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How Does Priestley Create Tension in the Play

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  • Pages: 7
  • Word count: 1649
  • Category: Play

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In this essay I am going to explore the ways in which J. B. Priestley creates tension in the play; An Inspector Calls. The author introduces dramatic devices, language and themes in order to create tension between the characters and importantly; to keep the audience engaged. He uses stage directions and the entrances and exits of characters to create tension also. An Inspector Calls was written in 1945, however was set in 1912, before the first and second World Wars, the sinking of the Titanic and the introduction of women’s rights.

Priestley uses his personal experience of politics and war to write a dramatically successful, moralistic play. In Act One tension is created between the Birlings before the arrival of Inspector Goole when Sheila says to Gerald, “except for all last summer, when you never came near me”. A comma is used here to create a dramatic pause, this keeps the audience engaged as during the dramatic pause the audience are on the edge of their seats, wondering what Sheila is going to reveal about Gerald.

The use of the word “never” emphasises Sheila’s point, so does the use of “near”. This arouses suspicion of Gerald, particularly within the audience, and keeps them guessing as to what Gerald had been doing last summer. The theme of relationships is used here and the tension created marks the beginning of the breakdown of their relationships with one another. Upon the arrival of the Inspector in Act One, Inspector Goole describes Eva Smith’s death and there is a dramatic shift in the play’s atmosphere as he draws attention to the shocking news.

He announces to the Birlings immediately that Eva Smith has “died in the infirmary” after swallowing “strong disinfectant” that “burnt her inside out”. The use of this abrupt language contrasts strongly with the family’s previous conversation, where things were implied, but never directly stated. The Inspector progresses to say that Eva Smith’s death were “suicide, of course”. The comma use provides a dramatic pause again and suspense is created as the Birlings and the audience are anticipating the Inspector will say something else but don’t yet know what.

Tension is created among the Birlings as they are totally oblivious as to how this ties in with them. The audience here don’t know whether to believe that the death was a suicide or not, as they believe there must be more to it for the Birlings to be involved. The Inspector creates a false sense of security and when he says “of course” it almost seems sarcastic. This mystery keeps the audience hooked, as they want to find out the truth behind the Inspector’s presence. The language used here is quite strong and the abruptness of the use of the word “suicide” shocks the Birlings and the audience.

The confusion between whether “of course” was meant to be patronising or sarcastic is successful in creating tension and leaves the audience in suspense. The theme of responsibility is used here, as it seems that it is the Birling family who are responsible for Eva Smith’s death. Another important device used by Priestley in order to create tension and suspense is the use of stage directions. The stage directions used reflect the tense atmosphere and mystery of the play; this quote supports my point: “‘we hear a sharp ring of the door bell.

Birling stops to listen’. This is a good way of creating tension as people’s thoughts and facial expressions are shown and when watching the play the audience will see how suspicious Arthur Birling is. The use of short sentences demonstrates that suspense is needed and helps to create tension. The fact that that there is “a sharp ring of the doorbell” reflects how the noise is alarming and interrupts the Birlings’ celebrations by contrasting greatly to their jovial atmosphere prior to this occurance.

The audience know here that this turn of events is significant to how the story is going to unfold as they are already anticipating the arrival of the Inspector, therefore are held in suspense, furthermore keeping them on the edge of their seats. The use of stage directions in the play are essential devices in creating tension by building up suspense as well as coordinating with speech to help establish a tense atmosphere. Dramatic irony is also used in many ways as a dramatic device. It is used to promote the Inspector yet mock Mr Birling.

In Birling’s speech at the beginning of the play, he proudly states that “as a hard-headed businessman” he thinks that “there isn’t a chance of war” and that the Titanic is “absolutely unsinkable”. With the play being published after two world wars and the sinking of the Titanic, Priestley makes the audience believe that Birling is a fool and wishes to broadcast how pretentious some middle class people can be. Whereas the Inspector, who states in his final speech that “they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish” indicating that there will be a war, is elevated by the use of dramatic irony.

This makes the audience believe the socialist views of the Inspector instead of the ‘foolish’ views of Birling. The Inspector uses harsh language here and lists three powerful words; he does this in order to get to the Birlings and also addresses the audience as a whole; warning them of their actions and painting long lasting images in their minds, this contrast in language and character between Birling and the Inspector is a vital process of creating tension. Also, Priestley uses the juxtaposition between the Inspector and Birling as a dramatic device; Birling and the Inspector’s views completely oppose each other’s.

We notice that the Inspector puts others first, whereas Birling believes that you are responsible only for yourself. An example of this is during Birling’s and the Inspector’s speeches. The Inspector talks about how “we are members of one body” and how we “are responsible for each other”. However, Birling makes a speech about how “a man has to make his own way” and how “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself”. Priestley purposely uses this opposition in order to dishonour capitalism and instead promote socialism.

Priestley makes the audience feel that they are on the Inspector’s side by deliberately portraying Arthur Birling to be an unlikable man from the start, and uses the moralistic story in order to sway their attitudes towards socialism. The theme of Social Responsibility is used here as the audience are made to realise that they are responsible for those around them and there are consequences for their actions. The use of the clash of characters between Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole here is very successful in creating tension as it is as if the audience are being spoken to directly.

Another skill that Priestley masters in this play is his use of cliffhangers. Such as at the end of the play, when Birling answers the phone to find out that a second Inspector is on his way and that what they thought was just a hoax was in fact true. Tension is created here among the Birlings as they are scared and confused about the events that have occurred. Ending the play on this cliffhanger makes the audience want to watch even more and find out what happens next, it also keeps them thinking about the play and it’s meaning afterwards.

Responsibility is a strong theme here as the more arrogant of the Birling family, such as Arthur and Sybil, finally realise that their actions can effect the lives of others and are shocked by this further surprise. Another example of the use of a cliffhanger is at the end of Act One when Gerald admits to Sheila that he had had an affair with Eva Smith. The Inspector then enters and simply says “Well? ” this hooks the audience, as they want to find out what happens next in the play, keeping them on the edge of their seats. Also, the question mark provides a dramatic pause as the audience are left in suspense, anticipating the next act.

Act Two then begins, exactly the same as Act One ended. Priestley decided not to change anything in order to achieve a sense of continuity. Continuity is thus used as a dramatic device to keep the play focused and concentrated on one subject. This also raises the tension and draws in the attention of the audience. Priestley perfects the timing of the entrance of the Inspector and the exits and entrances of other characters in order to increase tension. Another example of a well timed entrance of the Inspector is when he enters just after Birling’s speech, as if to discredit everything Birling has just said.

In conclusion, the fact that a meaningful message is represented would indicate that An Inspector Calls, as well as being a murder mystery, in the way that Priestley uncovers the story of the death of Eva Smith, is also a moralistic play. Priestley shows the audience how not to live their lives, using dramatic devices to demonstrate this. He makes the audience contemplate over the fact that they are actually “members of one body” and that they are all “responsible for one another” and has made them realise that socialism is the way forward instead of capitalism.

Weighing up the evidence, we can see that An Inspector Calls is very relevant in today’s society where people do still need to work together and help others in need. J. B. Priestley effectively uses many dramatic devices to create tension in An Inspector Calls, such as dramatic pauses, dramatic irony and timings. He applies them in order to portray his political views, using an upper class, Edwardian family to do so. Priestley’s knowledge and experience are taught to the audience/readers of the play in order to help them to see how to live their lives and treat others, therefore helping to create a more peaceful, idealistic world.

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