Show how and explain why Priestley creates dramatic tension in the Birling house even before the inspector arrives Essay
In the first act, Priestley introduces the characters to the audience in the play and their lifestyles. Using language, props and costume, Priestley shows the characters are wealthy. For example at the beginning of the play, Birling says, ” You ought to like this port, Gerald. “. The upper class of the time (1912) generally drank port after dinner. The Birlings are gathered after dinner to celebrate the engagement between Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft. Birling is a rich businessman who is only interested in making money- “It’s my duty to keep labor costs down. ” Money is his first priority.
Priestley wants Birling to sound ignorant, stupid, foolish nai?? ve and unsympathetic. Birling makes assumptions of what will happen in the future, for example, he says the Titanic will never sink, and he says that the English will never go to war because the Germans don’t really want it. Since the play is set in spring 1912 none of the events have actually taken place yet, but the audience is living in the 1940’s so they know Birling is wrong. This is called dramatic irony. His wife, Sybil is much of a sexist, traditionalist type lady. Sheila Birling is a young woman who is very pleased with life at the beginning of the book.
Her brother Eric is quite mysterious and comes across as very strange. On the surface, the mood in the Birling’s house is jovial. Everyone seems quite happy with his or her lives but sometimes language they use shows there is tension. Tension is the anticipation of something bad, stressed or uncomfortable coming. The characters don’t want to let the tension show because this should be a happy night for everyone and they don’t want to make a big scene or cause a fuss.
For example, one point of tension before the Inspector arrives is when Birling is talking about the absence of Sir and Lady Croft. I’m not sorry that we’re celebrating quietly like this-” Mrs. B cuts in saying, “Much nicer really. ” The subtext of what Mrs. B is saying is shut up. She wants her husband to stop talking before someone is embarrassed by what he says. This tells us she is protective of Gerald because she doesn’t want him to become embarrassed. There seems to be a problem between Gerald and Sheila. Although they are getting engaged, there are moments of tension between them. For example, when they have just finished dinner, Gerald says, “In fact, I insist upon being one of the family now.
I’ve been trying long enough, haven’t I (Sheila does not reply, with more insistence) Haven’t I? You know I have. ” At this point Mrs. B cuts in and says, smiling, “Of course she does. ” Here, Mrs. B cuts in to prevent an argument from arising and hide the tension. She is hiding the tension for Gerald’s benefit. Mrs. B wants to protect him because she respects him and likes him. She tries to cut off the subject but fails. Sheila continues- half serious, half playful, “Yes- except for all of last summer, when you never came near me, and I wondered what had happened to you. ”
Gerald replies, “And I’ve told you- I was awfully busy at the works all that time. ” Sheila replies in the same tone as before “Yes, that’s what you say. ” This seems to be a topic that has been previously discussed between Gerald and Sheila. We know this because Gerald says, ” And I’ve told you- ” meaning obviously they have discussed this at length before. She approaches this subject carefully because although she is serious, she cannot let her anger show because she does not want to make a big scene. She knows something was not right about the time and hints Gerald’s response is a lie when she says, “Yes, that’s what you say. When Gerald pauses-“And I’ve told you- I was awfully busy at the works all that time. ” At the pause, he is preparing what he will say as it is a lie that has previously been told. He doesn’t want to change his story by accident.
Their discussion continues with Mrs. B, “Now, Sheila, don’t tease him. When you’re married you’ll realize that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had. ” Sheila responds, ” I don’t believe I will. Then to Gerald in the half serious half playful tone,” So you be careful. ” Here, Mrs. B is saying that all men will have affairs and that the women will just have to get used to that. She knows Gerald was with another woman during the last summer but is protecting him from enduring more embarrassment. She thinks her daughter should accept the situation. When Sheila replies, she shows the change in attitude. She could easily be a feminist later on in her life. She believes more in equality than tradition. Out of all the characters, Sheila is the most sympathetic with Eva Smith.
She represents change not only in sexism but also equality within classes. She is hope, optimism, and change because she is not selfish. She is not concerned about money at the end of the play. It is significant that Lord and Lady Croft are absent from the celebration. They appear to not be there because they are out of the country but that could easily just be made up to prevent embarrassment. They are not at dinner because they feel the Birlings are their social inferior. They do not approve of the engagement and choose not to be there from their own free will. When this subject comes up, tension arises.
Birling says, “It’s a pity Sir George and – er – Lady Croft can’t be with us, but they’re abroad so it can’t be helped. As I told you, they sent me a very nice cable – couldn’t be nicer. I’m not sorry that we’re celebrating quietly like this- ” Mrs. B then cuts in with ” Much nicer really. ” Gerald then finishes with, “I agree. ” The pauses at the beginning of Birlings speech show tension. He does not seem to recall the maiden name of Gerald’s mother so he calls her Lady Croft to save embarrassment. This shows the Crofts are very aloof and do not speak to Birling often.
