Priestley's Language, Character & Setting in An Inspector Calls

This essay shall examine the way in which J. B. Priestley uses dramatic effect in his 1945 play – ‘An Inspector Calls’. The play is centred on an Inspector who gatecrashes the Birling’s engagement party to their daughter Sheila and her Fiance Gerald croft, by announcing that earlier in the day a girl called Eva Smith, also known as Daisy Renton, committed suicide by drinking a bottle of disinfectant. The Inspector slowly makes his way around each of the Birling’s and Gerald and asks them each a series of questions which results in each of the characters being convinced that they are to blame for her death.

In this essay I will delve into the period and context of when the play was written, analyse the language used as well as the use of characters, the setting and the genre of the play. ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945, but set one week before the Titanic set sail in 1912 – the late Edwardian Era.

I feel that this was done deliberately because J. B. Priestley may have intended to convey his optimism about World war one and how he thought a World War wouldn’t begin.

After World war two, I feel it was appropriate to release ‘An Inspector Calls’ just for a simple morality play of which the morals could be ‘not everything is what it seems’ and ‘you never know what is going to happen’. I feel this is due to dramatic irony as from the curtain opening there are many references towards disasters throughout history like the Titanic sinking in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, after crashing into an Iceberg.

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Priestley conveys his optimism here as Mr. Birling says; “the Titanic – she sails next week”.

Another reason of which I feel that the playwright was a good release at the time was for the distinctions between the upper and lower classes within society. In 1912, there were strong divisions between the upper and lower classes, but after World War one, and World War two, the Holocaust, the Titanic sinking, and the Atom bomb, there was a great want for social change between the upper and lower classes for the country to stick together in the event of another disaster occurring.

As this social reform had taken place, the effect on the audience was likely to be huge, and would make both the upper and the lower class audiences realise just how bad the upper class treated the lower class during the pre-war period. Throughout the play, the upper class audience should have perceived that they took great advantage of the lower class population. I therefore feel that one of J. B. Priestley’s intentions for writing the play was to convey how the lower class were treated before the first World war, and he does this by portraying Eva Smith as vulnerable, weak and average.

This is able to gain maximum impact on the audience as Eva’s character is built up slowly and emotionally throughout the play. This concept is shown as the Birling’s and Gerald Croft take advantage of her and thus takes her own life. Throughout the playwright, J. B. Priestley uses many dramatic techniques and communicates these effects well. One way that the tension is sustained is by using dramatic irony. This is an occasion when a character makes predictions about the future – now the past and the audience know that these predictions have been proven untrue, an example being when Mr.

Birling says “The Germans don’t want war. Nobody wants war, except some half civilised folks in the Balkans”, but the audience already know that the Germans did want a war and was dubbed World War one. Now the audience are likely to think that Mr. Birling is a completely over-opinionated plank. This allows the audience to engage and become involved in the play by answering back and saying ‘oh, but yes that has happened you fool’! I also feel the reason that Mr. Birling says these sentences is because J. B. Priestley is conveying his optimism through Mr.

Birling’s grand speeches to get his points over. Another technique used to keep tension throughout the performance is by the way that each member of the family seems to have had some involvement with Eva’s death. This tension leads to a pattern of new pieces of information being submitted, therefore developing the story and making the audience interested in how each character reacts to the revelations involved in the play. I feel that one of the most dramatic effects is created when the Inspector is introduced to the Birling’s.

Inspector Goole is very abrupt and gets straight to the point for example when he’s describing Eva’s graphic death; “Two hours ago a young woman died in the infirmary – burnt her inside out of course”. This quote is repeated about three times in the play, and is a good means of maintaining the tension within the play, by indicating that something substantial is going to happen rather soon whether this is something that someone is going to say or something that someone is going to do.

The Inspector doesn’t give any clues away about her death, but he makes sure that tension is kept by making a statement and making the Birling’s finish off the story, telling him what has been going on. This makes the audience watch the play attentively to the end. I also feel that the Inspectors role is important as he keeps the pace of the plot running smoothly. This is done as he deals with one line of enquiry at a time, and Eva’s life is unravelled before the audience’s eyes – making sure that each of the characters of the play has an equal amount of blame placed upon each of them for her death.

