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What is the genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’ and how does it fulfil its purpose? How would the audience’s attention be sustained during the performance?
‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play written by J.B. Priestly, first performed in 1945 in the Soviet Union, and set in 1912. It is considered to be one of Priestley’s best known works for the stage and one of the classics of mid-twentieth century English theatre. The play is a three-act drama, which takes place on a single night in 1912, and focuses on the wealthy middle-class Birling family, who live in a comfortable home in Brumley and each of member of the family symbolises at least one of the seven deadly sins. The family is visited by a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who questions the family about the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith. The style of ‘An Inspector Calls’ is based on old Morality Plays. It is a bit like a detective story or a whodunnit. Morality plays were religious plays written in the late middle ages. They tended to involve the seven deadly sins and tried to teach people how they should behave. They weren’t really plays for entertainment; they were warnings against the perils of temptation. ‘An Inspector Calls’ follows the same idea as these morality plays; it’s quite blunt in pointing out everyone’s sins, and tries to get them to confess and repent, but not all the characters do though. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a morality play without religion and doesn’t follow Christian ideas about confession and forgiveness. The moral judge isn’t God, it is a police inspector. Priestley changes the religious background of the morality play and makes it secular. Priestly fought in the trenches in World War One when he was twenty. Priestley was already famous when he wrote the play, ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in one week in the final months of World War Two. By this time Priestley was already famous as a writer of plays and novels.
The characters’ language shows their social attitudes. The Birling’s and Croft’s see themselves as respectable citizens; of the right social class. Men are referred to as chaps, but Gerald calls Birling Sir. They use Euphemisms to talk about certain matters, for example it is said that Eva/Daisy ‘went on the streets’ where she led ‘another kind of life’ and became a ‘woman of the town’. These are all euphemisms for became a prostitute. Inspector Goole uses language differently, he doesn’t mess around, he just speaks his mind, and he doesn’t waffle; he describes Eva/Daisy’s death as having ‘burnt her inside out’. This contrasts with Birling’s long waffly speeches at the beginning of act one. Sheila’s language changes during the play; at the start of the play she uses simple, playful and quite childish language. Sheila says, ‘I’m sorry Daddy,’ to Arthur when she has been admiring her ring, instead of listening to him. By the end of the play she is confident and assertive, using simple, plain and blunt English, just like the inspector; ‘Between us we drove that girl to commit suicide.’ Sheila doesn’t show any doubt, and is happy to pass judgement on herself and the rest of her family.
Arthur Birling is the head of the family. He is rich and irritable. He is also very stuffy and traditional. Arthur doesn’t care about anyone else unless they are making him rich or look good, he is also wrong. Arthur Birling represents four out of the seven deadly sins; Mr Birling represents Gluttony because in the play he is described as ‘a heavy-looking, rather portentous man.’ He also represents Covetousness because he desires more power than he has got, in the play he says, ‘Just a knighthood.’ Covetousness is like lust and gluttony, a sin of pursuit of wealth, status and power. Arthur represents Envy in ‘An Inspector Calls’, because he envies Gerald croft and wants to be like him, in the play he says, ‘feels you may have done better for yourself socially.’ Pride is considered the most original and most serious out of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise. Mr Birling represents Pride in the play because he is overly proud of what they have got and he is ashamed of Eric, his son.
Sybil Birling is obsessed with etiquette and her status in society. She is stubborn and is the most cold-hearted character in the play. Mrs Birling represents two out of the seven deadly sins; Mrs Birling symbolises Wrath because she is always telling Sheila to be quiet; ‘be quiet Sheila!’ Pride is showed through what she says, ‘Feels like you could have done better for yourself socially.’
Sheila Birling is in her mid-twenties, is quite attractive and rather spoilt. She’s quite lonely and excitable. This means that tends to cry a lot. Mrs Birling is the most moral one of the family though. Sheila Birling symbolises two out of the seven deadly sins; she represents Sloth because she doesn’t really do anything and has no job; ‘that’s something this public school and varsity doesn’t teach you.’ Miss Birling also represents envy because she was envious of Eva Smith.
Eric Birling is an alcoholic. He is a raging alcoholic who is rather nervous and paranoid. He doesn’t like his parents, and they don’t seem to love him much either. Eric Birling represents three out of the seven deadly sins; he symbolises Sloth because he doesn’t really do anything, just like his sister, Sheila. He is always drunk, ‘more drinks?’ and ‘I thought this time it wasn’t so bad.’ Eric also represents Lust because he ‘went to the palace bar’ which was where he met Eva.
