The character of Mr.Birling is the main source of dramatic irony in the opening of the play. Many examples of this can be found in the text, such examples include Birling stating the Titanic was “absolutely unsinkable” and that war was “impossible”. The audience targeted for this play had the advantage of hindsight because of the play being written in 1945, therefore allowing them to realise the absurd nature of Birling’s views and attitudes.
Priestley is standing in opposition to Birling’s views, so he makes him look as inane as possible by continually being contemptuous towards him through the role of the Inspector.
With Birling living in a patriarchal society, men are the dominant sex and Birling feels the need to ‘protect’ his family, which is ironic because he doesn’t actually know that everyone present at that time is guilty in one way or another. By using dramatic irony within the role of Birling we know that what he is saying is actually the opposite of what will happen.
This shows us that that his ideas are nonsense, and it will cause is to distrust his ideas and thoughts later on in the play.
At the very beginning of the play, before we even meet any on the characters, it tells us that the lighting for Act One should be “pink and intimate”. This is to show that the current mood is calm and relaxed, and that the characters are quite comfortable with how everything is at that moment.
The lighting then changes as soon as the inspector arrives; it goes from “pink and intimate” to “brighter and harder”.
This contrast in lighting is very important; it shows us that the mood in the house is going to change and the characters are going to be interrogated in some way. We get the idea of interrogation from the way the lighting is described because the words used “brighter and harder” gives us the image of a blank, serious place like a police station in which interrogation takes place. This links to Priestley’s social concerns for the simple reason that the characters are pleased with themselves and their current status, and do not want anything to change which could jeopardise this. The characters attitudes are a strong representation of the era they live in and show us exactly what it is that Priestley is trying to change about people’s perception of life.
The doorbell signals the entrance of the inspector into the house, this is when everything changes. Birling is in the middle of his speech when the doorbell interrupts him. This is significant because just as Birling is talking about how “a man has to mind his own business” and “look after himself and his own”, Priestley chooses then as the right time to stop him. It is Priestley’s way of stating that his attitude is entirely wrong and that he does not agree with it at all. By interrupting him, it shows the audience that Birling’s ideas are corrupt and we cannot believe they are plausible.
When the new major character of the inspector is introduced into the play, it has a dramatic effect on the rest of the characters. Before the inspector arrives, the characters seem to be closely bonded, a secure family unit, but as soon as the doorbell sounds, they fall to pieces. At that moment, the characters are quite satisfied with themselves, pleased with their current social status and wealth, even Birling is “feeling contented, for once”. The mood of the characters subsequently could not be more diverse, they panic, their dialogue suffers and none of the characters are certain what to say anymore, they are in a general state of perplexity.
The character that suffers most from the introduction of the inspector is Birling himself, he goes from making extensive speeches about life and the world, to short statements and questions, which both in turn reflect the state of bewilderment he is in. Examples of this can be found when shortly before the arrival of the Inspector, Birling is talking of the old days and says, “They worked us hard in those days and kept us short of cash”, but when he is aware of the Inspector now being present, he begins to sound worried, “An inspector? What sort of inspector?”
At first Birling had full control over his family, he was the ‘manager’ so to speak, but when the inspector enters this superiority crumbles and Birling frantically attempts to regain this dominance. He tries to use his social status to control the situation but they are words falling on deaf ears. He uses all the possible solutions in which he feels the inspector may find intimidating, such as the fact he “was an alderman for years” and that he was “Lord Mayor two years ago”. However, the inspector takes no notice of this newly established information, and is not even concerned with the fact that Birling is “still on the Bench”. By the end of Act One we see that Birling has utterly no power left over the characters, and that they are all tied to Eva Smith in one way or another and there is nothing he can say or do to get them out of it.
In ‘An Inspector Calls’, character exits are used to further the plot and so extend the audiences knowledge of the background to the characters. The most important uses of these character exits can be found very near the beginning and towards the end of Act One. Firstly, there is the character exit in which Sheila and Eric exit, after Birling makes an elongated statement expressing his general Edwardian views for example “The world’s developing so fast it’ll make war impossible.” This character exit is especially important as it helps us to understand the characters social and political views for later in the play.
When Eric and Sheila leave, Birling and Gerald are left behind, this is significant because it leaves the older generation to express their Edwardian ideas and helps us to see Birling’s character in full light as all the attention is placed on him, we would not see him the same later in the play if this had not happened. It is relevant that Eric and Sheila exit since their opinions differ to those of their father, and if they were to stay on stage then they would have argued against Birling’s many speech’s and then we would not get such a deep understanding of his character as he would no longer be the only focal point on stage. On the other hand, if Priestley were to leave the characters on stage but keep them quiet, then it would totally defeat the object of what he is trying to achieve; keeping them quiet while Birling continues would clearly show them not opposing their fathers views, which could ultimately mislead the audience into thinking they are in agreement with him.