By the end of act one, the Inspector is in complete control of the family and the situation that they’re in. He does this gradually from his entrance. His entrance is effective, and he speaks very little at the beginning, and makes Mr. Birling feel anxious. As Mr. Birling asks the question; “Some trouble about a warrant? ” the Inspector ominously replies “No, Mr. Birling. ” The third line of this conversation is when Mr. Birling begins to get annoyed at the Inspectors small communication with him, and he asks “Well, what is it then? ith a trace of impatience. This is just one of the many occurrences when the Inspector uses only a few words for a sentence, and makes the audience feel that the Inspector is going to rely on the Birling’s and Gerald to do most of the talking unless he is asking a question. The Inspector controls the family by making out that he knows everything that has gone on. He seems to be an experienced Inspector as he knows how to get the information that he needs.

The way that he seems to know everything that has gone on makes the other characters act irrationally and as a result the audience will enjoy the play even more than they would have if they didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. I believe that the playwright’s plot unravels extremely well. The tone of voice of the characters is crucial towards the play because it is one way that the audience gets to see the characters cracking and it shows us that they’re hiding things that the Inspector isn’t meant to hear.

This is quite important because unlike other plays this play doesn’t contain soliloquy’s, which give an insight towards the thoughts and the feelings of the characters. The most important part of the play is when the phone rings and it echo’s that a girl has just died in the Infirmary, and that an Inspector will be calling in shortly to question them about her death. This is effective as the audience have already heard the sinister story and will then feel that the Birling’s either got what they deserve, or will sympathise with them feeling that they shouldn’t be put through all of the questioning again.

Language in this specific play has a proficient impression on the audience. The sentence structure of the play is crucial. This includes the length of sentences within the play, the vocabulary, and the underlying meaning implied by the characters. The language in this play is vital towards the development of the story. Mr. Birling speaks in long, spaced out speech’s and at the beginning, he’s quite confident in his long speeches to the family, although Mr.

Birling’s confidence is soon enough replaced with apprehension and self justification – though I feel that he is anxious for the wrong moral reasons, as he only seems to care about his knighthood and not the fact that a girl has died because of his family. I therefore feel that Mr. Birling’s speeches depend on how much he’s in control of a situation and how happy he is. This is indicated as he acts like a temperamental child – if he gets wound up, he’ll storm out, which is visible on page twenty one of the play as the Inspector says “That’s more or less what I was thinking earlier today … asty mess somebody’s made of it. ” Mr. Birling who is “Provincial in his speech” uses very gallant vocabulary on a day-to-day basis – he doesn’t use the simplest of terms for things. The vocabulary he uses wouldn’t be used too freely in today’s society, nor too frequently in the nineteen forties – so insisting Mr. Birling’s aim is to be on the upper part of the upper class, when all he is, is Middle Class (I will discuss social class later in my essay). This vocabulary also speeds up the confrontations in the room throughout the play, because without realising, he is digging a larger and larger hole to get out of.

The use of colloquial terms is effective nonetheless in the play, for example, “squiffy” could be perceived as meaning ‘drunk’, and “by jingo” could be perceived as meaning ‘ oh God’ when you’re in a fluster, but these terms wouldn’t be used nowadays. This is vital because it adds towards the character development in the play – perhaps indicating that the Birling’s feel the need to use these terms because they think that they’re better than others, and feel the need to speak in these colloquial terms.

The language used is effective on the audience, in the way that there’s virtually always an underlying meaning somewhere in each point brought up in the play in relation towards Eva’s death, and the Inspector nearly always brings about a confrontation somewhere along the line. The use of language during Mr. Birling’s speeches are strong because he always seems to know what he’s talking about, however the use of dramatic irony in the play is crucial to make the audience think – “Ha! What an idiot!