Mrs. B cuts in to stop her husband rambling and Gerald ends the conversation with, “I agree. ” Gerald is just saying he agrees to save embarrassment and to end the conversation. He may disagree strongly but doesn’t feel comfortable enough to present that. Later though, when the men are on their own Birling shows he is aware that Gerald’s parents feel that Gerald could have done better socially. Birling says, “I have an idea that your mother – Lady Croft – while she doesn’t object to my girl- feels you might have done better for yourself socially-”
At this comment, Gerald feels rather embarrassed but Birling says that it is okay for his mother to feel like that and starts showing off that he may be on his chance to be knighted sometime soon. Eric behaves very strangely. He seems to not particularly know what is going on. After Gerald and Sheila have their moment of tension (Yes-except for all of last summer… ) Eric suddenly ‘guffaws’ out of nowhere. He seems to be as Sheila puts it, “Squiffy. ” Eric is very familiar with the decanter and wants to continue getting drunk. He also starts saying strange things.
When the women aren’t in the room the men start talking about women and how they are obsessed with clothes. Birling says, “Yes, but you’ve got to remember, my boy, that clothes mean something quite different to a woman. Not just something to wear- and not only something to make ’em look prettier- but- well, a sort of sign or token of their self respect. ” Gerald then says, “That’s true. ” Eric responds, eagerly, “Yes, I remember – ” but then he checks himself.
Birling stops and says, ” Well what do you remember? ” Eric replies, confused, “Nothing. Here Eric seems to be covering up for what he said earlier, perhaps he let it slip because he was drunk. At the end of the play we find out he is actually an alcoholic. We find he got Eva Smith pregnant in a drunken state that led her to Mrs. Birling. He knows this, while the audience doesn’t. He probably is talking about Eva Smith and how she loved clothes. Priestly deliberately creates moments of dramatic tension for a number of reasons. He does this to show the relationship between the characters in the first place, before the inspector arrives.
Another moment of tension occurs in Act 1. The following quote is taken after dinner, when everyone has left except for Gerald and Birling. Birling is showing off. He says, “So as long as we behave ourselves, don’t get into the police court or start a scandal – eh? ” After this he starts laughing complacently. Gerald replies with a laugh, “You seem to be a nice well-behaved family – ” Birling cuts him off with, “We think we are -” This is hinting further on in the play, what Birling says will actually happen. The Inspector arrives at the Birling house only one page after this conversation.
Dramatic irony occurs when Gerald says, “You seem to be a nice well-behaved family. ” The key world is ‘seem’ playing on the fact that they really aren’t. When Birling replies, it is again dramatic irony. He says ‘think’ as if there’s a possibility they’re not. They are foreshadowing the later events in the play, which is another reason there is dramatic tension. Also, Priestley is building up suspense and tension for the final chapter. These moments of dramatic tension foreshadow tension later in the play. The tension that was brought up between Gerald and Sheila foreshadow further problems with their relationship.
Also when Birling and Gerald are saying they are a nice family, it foreshadows the tension that will appear when the inspector arrives. After the women have left the room, Birling gives advice to the two younger men in the room. He speaks of when he was Eric’s age. “Yes, you don’t know what some of these boys get up to nowadays. More money to spend and time to spare than I had when I was Eric’s age. They worked us hard in those days and kept us short of cash. Thought even then – we broke out and had a bit of fun sometimes. ” He says of the fun he got up to when he was Eric’s age.
He also justifies extra-marital sex, but not directly. He is passing on his sexism to the younger two men. When he speaks of the fun he got up to at Eric’s age, it foreshadows that Eric has been getting up to fun as well. The main three points of tension are; the tension between men and women, the tension between generations, and the tension between class and social status. This is all shown well before the inspector arrives. This is so we can see that these three points are important and that they would be there regardless of Eva Smiths death.
The themes and issues brought up in this play were to help Britain and other countries become a more caring society. The themes and issues brought up were sexism, class and generation. In the book, women have a lower status than men- although Sheila represents change in this topic. Eva Smith represented all of these. She was female, poor and young. In class it shows everyone looks down on someone else. For example, the Crofts look down on the Birlings, who look down on Eva Smith. The Inspector came to their house to try and change it but only succeeded in changing Eric and Sheila.
Through generation it shows the younger members of society are more easily influenced. At the time the book was written, society could be described as a triangle with the upper class as the top, with the least people, the middle class in the middle with more people and the working class in the bottom, which was the majority of people. During the war, it was mainly the working class who went and it was decided afterwards that they deserved free health and social welfare. After that Britain became a more caring and sensitive society. In a way, it was Britain giving something back to the working class for fighting for Britain.