How Does J.B Priestley Present Arthur Birling in Act One to Reveal Priestley's Social Concerns?

The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ By J.B Priestley is a drama written in the year 1945 but set in the year 1912 towards the end of the Edwardian era. The play is set in the house of rich, arrogant Capitalist called Birling. In the play the Birling family are celebrating an engagement when an Inspector enters, the Inspector is a Socialist and is the instant antithesis to Birling, the Inspector questions the family about their involvement with a young girl who has committed suicide and they discover they all played apart in her death.

In this essay I aim to explore the first act of the play and comment on the different dramatic strategies used and the literary context. I also aim to understand the social and historical meaning behind the play and the reasons why I think Priestley wrote the play. I will also explore the character Birling and look at the way he talks to other people and his feeling towards the lower classes and Socialists.

I believe that several things inspired Priestley to write this play one of them being Priestley’s own upbringing. Priestley was born in Bradford in 1894, his mother was a mill worker and his father was a school teacher; both of his parents were Socialists and believed in equality and that social classes should not exist. Priestley followed these views which is the reason he wrote and Inspector Calls, he knew that at the time the play is set the divisions between the upper and lower class were enormous and he also knew that this social hierarchy was wrong and that money shouldn’t buy respect.

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Another reason I believe that Priestley wrote the play is because of the time he spent in the army. He fought in the First World War and his experiences in this war became influential on his books and plays in the future especially in ‘An Inspector Calls’. During World War One Priestley found that the social classes who were all so different pulled together to reach one common goal, furthermore he found himself with men who were rich and men who were poor but there was no arguing. For the years of the war the society had become almost completely Socialist. Sadly this did not last after World War One and Priestley saw Capitalists emerge powerful again and the social classes reform.

Then in the Second World War Priestley saw the same thing happen, the social classes melted away again and everyone was equal and as World War two came to end Priestley realised that something needed to be done to prevent the Capitalist’s from regaining their status and prevent the social classes returning. So he wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ a play full of dramatic devices that are used effectively to make the message clear on how disrespectful and selfish the social classes – and Capitalists – are and how Priestley believed they should never return.

When Priestley wrote the play the year was nineteen-forty-five at the end of World War Two. Priestley decided to set the play thirty-three years prior in the year nineteen-twelve just before the First World War. I feel that he did this as he believed it to be a more effective way of showing how the actions of Capitalists and their uncaring attitudes towards people had made the world a place full of crime and lies.

The Inspector is an important character in the play as he is used a Priestley’s puppet. In the play the Inspector is all knowing about all the events that have happened and even ones that are going to happen; this tool is used to help the audience more effectively understand the messages of the play one of which is that all actions have consequences and that you should always think before you act. The inspector is also a Socialist who believes that Capitalists should learn from their actions, it also shows that if people at the time acted more like the Inspector in the play people such as Birling would not have flourished in the business world and the gulfs between the social classes would not have been so massive.

Priestley contrasts the Inspector greatly with the stereotypical Capitalist Arthur Birling. In the play Birling is a typical businessman of the time; an over-rich, obnoxious buffoon; ‘I am hard-headed man of business’. As soon as the play begins the audience instigate hate for his overly large ego and the fact that he is so self-important that he thinks he is right about everything when actually nearly nothing he says is correct. By using the personal pro-noun ‘I’ in this phrase Birling is clearly showing the audience how selfish he is and how all he can think about is himself.

The stage directions at the start of the play represent the Birling family perfectly. By describing the Birling’s house as ‘substantial and heavily comfortable but not cosy and homelike’ I sense that Priestley is summing up Birling. Birling is a man who enjoys the finer things in life. He has nice furniture but even so he cannot make it inviting to his family as he is cold-hearted and finds it difficult to show the sort of respect that is now expected from modern day fathers. He tries to get out of this by buying the most expensive and comfortable furniture possibly; but this creates the feeling that Birling is trying too hard to make his house homelike thus the overall effect is over-whelming. Consequently I believe that the furniture is also symbolic of Birling’s wealth, status and power, it is used to make clear to the audience from the very start of the play that Birling is a Capitalist and makes them instantly despise him before a word has been spoken. I also think that Priestley is using the stage direction as a way of describing Birling. Birling is a ‘substantial’ figure in the society and is also very ‘comfortable’ in his mannerisms and will not change even though he has no real morals and does not seem to feel remorse even when something is entirely his fault. In other words there is something missing inside of him, just like the cosiness is missing from his house.