Gerald Croft is thirty, attractive, really rich and engaged to Sheila. Gerald is self-satisfied and he agrees with Mr Birling about business. He is very successful, but he’s a liar, and he has been unfaithful to Sheila. Gerald represents one of the deadly sins, Lust because he met Daisy at the palace bar; he used her, and paid for her flat, to ‘help her’.
The audience don’t know much about Eva Smith/Daisy Renton because we never meet her. We are not sure if they are the same person, or a completely different people. She might not even be dead!
Inspector Goole is not a real police inspector. Unfortunately, that’s as much as we do know. He is mysterious, purposeful and aggressive towards the family. He’s very moral and seems focused on getting them all to confess their sins. His name Goole, reminds the audience of ghoul, which is ghost.
Edna is the maid. Her biggest line in the play is ‘Please sir, an inspector’s called’. She answers the door a couple of times and that’s it.
Priestly has chosen to include several themes in his play, one being social class. The Birling’s and the Croft’s are high up socially. The Birling’s are clearly middle class. Gerald’s family are seemed as superior to Arthur’s because his family owns land which means they are of higher status than a city family who have made money out of business. Arthur was Lord Mayor two years previously and had been an Alderman for many years. Sybil Birling is a leading member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation. This is a group of wealthy middle class women who give money to desperate women. Small things matter when you are middle class in 1912. Arthur bought the same port as Gerald’s dad, hoping to impress him. It doesn’t because Gerald doesn’t recognise the port. Sybil disapproves of her husband saying what good food it was in front of Gerald. Playing golf with the Chief Inspector is something that Arthur thought would impress Inspector Goole. These little things matter to Mr and Mrs Birling because they show the world that you have a place in the social hierarchy; the more refined the ritual, the higher up you are. The middle class do a lot of hiding and repressing, they don’t speak about certain things, for example, prostitution; ‘I see no point in mentioning the subject.’ The Birling’s try to hid Eric’s serious drinking problem; Sheila had it worked it out but his parents didn’t want to know. Sybil acts as if the working classes are a different species. She is obsessed with her social status, she refuses to believe that Eva/Daisy turned down Eric’s money because it was stolen, saying that ‘a girl of that sort’ does not have ‘fine feelings and scruples’. Sybil is a cold person, and has probably repressed emotion all her life in the name of ‘fitting into society’ and it’s not surprising she gets ‘very distressed’ and collapses into a chair at the end. The class system of the early 1900s was wrong. This hierarchy of social class was based upon hypocrisy, lies and selfishness; it used and abused those lower down, then threw them out if they became inconvenient and no longer useful, like Eva/Daisy. The Inspector warns that if they don’t accept responsibility for each other, because they are all equal, it will all end in ‘fire’, ‘blood’, and ‘anguish’. Another theme Priestley chose to include in his play is Happy Families. They pretend to be happy, the mother and father are in control and the son and daughter mange light-hearted acceptable teasing. The meal finishes, so the ladies withdraw to the drawing room, to let the men talk. All the paranoid tension is in there, brewing, but is only shown in very subtle ways, for example, Sheila teases Gerald half playfully, but also half seriously, about last summer. Mrs Birling corrects her husband’s social mistakes, for example, saying to Gerald that the food was nice. The family is left in a mess at the end of the play. Eric says he doesn’t care whether he stays or leaves, he tells his mother that she doesn’t ‘understand anything’ and Eric calls his dad a bad father; ‘you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to’. Shelia says she wants to get out of the family discussion because it frightens her, and she doesn’t know whether she will every marry Gerald. The family is in a mess, and Sheila and Eric refuse to ‘go on behaving just as we did’. They don’t want to pretend anymore and the parents no longer have any authority other their kids. The children end up thinking for themselves, the Inspector tries to make everyone equal, which destroys the family. Once Mr and Mrs Birling lose control, the family disintegrates. An Inspector Calls is set in 1912 and was written in 1945, The First World War would start in two years. Birling’s optimistic view that there would not be a war is completely wrong, and The Second World War ended on 8th May 1945. People were recovering from nearly six years of warfare, danger and uncertainty. In 1912, there were strong distinctions between the upper and lower classes, and in 1945 class distinctions had been greatly reduced as a result of two world wars. In 1912, women were subservient to men. All a well off woman could do was get married; a poor woman was seen as cheap labour and in 1945 as a result of the wards, women had earned a more valued place in society. Finally, in 1912, the ruling classes saw no need to change the status quo, and in 1945, there was a great desire for social change. Immediately after The Second World War, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party won a landslide victory over Winston Churchill and the Conservatives.
