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An Inspector Calls

Essay by   •  May 30, 2011  •  2,796 Words (12 Pages)  •  1,816 Views

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An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls is set in 1912, during the Edwardian Era. It tells the story of a family's journey from ignorance to enlightenment by using both the plight of an unseen working class girl, and the exploration and questions of an (apparently) conscientious police Inspector in an attempt to change the attitudes of the middle class characters created for this play. This drama brings to light the important issue of how the working class is treated by their so-called 'superiors', but it could be argued that the playwright also has the intention of making what would have been (at the time of its first performances) theatre audiences made up largely of the middle class walk away from the play at its conclusion, reviewing their lives. Its success over the years is due, I believe, to its mixture of entertainment and desire to edify the audiences, and this makes it enthralling to watch; but what does J. B. Priestley's use of setting contribute to An Inspector Calls, and how successful is he through his use of this device?

An Inspector Calls has one setting throughout: the dining room. This has become, over time, an archetypal symbol of middle class England and, by using this, Priestley suggests to what would have originally been a mainly middle class audience that the events of the play are meant to be a reflection of their own lives. By its conclusion, Priestley suggests to the audience that he intended the moral message of the play to be universal and not just contained within the content of the play. This message is also reinforced at the end when its conclusion is left open, which leaves the audience to reflect on their own lives and behaviour. Because the dining room is so closely associated with middle class England, it is also used by Priestley, I believe, as a representation of so-called 'polite' society. At the beginning of the play, the dining room protects the family against the outside world: the Birlings and Gerald Croft are in the dining room, celebrating the engagement of Sheila to Gerald. Though it is meant to be a cheerful, happy, romantic time, the conversation is stilted and forced: Mr Birling, for example, talks about business, economics and the welfare of the country and the country, believing that Great Britain is in 'for a period of steadily increasing prosperity'. There is very little mention of any kind of love or emotion between Sheila and Gerald. This suggests to the audience that the marriage is more about class and power, and less about romance and love. As a contrast to the sense of an arranged relationship between Gerald and Sheila, the Inspector encourages Gerald to reveal details of the time he and Eva (or Daisy) shared. The relationship obviously upsets Shelia; there are hints, however, that Gerald had genuine feelings for Daisy, conceivably that he was even in love with her. He treated her well while she was with him and the Inspector says that 'he (Gerald) at least had some affection for her and made her happy for a time'. Nevertheless, their relationship did have to finish because of their positions in society. At that time, to marry a working class girl would have brought shame upon the family name. By bringing this situation into the play, Priestley is not so much blaming Gerald for ending his relationship with Daisy, but society for being set up in the way that he did have to finish with her and end the only happiness she had.

Although the mood in the dining room appears to be happy, carefree and relaxed, Priestley creates a sense of underlying tension: Eric, for example, is nervous and Mr Birling's attempt at easy manners have an air of forced unnaturalness so, for a perceptive audience, all is not what it seems in the Birling household. The Inspector's arrival in the dining room symbolises his role in the play: he intrudes on the rituals of polite society; at the beginning, the lighting is pink and subdued, suggesting that everything is calm and placid; however, when the Inspector enters, the lighting changes to being hard and bright, symbolising the change in mood. Not only do the stage directions suggest in terms of lighting the Inspector's role, his actions and attitudes reinforce this impression: soon after his entrance, he is rude to Mr Birling by 'cutting through, massively' when he is talking. Mr Birling is obviously not used to this happening in his own dining room where he believes he is the head of a happy, united family, as well as a respected man of the town. Priestley's introduction of the Inspector is designed to produce a contrast between the lazy, carefree attitude of the middle class characters and the purposeful determination of the Inspector. He comes in and forces a transformation from the ignorance they possess about the outside world and their lack of real interaction with others not from their social class into the startling reality of a world beyond the dining room. The Inspector disturbs the calm and the dining room is no longer a place of apparent respectability but of secrets and scandals. At the beginning of the play, therefore, the tightness of the setting seems to symbolise a closely-knit family and a place of security; however, as the narrative progresses and more secrets are revealed, the atmosphere begins to feel (for both the characters and the audience) claustrophobic and the family's feelings towards each other reinforce ironically Mr Birling's claim that 'a man has to make his own way - has to look after himself - and his family too, of course, when he has one - and so long as he does that he won't come to much harm': the members of the family turn on each other, most of them blaming anyone but themselves.

Behind the confined setting of the dining room, there is the implied location of house and town and, beyond that, England. Britain, at the time, was, for a small minority, a prosperous country: it housed the very wealthy yet also the very poor. An Inspector Calls tries to get across to audiences the unfairness of the situation and how the poor were being exploited or ignored by the rich. An Inspector Calls is set in the northern industrial town called Brumley. Though the Birlings live here, the impression is that the Birlings (particularly Sheila and Mrs Birling) never see anything of this, suggesting that they are out of touch with how life is lived by many: 'Your daughter isn't living on the moon. She's here in Brumley too'. Brumley is fictionalised, but is used by Priestley to suggest that this is any town with similar characteristics - not just one. Further, the Birlings' house is comfortable, presented in stark contrast to the conditions endured by most in the industrial town they live in. For some, the economy of 1912 was in good health. For a

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