The opening scene of this play is very cleverly written by Priestley, it sets the scene for the rest of the play and drops subtle hints throughout of what may happen later on in the plot. We watch this play in hindsight, because it was shown for the first time in 1946, but was set in 1912, which is something to bare in mind while looking at dramatic techniques, such as irony. In this essay I’m going to explore Priestley’s dramatic methods in the opening scene of the play, right up to when Edna introduces Inspector Goole.
I am going to try and see how Priestley shapes the audiences expectations for the rest of the play, and in particular reference to characterisation, plot and social/political themes. I will be trying to analyse the effects of dramatic devises and structures, I will be looking at the layers of meaning expressed in language, ideas and themes. I will try to reflect on the effects of character and action and discuss the social and historical context. By looking at all the dramatic methods used in the first scene I should be able to do this. What the set is like determines the audience’s expectations for the rest of the play.
We can look at the stage directions right at the start (and although the audience couldn’t see it in writing, they would still be able to see it on stage), because this helps us see what the family’s house is like at the start, and there fore give us an insight to what the world around the out side of the characters is like and their relationship with it. For example Priestley describes the house as ‘… not cosy and homelike… ‘ which shows that they would rather have a house which looks good on the outside, rather than one which is homelike and nice inside.
Which is typical of Mr. Birling. It shows how they prefer to have an air of outward respectability showing us a lot about their personalities and it has an element of irony to it, they are trying to be respectable and keep out of trouble when they are later going to be questioned by an Inspector. Another dramatic method used is the use of sound and lighting effects. The lighting throughout the play is a very strong way of telling what the mood at the time is like. Priestley uses it well when the Inspector has just arrived and Mr. Birling asks Edna if she would ‘…
Give us some more light. ‘ When this is said it has two meanings. One being let there be light on the stage, and the other being let the inspector enlighten us with what he has to say. Another example of how the lighting and the inspector arriving are linked is in the stage directions, just before the play; ‘The lighting should be pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder. ‘ The pink intimate light is seen as being a perfect family light showing happiness, and the brighter harder light is more interrogating.
This again shows how Priestley makes the inspector seem tough, and he brings a more harsh light upon the peaceful family. Sound effects are not used extensively but when they are they are used they still give hints to what will happen in the play and how the audience should feel. At the end of the section that we are studying, when the inspector calls, the stage directions say ‘… the sharp ring of a doorbell… ‘ This gives you the feeling of cruelty where it says, “sharp” particularly, because this gives the idea of the inspector being harsh.
The short ring that he gives shows that he doesn’t have a lot of time and he is there to do business and wants to get straight to the point. It gives him and air of being in charge and this is exactly the character, which Priestley is trying to portray in him. The bell, which is heard and disrupts Mr. Birling, is similar to that of the inspector who often interrupts Mr. Birling. Priestly helps the audience look forward into the rest of the play, by giving them ideas of what characters are like.
And example is when the family is sitting around the dinning table celebrating and Sheila brings up the fact that Eric has drunk rather a lot and says, “You’re squiffy”; this is a hint about Eric’s drinking problem, which develops later into the play. His drinking problems play a big part in the plot of the play, and peoples opinions on him, as his drinking problems may of caused the death of Eva Smith. There fore the way Priestly uses prophecy and visions in the play helps us to get an understanding, and is very important at the beginning of the play.
We also see at the start that Priestley sets the scene for the characters relationships at the start of the play. Just from reading the first few pages, we can see how certain characters are going to treat each other and talk to each other. For example right at the start, when the doorbell has just rang, and Eric has entered the room again, Mr. Birling is talking to Gerald who says; ‘… only something we were talking about when you were out. A joke really’ and Eric replies uneasily ‘Well, I don’t think it’s very funny. ‘ This shows a lot about the interactions between these three men.
We can see how Gerald looks down on Eric, and how this makes Eric feel insecure at times. Also I think that the audience can see as well as Eric can that Gerald had a better relationship with his father than he actually does, this again would make Eric feel insecure and uneasy about his relationships with his father and also Gerald. Mr Birling treats and talk to Eric in a very patronising manner, and later on this leads to tension between the two, which is one of the factors that shows us how little the bond is between them, and as the play goes on you see them drift further and further apart from each other.
Eric mainly feels excluded from the social interactions that go on between Gerald and Mr. Birling. This does eventually lead to a rift between Mr Birling and Eric, which we see later in the play lead him to turn on his father at points. Within the main plot around Eva Smith and the fake suicide (as well as in the opening) we can gain a lot of insight to what the life was like socially and economically in 1912 (which is when the play is set).
We learn how the Birling’s become adrift from the rest of the community, and this is a lesson, which the inspector is trying to teach them (about community involvement), and the importance of how Mr Birling became very self centred, leading to a lack of responsibility, which is seen well in the quote: ‘… you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense. ‘ This is ironic as their involvement within the community – or lack of it – is the main theme throughout the play, but they do not yet know this.
Mr Birling often adopts and takes up the ideas of capitalism, looking after his concerns and no one else, ‘higher prices, lower wages’, this shows Mr Birling as the typical factory owner who is only bothered about the money he makes and not about his workers, this also helps us to see how Mr Birling is seeing the engagement as a great business opportunity. Capitalism was the most established way of life in 1912, (although Priestly was a socialist) the time the play was set.
Where as when it was actually shown in 1944 the new political ideas were socialist ones, where workers received a share of the profit, which the company had made. I think that Priestley would have had this view, and he uses the inspector to get his point across, as I think this is the view he tries to show the inspector as having. We can see the evidence that Mr. Birling is a capitalist throughout the play but it is reinforced when he talks about Russia (which was a socialist country), which he criticises about being behind the times.
The most powerful dramatic method Priestley uses dramatic irony which is just irony that occurs when the meaning of the situation is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play. Writers use this technique to highlight their message to the audience; Priestley uses it throughout Act I to convey an idea of the characters. An example of this is when Mr. Birling is sitting around the dinner table with his family and he starts to mention the possibility of a war: “… you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks!
” This is a good example of dramatic irony, because the audience would know that they are talking about world war one, and know that world war one would happen, but they don’t so at this point they are absolutely oblivious. It also shows Mr. Birling’s arrogant attitude, he thinks that he knows best and what he has been told will always be right. The dramatic irony helps the audience to see how arrogant Mr. Birling is, as they know he is completely wrong, but still completely unwilling to listen to any other suggestions. It makes them see him as a man who doesn’t look far enough ahead and is far too self-opinionated.