What do we learn from the stage directions at the beginning of ‘An Inspector Calls’?
‘An Inspector Calls’ was written during the Second World War by playwright and dramatist John Boynton Priestley, and focuses on social injustice in the early 20th century. The play is set in 1912, Edwardian England, just before the war, which was a very difficult time for England. It was a period when there were many strikes, food shortages and great political tension. In contrast to that, the play was actually written and published in 1945, just after World War II, when the country was also in dismay. Priestly is very effective in using this time difference, as he shows the similarities in the way in society showed a lack of responsibility in the way people felt towards each other. There was a distinct difference and social divide between the three social classes; the upper and middle classes led lavish and comfortable lives of luxury; the poor in comparison in poverty and squalor.
The staging of the opening scene is imperative as the initial setting helps to show the superiority and self-importance of the Birling family, and has a major impact on the overall opinion of the family. Priestley’s details of the stage directions are critical in developing an understanding to the background behind characters and introducing the major themes behind the play. The opening scene creates an impression of the Birling family that is not as it seems; perhaps the atmosphere implies that the contentment is slightly forced.. The Birling’s are celebrating a special occasion and are pleased with themselves. The scenery and costume within the opening scene would display the obvious wealth, luxury and happiness of the Birling’s.
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The Birling’s live in a ‘fairly large suburban home’ which indicates that the Birling’s are wealthy and have some power, but may suggest that their greed for more is what controls them as characters. ‘Heavily comfortable’ could be classed as an oxymoron, as it is used to highlight the fact that the ‘good solid furniture’ is out of place and not at all ‘cosy and homelike’. The use of these contrasts show the Birling’s have made too much of an effort upon their home, creating a strained, almost unnatural feel to their home, additionally creating tension and making visitors and family members alike feel out of place and uncomfortable because of this arrangement.
An alternative interpretation to the ‘good solid furniture’ and its non-cosiness is that the furniture is newly acquired as it would take a period of time to achieve an effect of fitting in to the home. This may incline that their wealth was recently gained, so it is a new addition to existing furniture. It could perhaps show showing Arthur Birling’s quality yet questionable taste in furniture, but also the fashion and styles that he is trying to instil upon his family to gain a higher status.
Priestley could also be trying to make the point through his socialism views that money cannot buy you happiness and although the Birling’s are rich enough to enough to afford comfortable furniture, there is a sense that they don’t belong to the family in a way that makes it homely, giving the sense that there are no feelings of community within the home.
The stage directions also specify that the Birling’s own a ‘telephone’ which during the period was both fashionable and expensive due to the object being relatively new. This may be a reason as to why the Birling’s have allowed it to be pride of place on a small table, to display the wealth they have and draw attention to it being set aside from the other furniture.
All members of the dinner party are ’in evening dress of the period’ and all men are described as wearing ‘tails and white ties’, which shows the lavish, extravagant lifestyles of the characters. A ‘decanter of port’, ‘port glasses’, ‘cigarettes’ and a ‘cigar box’ are brought into the room by the parlour maid Edna. This is another additional detail which Priestley has used, intended to show the wealth of the family. Only the middle to upper classes would be able to afford such fashionable and expensive items, and the display of wealth in the maid also suggests the amount of money that the family have, in the way that they can afford to be waited on hand and foot.
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Generally, the use of this setting is to create an impression of power and high class, as it is the typical type of middle to upper class family that would live in such an extravagant Edwardian setting known of the time. The dining room has been described in such a way that it appears to be a warm, comfortable area enjoyed by all the family, but Priestley has subtly used language and stage positioning to reflect that the reality of the situation is the family feels uncomfortable and in places, there are relationships that may be in a state of instability. An example of such stage setting is the way in which the relationship of Mr and Mrs Birling is described; ‘Mr Birling is sat at one end, his wife at the other’. This shows the distance and coldness in their relationship.
Priestly uses stage directions to indicate a change in tone by stating how the stage lighting should be used, “The lighting should be pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives then it should be brighter and harder.” The use of the adjective pink in this quotation implies a calm, pleasant and enjoyable environment. The adjective ‘intimate’ tells us that this is a very friendly environment, which is private and personal. However the audience gets the sense that it is just a screen covering up secrets and that they are in fact looking through ‘rose-tinted glasses’ and that it is not really what it seems.
The change in lighting, with the use of’ brighter’, could be interpreted to create the image of an interrogation room which links in with the Inspector, suggesting that he is using the change in lighting to aid his questioning. This is later on revealed through the exposure of secrets and the revelation of the truth. The use of harder gives an image of the Inspector being hard, rough and more intensive than usual police officers. This quote also suggests that the presence of the Inspector is just enough for changing the environment from calm to that of tension and worry. Increasing and making the lighting harder builds up suspense for the audience.
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Characterisation is also introduced through the stage directions, and not only describes physical features, but begin to reveal personality traits and other such details. The Birling’s could be perceived to represent all middle class families of the time and as a representation of society, and Priestley conveys the views of society at the time through the family. The Birling’s are in a way used to represent the faults in mankind as a whole, which allowed Priestley to show his opinions that were immoral and socially unacceptable.
Mr Birling is described as ‘heavy looking’ and ‘portentous’. This could suggest that he is a man that very much likes to be in charge, and when he gets the chance, metaphorically ‘throws his weight around’; this is also done through the lavish display of wealth. The word ‘portentous’ shows he has an ominous and serious, yet rather pompous persona. He is described as having ‘easy manners’ and is rather ‘provincial in his speech’. This shows that he is respectful for those that are his social superiors and is slightly relaxed, but also shows much he wishes to be higher class; despite the unbreakable habits he has that link him to his current status.
Mrs Birling is introduced as ‘a rather cold woman’, which suggests she is not a loving mother and has a rather blunt and harsh attitude to the rest of her family. She is also described as ‘her husband’s social superior’. This also raises concerns about whether Birling actually married to gain a higher status through money than through a loving marital relationship. It could also lead us to be believe that she thinks highly of herself as opposed to her husband, but through disobedience of the wife and the views of women at the time, she doesn’t not speak out against her spouse.
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Sheila Birling is described as a ‘pretty girl in her early twenties’. This shows that although she has become a young woman by age, she is still regarded as a child by her parents; this is evident through the way she is treated by her mother. It states she is ‘pleased with life and excited’ which gives some indication that things maybe unlike what they may seem through the happy demeanour presented.
Gerald is described as an ‘attractive chap about thirty’ who shows that he is someone who is likely to attract the attention of women; this is also shown by being described as an ‘easy well-bred young man’. This also indicates information to his background, as he is an aristocrat, being the son of Lord and Lady Croft. He is ‘too manly to be a dandy’ which shows he acts like a man, and has the typical physical features and characteristics that are perceived of a proper man.
Eric is introduced as ‘Half shy and half assertive’. This seems slightly contradictory as they are two traits that are both characteristics. This could indicate that what is seen as being awkward embarrassed is actually a cover to show that he is hiding something from his family, or maybe that it is through drink that causes this (which is later on revealed in the play).
He is also ‘not quite at ease’ which shows something is wrong and he is possibly trying to hide something from the rest of his family.
In conclusion, a whole variety of information is learnt from the detailed stage directions. We are given a real insight into the backgrounds of these characters, and before we have studied the main body of the script, have gained some understanding of the types of lives these characters lead. We also get a strong feel of Priestley’s social views and his opinions of the socially wrong and politically unacceptable views that were expressed by the higher classes of the time. Although Priestley was middle class himself, through his literature works, he tries to convey his socialist messages, and to some extent Is successful in doing so through dramatic tension and other methods.