The lighting is an important part of the play by having the lights ‘as pink and intimate’ at the start of the play Priestley is trying to show the audience that the family is having a celebration of some sort and that they are trying to be close but still maintains the feel that Birling has an ulterior motive for the celebration and is planning something that will no doubt make him more money. It also gives the play a feeling of snugness. By having the lights suddenly change to become ‘brighter and harder’ when the Inspector enters I believe that Priestley is representing the change in mood and instantly building up tension and suspense in the play. Before the light change the mood is calm and reasonably happy but when the lights get brighter the mood becomes much more serious and the relaxed feeling melts away into one of anticipation and the audience instantly expects that something interesting is going to happen; thus telling them the play is about to reach its climax and that action is going to come soon.

Another important stage direction in this play is the places where the family are seated at the table; ‘Birling at one end, his wife at the other, Eric downstage and Sheila and Gerald upstage’. In my opinion Priestley ordered the actors to sit in these positions to establish the characters. It also shows each of their roles in the family; Birling is seated at the head of the table showing he is a typical man of the Edwardian era and the head of the family. By having his wife as far away from him as possible at the other end of the table I feel that Priestley is showing tension between the couple and perhaps that Mrs. Birling is annoyed with Birlings Capitalist views on life and his lack of respect for everyone especially women.

Moreover by seating Eric downstage the playwright shows Eric as being an odd-leg in the family he is at the back and although he can be seen Birling does not bother taking the time to get to know his son properly this is also shown later in the play when Birling discovers the Eric is an alcoholic. Finally by seating Gerald and Sheila upstage Priestley is demonstrating to the audience that it is them who are the centre of attention for that night and that the family are obviously celebrating something to do with them.

Priestley also conveys a view that the Birling family enjoy the finer things in life by the objects Priestley thinks should be on the dining table. ‘Decanter of port, cigar box’. I think this Priestley wanted these objects on the table so that the audience could tell from the very start of the play that Birling was wealthy and affluent because at the time the play is set people who were of lower-class could not afford ‘port’ or ‘cigars’.

The playwright is also very clever in writing the play and the way that he uses the character of Eva Smith although she does not appear in the play yet she is one of the most important characters. By not including her as an actress Priestley is appealing to the audiences imaginations and allowing them to see her however they want thus making them sympathise with what has happened to her exceedingly. I also believe that her name is important; by having the first name of Eva which derives Eve who in the Bible was the first woman to be created the writer is trying to portray that this girl, real or not, was a typical girl of the time. Also the surname Smith was the one of the most common surnames in the Edwardian era; this again shows that Priestley is using Eva Smith as a symbol of all lower-class women of the time.

After the stage directions Priestley continues his social concerns by showing the audience how Birling interacts with other characters in the play. This is especially when the conversation turns to Sheila and Gerald’s engagement and the fact that Gerald’s parents own a rival company to Birling’s. ‘May look forward to a time when Crofts & Birling are no longer competing working together’. I think this portrays Birling for the greedy capitalist he is and the audience can see the Birling had a hidden agenda; rather than being happy just because his daughter is getting married Birling is more excited by the fact that the marriage will bring him more money and remove his rival company. This instantly makes the audience dislike Birling and see him as a self-centred capitalist.

Throughout the play I believe that Priestley portrays Birling as an arrogant harlequin which is the stereotypical opinion of Capitalist’s. This arrogance is shown when he says ‘I speak as a hard-headed man of business, who has to take risks and knows what he’s about’. I feel that by saying this Birling is making it clear that he seems himself and someone that is always right even when he is incorrect. This also shows that he sees himself as someone who is perfect and can do nothing wrong, I think that at this point in the play Priestley wanted the audience to be questioning whether Birling was actually happy for is daughter or for the money he is likely to be receiving.

Birling continues to show how egotistical he by showing off when he and Gerald are alone. ‘I might find my way into the next Honours List. Just a knighthood, of course’. Birling says this as a sort of bribery or gentle persuasion to make sure that Gerald marries his daughter. Before he is talking to Gerald about Gerald’s mother not believing the Birling’s are high enough up the social ladder for Sheila to marry Gerald then he says about the ‘knighthood’. He mentions it knowing that the chances are Gerald will mention it to his parents thus making them agree with the marriage. I think this also shows how clever Birling is; he tells Gerald about the ‘knighthood’ who then respects Birling as his parents now approve of his marriage, this also causes Gerald to see Birling as a kind and caring father whereas actually through this Birling has an ulterior motive. If Gerald’s parents respect Birling and his family Birling knows that there is more chance of going into business with Gerald’s father leading on to more money for Birling. By using the word ‘might’ Birling is also leaving himself a argument if the knighthood doesn’t happen as he can say he never said he was getting a knighthood he said he ‘might’. The word ‘might’ is a verb that is often used to express a possibility and Birling is doing just that, what he doesn’t say is that everyone ‘might’ get a knighthood but the chances are slim for most people and probably for him as well.

