How does Priestley make a drama out of the theme of social responsibility in the play An Inspector Calls? The play tells the story of a middle class family and how they have all contributed to a young working class woman’s suicide. Priestley has set the play in 1912 as a way of making the audience of 1946 look back on their past. The consequence of setting the play 30 years or so earlier is that the audience can know more about events than the characters. He is also making people realise how social values have changed, for the better. In a way, the audience can relate to the Birling family, which brings across the message of the play far more intimately. The audience feel like they could be in the same position as the Birling’s, bringing the theme of the play closer to home.
The dramatic irony relating to the audience’s knowledge is particularly apparent in Mr Birling’s speech to Gerald and Eric. Priestley is revealing aspects of the character to the audience; in this ‘progress’ speech there are numerous examples of this device. He paints a very rosy picture of life for them, going on at length about how safe and prosperous the world is. Mr Birling says “there isn’t a chance of war, the world’s developing so fast it’ll make war impossible.” The audience will immediately pick up on this irony, as the audience will know, the First World War began in 1914 and didn’t end until 1918. Millions died. Birling denies there will be any trouble with industrial workers, “Don’t worry. We’ve passed the worst of it.” He even pronounces the Titanic unsinkable, “Titanic…unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”.
The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage; she hit an iceberg on the 15th of April 1912, killing 1513 people. In 1921 there was a General Strike affecting most industries. This is dramatic irony. Priestley uses it to make the audience realise what a shock all of these events must have been to the nation. The country had its moral and social values set, a war can change values dramatically, bring the classes closer together. Such naï¿½ve remarks make Mr Birling look like a pompous, unreliable fool. He puts such emphasis on class divisions, with statements such as “you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else”, “community and all that nonsense.” His feelings are “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own…” He is always eager to lecture the younger generation about his views and give them advice. This advice always revolves around his belief that it is each for their own.
The theme of the whole play is social responsibility, equality, morals and sharing wealth. Inspector Goole takes the opposing view to Mr Birling, “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” He is trying to teach the Birling’s that they, as the higher class should have a sense of responsibility for the lower, poorer classes. After the war people had begun to realise the importance of everyone looking after each other. Many men died in the war, the sorrow and rationing of food can only have bought the classes on to a similar level; each family had the same amount of rations, so no longer did the upper classes have money as a way of being better than the lower classes.
The whole play could be very dull. There is no change of scene and only six main characters and a maid. The entire play is performed in the dining room of the Birling family. There are no flashbacks, special effects and very few lighting techniques as we, the modern generation would expect. Unlike most plays there is only one plot line and no subplot. However, this brings a naturalistic feel to the play. The audience are present throughout the interrogations. The scandal of the play provides the interest. Priestley knows people love scandal and the way to keep their attention is to make the results of the investigation as scandalous as possible.
The inspector enters at an ironic point in the play, just as Mr Birling is making his speech to Gerald and Eric, wrongly advising them on morals, ethics and social values. At the entrance of the Inspector, Mr Birling asks for “more light”. This gives the scene a new stark, harsh feel, anticipating a change in atmosphere, setting the scene on edge. Mr Birling presumes, because of his position that he is required to sign a warrant of some sort. In fact, he himself is under investigation.
The name Goole may be intentional or coincidental, to give the audience a clue that he may be a ghost, Goole sounds strangely like ‘ghoul’, and this may be of some significance. Priestley could be implying that the Inspector could be a ghost, brought to teach the family a lesson. It may not be a coincidence that the Inspector arrived when he did, if he is some sort of ghost or messenger sent to teach the Birling’s values he may have entered at that point because of what Mr Birling had just said.
The Inspector really brings the play together; he reveals the characters’ secrets, their thoughtlessness and lack of consideration for others, especially those of a lower class. He will only interrogate one character at a time, more or less in the order of events in the life of Eva. Sheila realises nothing can be hidden from the Inspector early on and decides everyone may as well confess. The Inspector, calmly begins to expose the Birling’s flaws, he shows them for what they really are, with no regard for their position in society. The Inspector can always find fault with the Birling’s. He twists their words, makes them realise what they’ve done.
For example, at Mr Birling’s remark about how the Inspector has made a “mess” of their “nice little family celebration”, the Inspector retorts that when he saw what was left of Eva Smith he thought “a nice little promising life there” and “a nasty mess somebody’s made of it.” He has thrown Mr Birling’s anger back in his face, making him realise how petty he seems. Furthermore, the Inspector can always outwit the Birling’s, especially Mr Birling. The Inspector will always take the opposing view to Mr Birling and get the last word, pointing out to Mr Birling that “its better to ask for the world than to take it.”
Eva is cleverly and symbolically named. Priestley has set her up as the archetypal lower class woman. The name Eva is a form of Eve, i.e. Adam and Eve, representing the first and only woman, so she represents the entire female sex. Smith is a common name; therefore she belongs to the lower classes. Eva is the key of the play, the topic of conversation and the reason for the investigation. Most importantly, she is used to evoke emotion from the audience and characters. She binds everything and everyone together.