The detective genre was popular in 1945; Priestley needed to create a play that held the interest of the audience. The typical detective play elements are all contained but cleverly described.
The play is structured so that the audience’s attention is maintained by talking about one character at a time and giving out little bits of information at a time, the time to read the play is the time that all the events in it happen.
Priestley opens the play in the middle of a conversation, which engages the audience immediately because they want to figure out what is going on. When Inspector Goole arrives, the atmosphere becomes tenser and at first, the family seem happy to help, but then a few minutes later, everything changes. Arthur wants the Inspector to leave ‘we’ve been modestly celebrating…’ Gerald’s ‘…engagement to my daughter, Sheila.’
We see intervals at the end of each act, and at the end of each act, Inspector Goole either says something, or does something and each act ends on a cliff-hanger which is done to create tension at the end of an act. The end of the play is the biggest cliff-hanger though, when Arthur answers the phone to find out that a second Inspector is on his way and that they thought was just a hoax was in fact true. Ending the play on a cliff-hanger makes the audience want to watch more and enable them to find out what happens next, and they are left thinking about the play and its meaning afterwards. The cliff-hanger technique is continued to keep the play focused and concentrated on one subject, it also draws in the attention of the audience and raises the tension.
Only one setting is used throughout the duration of ‘An Inspector Calls’, the Birling’s dining room which is where all the action takes place. The effect this has is that it is quite claustrophobic in there and the tension mounts up easily. They are all confined, and confess the sins they have committed in the outside world. Men do all the prestigious work; they own companies (for example, Birling and Company and Crofts Limited). Sheila and Gerald’s engagement may lead at some stage to a business merger; Mr Birling hints at this.
Throughout the play the audience is interested in character development. Arthur Birling likes to be in control, but as the play continues, it becomes clear that he isn’t. At the beginning of the play, Arthur is in charge of everything, even the port they are drinking! He is a public figure in Brumley and is obsessed with his status in the community. Birling’s family is falling apart, and he can do nothing about it. Sybil stays loyal to him at the end and stands by him. An Inspector comes in uninvited and asks blunt and insulting questions. Eric turns out to be disloyal both as a son and an employee. Eric stole money from the company to solve his problem and says, ‘you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble.’ By the end of the play Sheila is also no longer his obedient child; she learns and matures and is disgusted by her father’s refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. When the Inspector is in Birling’s dining room, there is a battle going on between them. Arthur wants the Inspector to behave according to the rules of his own narrow world. He tries desperately to win the Inspector over, for example, Arthur offers him a glass of port. The Inspector refuses. Arthur says he plays golf with the Chief Inspector. Inspector Goole simply says, ‘I don’t play golf.’ Furthermore, Arthur tries to impress the Inspector with his record in public office (Lord Mayor Etc.). Inspector Goole says nothing. The Inspector does not share Birling’s middle class values, Arthur proudly introduces Gerald Croft of Crofts Limited; the Inspector seems unimpressed. Arthur says to Sheila that the Inspector is going to leave. The Inspector contradicts him by saying ‘I’m afraid not.’ Mr Birling gets angry when Inspector Goole says Sybil is not telling the truth. Arthur is a very shallow man, he is obsessed with how things appear to people and his main concern is how his public image is going to be affected. He doesn’t want the story to come out and ruin him for good. Birling is prepared to pass off Goole’s visit as a ‘hoax’, which means nothing has changed for him. He is selfish and self-centred; he can’t see why his children can’t go on living as they were before.
