J. B. Priestley’s play: ‘An Inspector Calls’ is extremely tense, dramatic and interesting. Priestley makes his play this good by using a very wide array of clever techniques. These include: dramatic irony, snide comments and a true understanding of the people he has based the play on. During this piece of writing I shall be evaluating these techniques as well as giving a brief insight as to what actually happens in Act 1. It is hoped that by the end of this essay that the reader will have a better understanding of the wide variety of techniques Priestley uses and simply a better understanding of the Act in general.
One example of these techniques is stage directions. Priestley uses them time and time again to a fantastic effect. The initial stage directions are critical to the play as without them the characters may have came out very different. For example they could turn out to have very different opinions on things such as Mrs. Birling liking Inspector Goole. Before the audience had even bought the tickets for their seats Priestley had given a huge amount of stage directions. He wanted each and every aspect of the play to be perfect, to be exactly how he wanted it.
Priestley gets everything precisely how he wants it by not leaving anything to the imagination. One example of just how precise he wants everything is: ‘Edna, the parlourmaid, is just clearing the table, which has no cloth’. This is but one example of just how precise Priestley wanted everything in his play to be. These stage directions, however petty, do actually make a huge difference to the play. Without Priestley’s want of everything being so perfect ‘An Inspector Calls’ may not have turned out to be as fantastic a play as it was (and still is today). Despite this however the most important thing in the play is actually the dialogue.
The dialogue is what lets the audience know what is actually going on and helps them to really connect with the characters. There is an excellent example of dialogue when the after dinner drinks are being shared. Whilst the Birlings are conversing after dinner we learn a great deal about them. They tend, to an intelligent ear, to giveaway a lot about themselves. I believe this was definitely intended by Priestley but he also allows the other audience members to ‘catch-up’ later on in the act when the characters are asked point blank by the inspector. We get to know Arthur Birling very well when he makes his speech.
He gives himself away as quite a fool as he gives his opinion on things which have already happened for the audience. This is an excellent example of dramatic irony. We get a very good clue about Gerald’s past when Sheila says: “except for all last summer”. With this we learn that Gerald was missing for an entire summer and so the audience may assume that he was up to something at that time (as he was). This also helps to make Act 1 tense dramatic and interesting. This is then followed up well by Birling and Gerald talking confidentially as this too raises the tension, drama and interest of the audience.
Later on in the act all of the characters leave the room except Birling and Gerald. When this happens Birling and Gerald begin to talk to each other confidentially. This helps to make Act 1 more tense, dramatic and interesting as after being a very light-hearted affair the conversation suddenly intensifies. They talk to each other very seriously about business. This allows us another insight into what these two characters are really like. We realise that their may be a lot more to this marriage than simply a boy and a girl loving each other. This certainly makes Act 1 more tense, dramatic and interesting.
Their conversation is rather abruptly called to a halt as Eric; rather “squiffy” of course, enters the room. He is immediately paranoid and asks: “What’s the joke? Started telling stories? ” This gives us more of a clue as to what kind of a character Eric is. He seems very worried. It is as if he is feeling guilty for something or he is in trouble for something. When the doorbell rings however everyone’s mood changes. It once again becomes more serious and this once again raises the tension, drama and interest of the audience. The ring is very sharp and sudden.
As soon as it rings, all of the characters go quiet. This is a fantastic moment as before the audience even know it’s the inspector they immediately know it is someone very important. This also helps to make Act 1 more tense, dramatic and interesting as the inspector lets the audience know straight away that he is an extremely important man. For example: he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’. This shows just how much of an impact the inspector has when he enters the room. It also sets the tone for the inspector as he is like this for the rest of the play.
This raises the tension, drama and audiences interest more than anything else so far in the play. The audience now know just how important the inspector is. The tension, drama and level of interest rises even more when the inspector begins to question Birling. As the inspector questions Birling, the play becomes extremely tense. Birling, at first, is very cool about the whole thing. He is adamant that he is one hundred percent innocent and seems to know it. However, as the inspector continues to question Birling he begins to utter more names and places. Upon hearing these Birling’s coolness slowly declines until he is actually quite worried.