Secondly, it is when the inspector leaves Sheila and Gerald alone to converse about how it is that Gerald is associated with Eva Smith (known as Daisy Renton to Gerald). This character exit is used so that the two characters can be left alone to talk over the relationship between Gerald and Daisy, and so giving us additional information to what happened to Daisy prior to her committing suicide. What’s more, the characters feel intimidated when they are around the Inspector and when he leaves Gerald and Sheila alone it gives them a chance to act normally with each other, and as the Inspector is a very overpowering character, with him not being present it leaves the audience to focus on them.
This broadens our familiarity of the two characters, Gerald and Sheila, as we see how they act around each other when they are alone. In addition, it shows us that Sheila and Gerald’s relationship is not as steady and secure as they had previously believed it to be. These character exits relate to the question as they leave behind characters so they can share their part with one another and so thicken the plot, as well as the fact that Priestley uses the exits so characters are left to widen our knowledge of them as a person and helps us understand them as the play continues.
The end of Act One has many effects on the audience by not only interesting them, but also making them want to continue watching the rest of the play. One of the effects the end has is that it is left on a cliff-hanger; no one is sure what exactly is going to happen and who will be accused next. Another effect is the fact that more characters are becoming suspects, at first we got the impression he was only coming to see Birling but then we soon realised it involves more then just him, as is shown by the fact the inspector will not reveal the photo to everyone at the same time. One effect that is clearly apparent by the end of Act One is that the characters have no family loyalty left, they seem to be all thinking about themselves, which reflects on Priestley’s concern of people becoming selfish and self-absorbed. The final effect the end has on the audience is when the act is finished with the inspector saying “Well?” This gives us the idea that he knows more is to come and is just waiting for Gerald to continue.
Almost all of Act One is ironic in retrospect, due to the fact that much of it talks of things which are history for the audience and they already know the outcome for the reason that they have the advantage of hindsight. It is ironic because when Birling talks of the Titanic being “absolutely unsinkable” and war being “impossible”, the audience know that both of these statements are incorrect due to the fact that they have both happened, and in the case of war they have even taken place twice. If you look at the book in a wider text, you will see that the whole play is actually ironic when we look back at it. The fact that the play begins with the death of Eva Smith, and then ends with the announcement of her death, is ironic because we spend the whole play going through the motions of Eva Smith before her death only to end up back where we started at the end of the play.
The playwright, J.B.Priestley, changes the audience’s opinion of the Birling’s during Act One. The first impression given is that the Birling’s are a respectable family highly regarded in their vicinity. They have worked hard to get where they are and deserve to enjoy their wealth and happiness, but this opinion differs as Act One progresses. Birling is seen as a very proud character; he is middle class but works to become higher in his social status. He is very shallow, he determines success on people’s wealth and social status and believes that he and his family are important, he is not ‘responsible’ for anyone else. At the beginning of the play, they give the impression they are a close family unit and support each other throughout, but we soon see that it is in fact the total opposite, it is every man for himself, there is a sense of insincerity.
The characters are self-interested and in the end are out for themselves. The only character I would say changes for the better, is Sheila. Her first impression is one of childishness, for example when Gerald presents her with the ring she says “Look-Mummy-isn’t it a beauty?” The word “Mummy” we wouldn’t usually associate with a girl in her early twenties. When she realises her part in the death of Eva Smith she is full of remorse and penitence. She is the only one that learns from the death and changes for the better. All of the other characters seem to be either in self-denial or are too interested in what is going to happen to them and how it will effect their reputation etc. then they are in the fact they played a part in the girl’s suicide.
Priestley uses many methods to interest and involve the audience. He uses dramatic irony to interest the audience because he knows they understand that Birling’s thoughts and ideas are nonsense, and so are found to be ironic. In addition, he plays on the fact that the audience have the use of hindsight that links to Priestley’s use of dramatic irony. The audience know that Birling is wrong in what he says and it shows them to not trust his thoughts and feelings later in the play. Another method Priestley uses, is the role of the inspector within the play, Priestley reveals his concerns through the inspector and uses him to teach the Birling’s a lesson in the right way in which to live. The end of the play suggests that the interrogation of the Birling’s will continue in a vicious circle until they eventually learn their lesson.
I believe that Priestley is trying to get across the message of responsibility, and the fact that we all need to accept responsibility for our own actions because in the long term they not only affect us, but also the people around us. He conveys this message throughout Act One by using many dramatic devices, including making fun of Birling’s Edwardian beliefs and airing his own Socialist views through the role of the Inspector. This message is still relevant today because it does not matter, what time period you live in, your actions always have a ripple effect on other people and it would be selfish not to consider others when contemplating doing something which may affect the lives of others in the short or the long term.