by paying its workers very low wages even though the prices for everything were so high and therefore people could not survive. In 1911, one year before the play was set there was nation wide violence and riots due to low wages and high prices. Russia was in revolution in 1917. Many strikes took place in the following years in protest of mass unemployment. In 1929 there was a ‘Wall Street Crash’ (stock market crash in the USA). Unemployment was rising and there was a worldwide recession. All of this must have influenced the play drastically including World War II.

The inspector’s role is where Priestley’s main themes of gender inequalities, social responsibility, and different attitudes to different classes and the value of socialism are shown to us. To dramatise these themes must have been very hard for Priestley to do especially seeing as there were many of them but I feel that using the inspector and the whole base for the play to show these themes was ingenious of Priestley. If I was to direct this play I would use many dramatic devices like dramatic irony because I find dramatic irony to be comic and every audience would enjoy seeing an arrogant man proved wrong.

Stage directions would also be helpful as the person acting would understand their role in the play better and would know exactly what to do. The stage directions can also help the audience see a clearer image of the person like when the inspector first entered. I do not think lighting would be appropriate in this play as the play shows a sense of realism and lighting would ruin that impression. The dining room is a good place for the setting as it was where the Birlings’ were having their meal and there are seats for the characters to sit.

Dramatic monologues should be used in the beginning and the end because that is where there is the most awareness from the audience since a dramatic beginning and end are expected. Although it was written in 1945, I believe that ‘An Inspector Calls’ is still a very relevant play for audiences because although unemployment is less than there used to be, there is still great unemployment. The government does help as there are still many jobless people. Nowadays many people are too consumed with themselves and would never go out of there way to help another person.

I have read and heard of many stories of when someone has been attacked on the street and no drivers or passengers in the cars passing by have stopped to help the person. The world is becoming selfish like Mr and Mrs Birling. This play speaks out to everyone who watches or reads it as no person is perfect and these themes would apply to everyone. Even now the play is still relevant for modern audiences as it still could happen today. Someone could be driven to commit suicide because of alike events that caused Eva Smith’s death.

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