As a wife, Sybil is rather successful; she is loyal to Arthur, despite telling him off now and again. As a mother, she is something of a failure because she doesn’t notice Eric’s alcoholism or any of the other problems until it is too late. Sybil Birling is stubborn and hard-hearted; she is a complainer and is very negative. She refuses to help Eva/Daisy because she uses the Birling name. She is slow to see that Gerald took Eva/Daisy as his mistress and she shows no remorse; ‘I did nothing I’m ashamed of.’ Furthermore, Sybil is a complete snob; she dismisses Eva/Daisy as just another girl ‘of that class’. Mrs Birling doesn’t believe that a girl can have ‘fine feelings and scruples’. She cannot believe that ‘a girl of that sort would ever refuse money’. Basically, she thinks that the working/lower class are morally inferior. Mrs Birling is uncooperative with Inspector Goole; she sees him as an intruder and finds him ‘rude’ and ‘assertive’. She tries to make him feel inferior, ‘of course my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago.’ She finds him ‘impertinent’ for taking Sheila’s side against her; Sheila tries to warn her mum about building up walls between herself and Eva/Daisy, and the Inspector agrees, making Mrs Birling look stupid. When the Inspector is interrogating her she denies that she recognises the photo and the Inspector accuses her of lying. At first she answers reluctantly. He asks her if there was a committee meeting two weeks previously; ‘I dare say there was,’ she replies. Mrs Birling doesn’t change at all throughout the play. She wants to challenge the Inspector and his views to suit hers. Sybil notices that Eric and Sheila have changed their views, but she still sides with Mr Birling.
Miss Birling seems to be the perfect daughter in act one. The stage directions say she is ‘very pleased with life and rather excited’. She uses slang expressions like ‘squiffy’ and says, ‘don’t be an ass’ which her mother disapproves of, (but it’s all quite light-hearted because it’s such a happy occasion). Miss Birling is excited about her engagement; she adores her ring and is distracted by it. At the start of Act One, she behaves appropriately, gets lots of attention and seems happy. Sheila was jealous and vain in Milwards, she loves shopping, especially at Milwards, it is her favourite shop and both she and her mother have accounts there. But last January, something happened that made her behave in a terrible manner. Sheila, for some reason was in a ‘bad temper’ and says ‘it was my own fault’. She tried a particular dress on, although her mother and the assistant said it wouldn’t suit her. Eva Smith held the dress up against herself to illustrate a point, and she looked very attractive in it; the dress really suited Eva, but it didn’t suit Sheila. Miss Birling saw Eva smiling at the assistant, and interpreted this as ‘doesn’t she (meaning Sheila) look awful’. Sheila reported Eva to the manager and threatened to withdraw her account if the girl wasn’t sacked. Back then, the big customers, like Sheila were always right, and Eva was sacked straight away. Throughout the play, she doesn’t act childish like she did at Milwards, getting Eva back was a bitchy thing to do, just for the sake of one random smile. Sheila is rich and she has got power, so she used it, but; she regrets her behaviour and she says it’s the only time that sort of thing has happened; Sheila seems genuinely remorseful and seems to have learnt a lesson. Miss Birling is different from the other, she is totally appalled by the death of the girl and when she realises her part in the tragedy (when she recognises the photograph) she runs out of the dining room crying. The Inspector’s revelations change her for good, before Gerald leaves to take some air, she hands back the engagement ring, saying that they are changed people; ‘you and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here.’ After the Inspector leaves, however, her parents want everything to return the way it was. Sheila is the only one who truly understands what has happened, and sees they all have to change. Sheila becomes a bit like the Inspector herself, she adopts some of the Inspector’s techniques, she asks Gerald as many questions as the Inspector himself does, she reveals Eric’s drinking problem to her mother and at different times contradicts or puts down her mother, her father and Gerald, like the Inspector does. Overall, Sheila is a wise woman.
There are clues that Eric isn’t quite right, the first hint comes from Priestley’s stage directions. We are told that Eric is ‘not quite at ease’. He is apparently ‘half shy’ and ‘half assertive’. He finds things his family says funny, even when there is no joke; this shows he is out of place, or drunk. He has guilty secrets; firstly he is a drinker, a heavy drinker. He got a prostitute pregnant, and has stolen money from his father’s business to support her. Eric doesn’t seem to be loved very much by the others, his father still sees him as a boy. Arthur wishes Eric was more like Gerald. Sheila seems to care about him, but mostly seems to pity him because he is in a mess. She doesn’t try to help him, she just says, ‘I don’t want to get poor Eric into trouble… but…’ In going to the stalls Bar, Eric is only doing what all middle class men with money are expected to do. Eric is the villain and the victim, he doesn’t have many friends; people who would stick up for him. He feels isolated and unsupported. He has had a neglected childhood and has had to find comfort elsewhere. The audience generally forgives Eric, he accuses the others of pretending nothing’s happened, ‘you lot may be letting yourselves out nicely.’ Most importantly, Eric accepts responsibility for what he did, ‘the fact remains that I did what I did.’