The mood of the play compliments Birlings mood fantastically here. One example of how nervous Birling becomes is ‘moves restlessly, then turns’. This quotation shows just how uncomfortable Birling is with the situation. It also shows that he is probably guilty and that is why he’s so restless. This, I believe, is the most tense and exciting scene in the entire act. The audience learns a great deal, such as the inspector’s interrogation techniques and that Birling is guilty. However, as we see in the next act Birling is certainly not the only one who is guilty.
When Sheila is interviewed by the inspector we get the first real large piece of dialogue from her in the entire play. Before this Sheila was rather quiet, albeit she piped up and gave some opinionated comments on occasion. However, once she was directly confronted by the inspector she had no choice but to give a good bit of herself away. When the inspector questions Sheila it is not quite as tense as Birling’s interrogation. However in my opinion it is more interesting. Sheila is very interesting as she is the first character to realise just how important the inspector is. She is also the most selfless character.
By this I mean that she is the only character who just comes right out and admits to everything. She is also the only one who is genuinely sorry for what she has done to Eva Smith (the deceased girl). This once again makes Act 1 more tense, dramatic and interesting as the audience begins to realise just how varied the characters are. The statement: “You knew it was me all the time didn’t you”, shows that Sheila has given herself away as she is now sure the inspector knows she (among others) is at fault for the death of Eva. We see a similar situation when the inspector interviews Gerald, as he gives a lot of himself away also.
As Gerald is being questioned he gives away that he was having an affair with Eva Smith/ Daisy Renton. The audience knew immediately that Gerald had been up to no good due to his reaction over Daisy Renton’s name. As Gerald admits to his affair, Sheila (as you would expect) becomes very unhappy. Sheila’s role almost becomes that of the inspectors for a moment as she launches a barrage of questions at Gerald. He becomes less easy-going and begins to get quite stressed out. For example: “(startled) what? ” This shows the audience that he may be guilty before he has actually given away too much.
This would also raise the tension, drama and audiences interest in Act 1. This climaxes as the inspector re-enters at the end of the scene. Gerald and Sheila continue to talk to each other after the inspector has left with Eric. Whilst the audience are viewing Sheila and Gerald’s conversation their minds are most probably drawn to what the inspector is doing with Eric. In my opinion the inspector is the most enigmatic and genuinely powerful character in the play, so it is only natural that their minds may be on what he is doing with a drunk out of sight and earshot.
The scene ends on a fantastic cliff-hanger. After we have witnessed Gerald and Sheila’s massively important conversation the audience see Sheila breaking up with Gerald. After this already exciting moment the inspector re-enters. The inspector simply says: “Well? ” However this one minuscule word has a tremendous impact on the audience. This really grasps the audience’s interest when coupled with Sheila and Gerald’s riveting conversation preceding it. This mass of tension, drama and interesting storyline concludes the act. In conclusion, the structure of the play in Act 1 is extremely good.
The way the inspector takes each character and quizzes them one by one, on each of their turns is fantastic. It raises the tension majorly, as well as having the added bonus of making the play much easier to follow for the audience. Furthermore, the setting of a very quaint, country house, with a very cold, ‘un-family-like’ feeling is perfect and sets the tone superbly for the play. Early on we also get a few very discrete clues as to what might happen in the latter stages of the play. We also learn a great deal about each of the characters.
Arthur Birling is very self-righteous and also, despite his wealth, gives himself away as being quite a fool. Sybil Birling is very cold and uncaring; she doesn’t tend to worry herself over the circumstances. Sheila Birling is very light hearted and quiet, she remains this way until she is personally questioned. This seems to change her character almost completely. Eric Birling is quite drunk during the play, so we cannot be sure what his character is actually like. He does however seem to be very self conscious and this is presumably something to do with the death of Eva.
Gerald Croft is much like Sheila. He is very jolly until he is confronted by the inspector. However, the audience see him talking business with Birling. This shows that he may have ulterior motives for marrying Sheila. The inspector is extremely stern and intimidating. He is furious that Eva Smith has died and so is taking it all very seriously. In my opinion there is a fantastic variation of characters in Act 1 and they, coupled with the setting and structure of the play, create a mood that sticks for its entirety.