First, I think it is appropriate to discuss the structure, which is apparent throughout the production and also whilst reading the text. In many ways, ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a ‘perfect’ play as it has elements that are essential for producing a successful production. Throughout the play there is suspense and quite often, I think, an element of shock at the numerous ‘discoveries’ at so many different stages in the production. There is consistently the infamous ‘whodunnit’ factor, which helps to keep the audience interested and excited about the whole production in general.
There is also a clear moral message given in the production, perhaps even more than one message. I think that this message is given through the actions of all of the Birlings, but particularly Mr Birling. His ‘look after number one’ attitude was emphasised at the beginning of the production when he was telling Gerald and Eric about ‘the point’ in life. So it seems that Priestly’s message is that we all live in one community and that it is our duty to help our neighbour. We should not behave like Mr Birling and we should not live in isolation. I think that all of the Birlings are played to behave in the opposite way to this so that we, the audience, can see how stupid and false they look as it is hard to see ourselves like this in everyday life when we are behaving the same.
‘An Inspector Calls’ is such a unique play because it fails to meet the audience’s expectations of a conventional plot-the inspector is not at all what he seems, and he has not come to find out facts about a suicide, as first appears. He is not an inspector, and he already knows the facts!
When thinking about the question and whether the drama and message are indistinguishable, I think that it is necessary to say that at this point I think that at some points the drama and message are indistinguishable (through the actions or the Birlings) but at others they message is bluntly put to the audience in a very direct manner. This happens at the end of the production when the inspector actually addresses the audience personally to inform them of life’s morals.
The action in the play is continuous and in ‘real time.’ Everything happens in near enough the same place-in the living room of the Birling’s house, or just outside the house in the street. There is such a tight unity of time and place. Throughout the production Priestly manipulates the characters entrances and exits. He exploits the temporary absences. Each is given a convincing reason for arguing and then when they are gone the inspector starts to talk about them and pull threads of information about them from the family. This is an effective strategy because the person in question is not there to defend his or herself. An example of this is at the beginning of Act 2 when (with the absence of him), the inspector starts talking about Eric rather suddenly and establishes the fact that he is a heavy drinker. Sheila, already suspicious of the Inspector, tells Mrs Birling
‘Yes, but don’t you see? He hasn’t started on you yet.
Mrs Birling then goes on to assert the fact that she knows nothing about the girl in question, making it all the more obvious to the audience that in fact she does. I think that Mrs Birling believes that all the social problems of the time exist outside her own home and family.
Another time that the plot exploits the temporary absences of particular characters is at the end of Act 1 when the curtain goes down and there is the silhouette of Gerald and Sheila arguing. This creates tension in the play and it becomes obvious that this tension is created particularly at the end of each act.
Priestly’s stage direction was extremely detailed. However in many productions today this direction is interpreted and displayed in different and unique ways that reflect what the director of the particular play thinks the production should look like. In Stephen Daldry’s production, the actual house is set up in the sky on stilts, giving the impression that it is distant and separate from the outside, real world-full of hard earnings and gruesome work. I think it is on stilts to show physically the difference between the Birlings and the generic figure of Eva Smith. The high up house emphasises their elevated status and shows us that they must come down from the clouds and relinquish that. However, the house is on stilts and this shows us that there is a connection between the upper class and lower class people. It tells us that we are all human beings who have feelings and emotions and that we must work together. It is impossible for the Birlings to separate themselves-they are physically joined to the ground level. The house also gives the possibility that what is happening in the Birlings home could also be happening elsewhere-that it is not just a particular family who behaves this way-but a large part of society at that time. Sadly, this is still very applicable today. Also, the fact that the house is so small is a symbol that the people inside are small and narrow-minded people who only think about themselves and what is best for them. A small house will only be able to contain small people.
I thought that the best stage direction in the play was the part when the group of people dressed in 1940s clothing came to the street when the Birlings exited the house. It was an incredible symbol of a public confession on their wrongs. The fact that they were dressed in 1940s clothes was a symbol that the 1940s were a step forward for the world-either because these wrongs had been admitted and presumably overcome or simply because it would be a time when all problems (including the war) would be sorted.
I noticed that during the production that Sheila and Eric both removed various items of clothing, as well as the inspector. I think that this is a sign that they are distancing themselves from the rest of the family and that they are accepting and beginning to incorporate the inspector’s morals into their own lives. This point is also emphasised when Gerald offers Sheila his coat. Instantly, she throws the coat on the floor and I think that this is a sign of Sheila’s rejection of the old values and teachings.
Everything in ‘The Inspector Calls’ contributes to the central theme of the play-nothing is unnecessary.
The characters in the play move from a state of ignorance to knowledge. What each character chooses to do with that knowledge and how he or she reacts is central to the play. It was apparent that the reactions of Sheila and Eric were that of horror and shock when they found out what parts they played in the downfall of Eva Smith. They were truly distraught and the look and sense of guilt was particularly apparent. As I have said, with this knowledge they have realised that values at that time were wrong and that a change was necessary. So the knowledge that they were provided with actually changed them. I think that the audience were encouraged to sympathise with these two characters in particular at this point.
However, the uncovering of other information about other characters had a much smaller, if any, change upon their actions and attitudes. When the rest of the Birlings and Gerald found out about their factors in the downfall of Eva Smith they seemed to be shocked but not nearly as much as Eric and Sheila. It seemed that their attitudes and actions, even after the discovery of what they had done, did not seem to change at all. They still seemed to be ignorant, myopic people who didn’t care about anybody else.
In ‘An Inspector Calls’ all of the Birlings and Gerald Croft wear the traditional 1912 clothing. Birling and Gerald wore extremely traditional dinner suits and the ladies wore fabulous dresses that were extremely colourful. Mrs Birling wore a deep red dress and her daughter wore a virginal white dress that contrasted incredibly with her mother’s. Perhaps this was a sign of the fact that Sheila is perhaps a good, warm-hearted person, whereas her mother is quite the opposite.
The setting of the play is quite significant (1910). It was written and performed in 1948 after World War II. The audience knows that has happened after the period in which the play is set, which is known as dramatic irony. An atmosphere of ironic tension is established from the beginning with Birling’s speeches about every man having to look after himself and ignore others. Yet just a few decades later so many countries were coming together and helping each other to fight in the war.
In conclusion, I must agree with Stephen Daldry that in ‘An Inspector Calls’ the drama and the message are indistinguishable. However, in many instances, they are not, such as at the end of the play when the inspector actually addresses the audience in separation from the rest of the play. Overall, though, I must agree with Stephen Daldry in every aspect when he says
‘In the end, whatever the message of it is, this is a jolly good thriller’