Two examples of this dramatic irony are when Mr Birling makes the quotes about the war “I say there isn’t a chance of war” and the Titanic; “the Titanic – she sails next week … and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”. This quote leads me to believe that he’s too pessimistic about the world around him, and leads the audience to think that his head’s too far up in the clouds and he believes anything that he’s told. This is adding towards character development, as it shows that Mr. Birling is quite naive. It’s necessary to have this use of language to develop the characters social status within the play.

Although Mr. Birling would disagree with me, I feel that he and his family are of Middle class status, as he has a business that has only been open for a minority of years, and at the beginning of the show, Mr. Birling is confident in himself, as he says sentences about himself and his business like the following; “and I speak as a hard-headed business man”, however in great comparison, the Croft’s business has been open for centuries, and therefore this leads me to the conclusion that the Croft’s are of a high social status.

This leaves no question of why Mr. Birling is happy about tonight, as he assumes that the Croft’s will work together with the Birling’s as he feels that they will be family – “and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Croft’s and Birling’s are no longer competing but working together” I also feel that the use of language used is necessary by means of retaining authenticity. The language is therefore significant to both the effects on characters, and the audience.

The effects on the characters will be varying from character to character, for example the use of language used by the Inspector may be harsh and impolite in Mr. Birling’s eyes as he’s very abrupt, but from Sheila’s point of view, he could be speaking calmly and politely towards the family. This has an effect on the audience using drama, because it will be dramatic for them as the Birling’s and Gerald may react in differing ways to the Inspectors language.

Priestley’s use of character and character development in the play is crucial towards the play just as it is within novels; however there are two main divisions between characters in the play both directly and non-directly. These divisions are between the adults in the play with the younger members of the theatrical production and there is also the division of different social classes within the play. The youngsters in the play are Gerald, Sheila, and Eric, each of whom in turn are helpful towards the Inspector by being truthful about what happened nearly all of the time.

This makes me believe that they aren’t as scheming and are influenced more by the Inspector than Mr and Mrs Birling are. This connotation is based upon how Sheila realises that the Inspector only wants the Birling’s to build a bigger wall between themselves therefore she’d rather tell the truth. It is also apparent when the Inspector says “We usually do on the younger ones”, that the Inspector knows that he’ll have an affect on the younger members of the family.

The division between the adults and the youngsters becomes apparent when Mr and Mrs Birling begin to cover up their tracks immensely, however the Inspector knows what he’s doing – he knows how to get down to the bottom of things, and by the end – the audience are left in ore by the way that the whole truth has come out, without any ends being left untied. By the end of the play there have been visible divisions within each member of the family, for example, Sheila and Gerald won’t be the same again by the way that Gerald’s little secret has come out in front of his fiance.

From the entrance of the Inspector to the end of the play it’s visible he’s there to forewarn the family of the real Inspector’s trail of thinking and also to warn them not to lie to the Inspector as it will only work out to the Inspector’s advantage, because he knows most of the facts anyway. Although ‘An Inspector Calls’ is not the most ‘ha-ha’ funny play that I’ve read, it is fun to read in the way that the characters keep digging themselves into a larger more riveting hole, and by the end – they become embarrassed by the lies that they’ve told the Inspector, thus meaning more enjoyment for the audience.

Most of the humour used in ‘An Inspector Calls’ is conveyed through dramatic irony, and is a humour that makes the viewers think ‘ah, I like what you’ve done there’. This means that the plot line is mentally stimulating for the audience, and yet again the audience are able to become involved in the play. Having said that, there are some occurrences when there are some ‘ha-ha’ funny sentences, one of which is when the Inspector says “An hour ago, a girl was taken into the Infirmary after drinking a bottle of disinfectant”, and Sheila replies “Oh, was it an accident”.

My simple answer would be ‘are you stupid girl? ‘ This would be perceived as funny as someone can hardly drink a bottle of disinfectant by accident misplacing it for a cup of Tea! When Sheila finds out what happened to Eva, it shows that she has a conscience, by sympathising with her. When she finds out who she was and she finds out her story, her empathy for Eva grows, and she solely feels to blame for her suicide even though I feel she had the smallest part to play in her suicide. The same goes for Eric and Gerald who feel great sympathy for her too, but they seem to have had much more to do with her suicide.

