At the time the play was written the Labour Party was making its campaign promises. Two of the party’s main policies were to introduce a National Health Service and create unemployment benefit. Priestly was very much for these ideas as he was sure they would improve life for society as a whole. He also knew these schemes would not work unless middle and upper classes were prepared to pay higher taxes, and were willing to share their wealth with those less fortunate than themselves.
One of the reasons Priestly wrote the play might have been to make the audience realise that their actions would have consequences, and that we are all responsible for each other. Priestley wants the public to heed the inspector’s warning. Priestly wanted the rich business men like Arthur Birling to understand that, through paying his workers extremely low wages, their own wealth was created. Priestly uses the Inspector to warn the Birlings that they should pay the likes of Eva Smith higher wages because they should have more compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Basically Priestly wanted the exact opposite to what society had been like in the Edwardian era of 1912.
Priestley’s objective through the play was to try to warn the public, that their actions will have consequences. He wanted people to live together helping each other as one big community. J.B Priestley was a Socialist and used theatre experimentally, merging political views and ideas with naturalism and realism. In the play Inspector Calls, Priestley combines everything he hates, to create the play’s antagonist Arthur Birling. Mr Birling is head of the family and from the very beginning of the play this is apparent. Arthur is seated at the head of the table and topics of conversation are discussed through him.
A gender issue is also evident throughout the play. The women speak less than the men, after the meal Mrs Birling and Sheila retire, leaving Mr Birling, Gerald and later Eric alone. The men smoke cigars, which also demonstrates the Birling’s elevated status in society. Early on in the play, it is evident that not everything is quite right within the family’s relationship. The atmosphere appears false and forced, as if they are trying to gloss over the lies and secrets that Gerald and every member of the family conceals. There are a number of examples that support this, for example, Sheila and Eric, who although in their early twenties, behave like a pair of ten year olds.
Sheila is aware that last summer Gerald had an affair with another woman although he will not admit it. Gerald claims he ‘was awfully busy at the works all that time’ but Sheila is clearly not convinced, Mrs Birling backs Gerald up by telling Sheila that, ‘When you’re married you’ll realise that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business.’ Mrs Birling is of course aware of what really goes on but doesn’t see it as a big problem. Eric also tries to keep his drinking problem hidden from the family, although Sheila is aware of it and gives the audience a clue when she and Eric are squabbling. Sheila tells him he is ‘squiffy’. Mr Birling gets on incredibly well with Gerald, and treats him as if he is the perfect son. Eric is not treated nearly as amicably, and this also creates some tension.
Before the Inspector arrives, the Birling family and Gerald Croft are celebrating. Gerald had proposed to Sheila and they were now officially engaged. Mr Birling is especially pleased about this, as he and Gerald get on very well. Gerald’s father, George Croft, also owns a big business, which is a major rival of Arthur Birling’s firm. Mr Birling is hoping that there is some secondary gain in the marriage for him, as he has an idea of co-operating and amalgamating with Sir George Croft in future business ventures.
Mr Birling starts his speech off by telling Sheila and Gerald that when they marry they will, ‘be marrying at a very good time.’ He tells them to ignore any, ‘ silly pessimistic talk.’ Arthur continues to explain that, a few miners went on strike last month’ when in actual fact it was thousands. ‘There’s a lot of wild talk about possible Labour strikes in the near future.’ He then proceeds to tell them not to ‘worry’ about it. The audience know about the many strikes that came in the next few years. Birling tells the party how they ‘are in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity.’ Again he is wrong as the First World War begins two years later. Eric then interrupts with a question, ‘What about war.’
Of course Mr Birling thinks he knows the answer, but alas he is wrong again. ‘You’ll hear some people say that war is inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks!’ He pronounces that, ‘nobody wants war, except some half-civilized folks in the Balkans’. When Eric then tries to interrupt his father, he is told, ‘Just let me finish, Eric. You’ve got a lot to learn yet.’ Little does he know he has a lot to learn, and much of that learning will take place later that night. Arthur keeps telling them how he is, ‘talking as a hard – headed practical man of business.
Mr Birling is very arrogant, and everything he says is a statement. He does not believe he could ever be wrong. This is exemplified when he says, ‘there isn’t a chance of war’. The Titanic is the next thing he mentions. Indubitably the audience know the ship sinks as it happens only two weeks after the date the play is set. ‘Unsinkable’ Arthur says. He then skips forward to 1940. ‘In twenty or thirty years time – lets say, in 1940 – you may be giving a little party like this – your son or daughter might be getting engaged – and I tell you, by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.’
He just picks a date out and it just happens to be right in the middle of the war. Again this is brilliant use of the dramatic device, dramatic irony. Priestly constantly makes sure that Birling could not be more incorrect. The fact that Arthur Burling is incredibly arrogant about tragic events that happen in the future, means that the audience is immediately prejudiced against him. Birling also praises all the technical progress that has been made with boats and planes, but little is he aware that these very objects will be used as weapons of mass destruction for war, in the near future.
Later when Gerald and Mr Birling are alone, Arthur begins to hint to Gerald that there is a ‘fair chance’ he will make the next honours list. ‘Just a knighthood of course.’ He explains how he was Lord Mayor two years ago, when Royalty visited and how he believes he has always been, ‘regarded as a sound useful party man.’ Arthur continues, this time Priestly uses the dramatic device of foreshadowing. ‘There’s a very good chance of a knighthood – so long as we behave ourselves, don’t get into the police court or start a scandal – eh? He is so complacent that he just laughs it off. The next line Gerald delivers is a second use of foreshadowing, as he laughs Gerald proclaims, ‘You seem to be a nice well behaved family.’
As the play continues the audience understand more and more that this statement simply is not true. Each member of the family has in fact hurt this girl, Eva Smith, in one way or another and driven her to suicide. One further example of this powerful dramatic device is used during act one, before the Inspector arrives. Gerald presents Sheila with an engagement ring. She proclaims, “Oh it’s wonderful. I’ll never let it out of my sight!” Later in the play she actually gives the ring back to him, on the very same evening.
When the Inspector finally does arrive, his entrance is timed perfectly, and again this is a dramatic device employed by Priestly. The Inspector’s character is completely different to every other in the play. In the London performance, the stage presence of the Inspector was overwhelming. Although the Inspector was not a big man he created an impression of massiveness and solidity. He wore a plain dark suit and always looked hard at the person before he spoke to them. Sometimes it seemed like he was reading the minds of the characters before he even asked the question. All the other characters spoke fairly quickly and loudly, but the Inspectors voice was soft, slow and slightly menacing.
He was very precise in the way he spoke, and never seemed at all vulnerable. From the moment the Inspector meets Mr Birling, Arthur tries to put him down. He tells him about his previous status and Lord Mayor, and how he knows most of the police force. He tells him that he has never heard of him, but that many of his acquaintances have similar positions to Inspector Goole. Mr Birling is such an arrogant man who does not care at all for others less fortunate than himself. This is evident as he shows no remorse about the death of Eva Smith, nor does he think any of it could possibly have been his fault. In conclusion, J.B Priestly employs various dramatic devices throughout the play, and most are very effective. These dramatic devices add atmosphere, central theme and allow the audience to have a better understanding of the play and Priestly’s political views.