Gerald is like a mini-Arthur, but not quite as bad, he agrees with Birling on politics and women and laughs at his joke about getting into trouble. Mr Croft supports Arthur’s sacking of Eva Smith; ‘you couldn’t have done anything else.’ Gerald does have secrets though; he hasn’t been honest with Sheila and thinks he can fob her off by saying, ‘all right. I knew her. Let’s leave it at that.’ Gerald thinks he fell in love and gets upset about Daisy. He is distressed when it suddenly hits him that she is dead. He says he ‘didn’t feel about her as she felt about me’. Gerald helped Daisy, for six months. He says he took pity on her and helped her, but he didn’t feel so selfless about it that he wasn’t prepared to start sleeping with her after a while. It is hard to see Gerald as good or bad, the Inspector wasn’t too harsh on him. He notes that at least Gerald ‘had some affection for her and made her happy for a time’.
Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, her first name is a bit like Eve, the first woman according to the bible. Her second name, Smith, ordinary and very common. The Inspector says ‘there are millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left’ and their chances of happiness are ‘intertwined with our lives’. The subject of the play is not Eva/Daisy; the focus of the attention is the five people sitting around the table at the beginning. Eva’s looks may have been her downfall; she had big dark eyes and soft brown hair. Arthur Birling remembers her as a ‘lively good-looking girl’. Sheila remembers her as ‘very pretty’. Gerald remembers in the Palace bar she looked ‘young and fresh and charming’. Eric remembers meeting her there too and that she ‘wasn’t the usual sort.’ Sybil Birling doesn’t say anything about her looks; she probably thinks a working class girl has no right to be pretty, based on her other views. All of Eva/Daisy’s jobs got taken away from her. First, she was a factory worker at Birling and Company. A Shop assistant at Milwards, she worked there for a couple of months and Sheila got her sacked. She was a prostitute and then a mistress to Gerald. He rescued her from the life of a working prostitute and put her up in a flat, gave her money and slept with her. This made her happy, until Gerald dumped her. Eva/Daisy ended up back as a prostitute. The audience don’t find out whether Eva Smith and Daisy Renton were in fact, the same person, so at the end of the play, this is what they are left thinking about. There are reasons why Gerald claims there were lots of different girls. Gerald says, ‘there isn’t any such inspector. We’ve been had.’ Gerald’s key point is ‘We’ve no proof it was the same girl.’ He says, for all we know, the Inspector could have shown us all a completely different photograph. Eva/Daisy never sought revenge, so the Inspector did it for her.
The Inspector’s manner is deceptive, the stage directions tell us that he ‘need not be a big man’ but he must create ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’. His authority strengthens his strong moral tone; he can cut into the dialogue ‘with authority’, as he does when he tells Birling that Eric can wait his turn. He speaks firmly when he contradicts Birling and allows Eric to have another drink. He gets more impatient and irritated as the night continues; just as the two parents show their own impatience and intolerance. Goole reveals new information that moves the play on, he starts it all off with a summary of the afternoon’s events, he moves Gerald’s account of events on by bluntly saying that Gerald decided to keep Daisy as his mistress. The inspector uses emotive language, he has come to stir things up. His descriptions of Eva/Daisy do this, he describes her as a pretty and lively girl who died in misery and agony; hating life. Goole says to Mrs Birling, that Eva/Daisy was ‘alone, friendless, almost penniless, desperate’ and all that she did was ‘slammed the door in her face.’ The Inspector has an ally in Sheila; she does some of the Inspector’s work for him by freely confessing her part in the Eva/Daisy story to everyone. She questions Gerald once she suspects, from his reaction, that he knew Daisy Renton. Sheila warns her mother not to go ‘building up a wall’, as the Inspector will knock it flat. Gerald reacts when Goole mentions the name Daisy Renton, then the inspector leaves the room. Gerald is left in shock, the genius of the inspector’s exit is that it leaves Sheila alone with Gerald, and she then takes over the inspector’s role and interrogates Gerald. His final exit is really dramatic; first he goes over all the nasty details for the final time and gives them a big lecture. Second, he makes them all feel guilty, and Mrs Birling collapses into a chair; his speech shows the full implications of what they did. Lastly, he tells them how their actions affect the whole world, ‘if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.’ Then he just leaves, leaving them ‘staring, subdued and wondering.’
The genre of ‘An Inspector Calls’ is Drama. The play is very dramatic through many different ways. The audience’s attention is sustained during the performance by releasing a bit of information at a time using one character at a time.
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