Whilst watching the play, the audience notice that the oldest members of the family – Mr. and Mrs. Birling give very little sympathy for Eva throughout the play. This brings me to the conclusion that the younger members of the family have much more sympathy for other people, and that they are influenced much more easily by the Inspector, unlike Mr. and Mrs Birling who show very few signs that the Inspector is influencing them with his questions unless you look at the way that they act, which changes dramatically within the play. This gives the impression that the youngsters are more in touch with their senses too.

One of the main reasons that the characters have been developed in these ways is to get the audience involved, by making them feel annoyed at the characters who you are supposed to feel annoyed at, for example Mr. and Mrs. Birling are the characters in this play who are meant to make the audience feel annoyed at them because they take no responsibility for Eva’s death, which is rather cowardly of them. I feel that Eric has been placed in the play to be funny, however, he still has many sides to him which are like his parents like the way that he runs away from the truth.

I feel that the audience are meant to feel inspired and sympathetic towards Gerald and Sheila because of their honesty towards the Inspector and the way that they stand up in front of each other and tell the brutal truth of the way that they see Eva’s death, and Sheila unlike the rest of her family doesn’t run away once. The way that they are inspired by the couple is mainly because of their honesty in front of each other. Similar couples wouldn’t have the guts to admit what they’d done to themselves, never mind their partner. This is therefore a good situation to place the sympathetic couple in.

I feel this because it’ll be the best day of their lives so far together, so people will think “awww, what a shame” – but in relation to what Eva must have been put through other people would think that they deserve it. The use of setting in the play is very necessary to this play and therefore this essay. When the Inspector is introduced to the play the lighting changes drastically, from an intimate pink colour to a much harsher, harder colour, thought to be red. This immediately affects the audience because it indicates that the inspector will have a huge impact on the play.

From the beginning of the play, there are many references towards stage directions and setting which are vital, for example on page three of the play – it quotes “Half playful, half serious to Gerald”. This builds up the atmosphere that Sheila’s excited for her engagement party, but it also adds to the early character development within the play. The fact that the play is set in one room may be boring for some viewers, however I feel that it is rather effective towards the play in order for the tension to be kept within the playwright, and also so it doesn’t turn into some sort of wild Goose chase for the Inspector.

This is effective in the way that the Inspector can ask each of the characters, in turn, questions without having to ask where they are in the household and find them, which would get boring and expensive for theatre companies in a society still recovering from two World Wars. This therefore gives the effect of an interrogation room for the characters. There are many entrances and exits within the play, and this is extremely effective in the way that the audience get to find out that the characters are under pressure by the Inspector’s questions.

When characters leave the room, we find out even more about the character’s involvement in her death, which leads up to tension, because the audience begin to get an adrenaline for the next entrance of that character. When the Inspector arrives it’s nothing short of fantastic. I feel this is because of the way that the happy atmosphere has been built up fantastically, and then an Inspector walks in with the news that a girl died earlier in the day after drinking a bottle of disinfectant, therefore when the Inspector arrives the atmosphere drastically changes.

This therefore proposes the notion that the play is made successful by the use of entrances and exits of characters. I wouldn’t particularly say that this play is typical of a morality play or of a detective play in terms of the setting however it does create the sense that it has been created as a morality play as it is quite emotional – I feel it’s emotional in the way that it illustrates how badly the lower class were treated by the upper class before world war one.

I therefore feel that this play is good in terms of the genre and the setting within the play. I feel that J. B. Priestley has used the correct media type in a play, as the audience build up an affinity with each of the characters (especially Eva – though she’s not directly involved in the play), as they are seeing it being made more dramatic by terms of acting – which wouldn’t be as effective if it were portrayed in a novel or poem. This is definitely meant to be performed for an audience.

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Priestley's Language, Character & Setting in An Inspector Calls. (2017, Oct 12). Retrieved from

Priestley's Language, Character & Setting in An Inspector Calls
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