Furthermore Birling also tries to use this intimidation a few lines later when the Inspector enters, although he is less successful this time round. ‘I was an alderman for years – and Lord Mayor two years ago’, again Birling is planning everything he says and it works quite well for him against young people or Capitalists but the Inspector is a Socialist and therefore looks at things differently. Whereas most Capitalists are scared by a man’s reputation, Socialists are interested in justice and equality and in an ideal world reputation should not be a factor that hinders either of them. The Inspector believes in the ideal world and Birling’s reputation will not put him off achieving justice. I feel that this quotation also shows that although Birling has no real morals he has done things which he knows are perceived as bad and does not want them to come out, so he tries to bribe the Inspector with his reputation within seconds of the Inspector entering.

Consequently Birling again shows his lack of respect to other when the Inspector tells him how Eva Smith dies he impatiently responds ‘Yes. Yes. Horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here.’ Once more the audience are reminded how much they detest Birling and how moral-less he is. He is not interested in how Eva Smith came to die even though he was partly responsible and simply wants to know what he has done incorrectly. This also shows that Birling is very self-important and thinks that as long and he is okay no-one else matters.

Another tool that Priestley uses to get his point across in the play is the philosophies of Birling’s and his feelings towards the lower classes. When questioned why he didn’t want to give Eva Smith and the other workers a pay rise Birling replies ‘if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we’d have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs’. By saying this he is showing that people of a lower class are not worth thinking about and the only time he thinks about them is when it comes to costs. By using the words ‘Labour Costs’ I believe that Birling is clearly showing that he doesn’t see his staff as human beings to him they are objects, he could easily have used the phrase ‘Staff Wages’ but for him they are not staff, they are items on a budget which must be kept as low as possible.

One of Birling’s other philosophies is on Socialists. ‘We can’t let these Bernard Shaws and H.G Wellses do all the talking’. As both Shaw and Wells were well-known Socialist writers of the time Priestley is rather clever in mentioning their names, it re-establishes Birling as being a Capitalist and makes the play more realistic and people at this time would have been having conversation about Shaw and Wells. After this Birling rants on about Socialists before saying ‘We don’t guess – we’ve had experience – we know’, I believe this clearly portrays Birling as a smug person yet again and that he believes he is all knowing. He also clearly shows his opinion that Socialists are all erroneous and that to survive you have to be like him ‘A hard-headed man of business.’

Another dramatic strategy that Priestley uses to get his point across is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony means that the character says something he thinks in true but the audience know is untrue. In the play Birling uses lots of dramatic irony.

‘I say there isn’t a chance of war’. The irony in this is that the play is set a year before the war broke out. By saying this Priestley reminds the audience how big-headed Birling and other Capitalists are and how they also thought they were even though they were mistaken.

Birling continues to unwittingly get predictions of the future wrong when he says that the titanic is ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. This is ironic because everyone know that the Titanic is infamous for sinking after crashing into an iceberg but the characters in the play are unaware this is going to happen as the play is set in the year 1912 before it has sunk. This shows how egotistical Capitalists were and that if people like this returned the world would be very different, probably unhappier place.

Overall I think that Priestley effectively used Birling and the Inspector to get his attitude towards social classes put across. By having Birling as an overstated Capitalist, Priestley shows how they had an absence of decency toward man and how obnoxious they were. This is enhanced more when the Inspector enters; The Inspector is the antithesis of Birling. He is an exaggerated example of a Socialist. They oppose each other in a way that enhances both of them, allowing the audience to see exactly what both of them are like and easily despise Birling and like the Inspector. At the end of the play Priestley also puts out the message that if Capitalist’s are going to change it has to be done when they are young. This is shown at the end when Sheila and Eric show remorse even thought the girl isn’t dead whereas Birling says is only happy that there is no news scandal.

Overall I think the Priestley intentions to try and help rid the society of social hierarchy are successful in this play, he makes the audience despise higher class people and understand that whatever happens it is not possible for money to buy respect no matter.

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How Does J.B Priestley Present Arthur Birling in Act One to Reveal Priestley's Social Concerns?. (2019, Jan 11). Retrieved from

How Does J.B Priestley Present Arthur Birling in Act One to Reveal Priestley's Social Concerns?
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