Priestley wanted to entertain and educate his audience. Explore the ways in which he does both of these in Act Three of ‘An Inspector Calls’ You should include reference to other parts of the play in your response. In ‘An Inspector Calls’, the playwright, J.B. Priestley, uses several methods in order to arouse and sustain interest as well as entertain and educate his audience. Some of the techniques that he uses are dramatic irony, language, and stage directions. He also uses the Inspector as a device, particularly in Act Three, to convey his strong social message to both the contemporary audience and those of the present day.
The play was written in 1944-1945 but first performed in theatres in 1946, after World War II. Priestley deliberately chose to set the play in 1912 in order to help communicate his message. He utilizes Mr. Birling’s optimistic view to make ironic references that ‘there isn’t a chance of war’ and the ‘Titanic is…unsinkable’, which the audience would find entertaining, as well as offensive because they were struggling to re-build their lives after the war.
As the audience know that his comments are incorrect, they begin to doubt his judgements right from the start and anticipate his fall. At that time, Britain was also in an uneasy state, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This is shown in the play when Eva Smith asks for a higher wage, but is turned down by Mr. Birling. It is apparent that Priestley intentionally set the play in 1912 to allow him to take advantage of the events that happened throughout this era.
All three acts in the play occur in the home of a ‘rather portentous man’ in Brumley, an industrial town in the North Midlands. Act One opens on an evening in the spring of 1912 at the dining room, which contains ‘good solid furniture’ to illustrate the Edwardian period. In the 1954 black and white film version, the numerous and oppressive use of rich, heavy interiors is an effective way of presenting Mr. Birling’s social status.
Towards the end of Act Two, the Inspector skilfully directs Mrs. Birling into blaming ‘the father of the child’ who should be ‘entirely responsible’, not realising until the end that it is her own son. Similarly, Act One closes in a revelation, introducing Gerald’s involvement with Eva Smith. This is very entertaining for the audience as it keeps them on the edge of their seats, wanting more. As Priestley also uses the theme of romance, the audience is able to relate to their situation, leaving them to predict the effect of Eric’s involvement on his relationship with Sheila.
One method that Priestley uses to entertain and educate his audience is through dramatic entrances. Act Three opens ‘exactly as at the end of Act Two.’ Just as everybody in the room realises who the father is, the tension is heightened by the dramatic entrance of Eric, with the characters, and the audience, anticipating his explanation of his involvement with the girl. As Eric admits to his mistake, Mrs. Birling still refuses to face the reality of her son’s excessive drinking and that he is the father because she ‘never dreamt’ that it is possible. ‘You’re not the type – you don’t get drunk…’ This language used by Mrs. Birling shows that she still sees Eric and Sheila as children and patronises them, which is constant throughout the play.
When Mrs. Birling gives ‘a cry’ on hearing about Eric’s confession, Mr. Birling orders Sheila to ‘take mother along to the drawing-room’ as Eric is about to provide an account of his involvement with Eva Smith. The audience gain an understanding that, at that time, women had to be shielded from any issues of scandal. Another example of this is when Gerald is about to provide his part of the story and wants Sheila to leave the room because ‘it’s bound to be unpleasant and disturbing’, implying that he does not want her to hear the details of his affair with Eva Smith, probably because he still wants them to be together.
The gap between the parents and the children is revealed when Eric describes Mr. Birling as ‘not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’ to explain why Eric did not consult him. This suggests that he does not have a strong relationship with his father. This gap is widened when Eric discovers that his mother rejected Eva Smith, and consequently, Mrs. Birling ‘killed her – and the child she’d have had too – own grandchild.’
The audience would be able to relate to Eric’s situation because after the war, life was very difficult; most people were ill, homeless and unemployed. Therefore, the only help that they could turn to were charity organisations because there was no Welfare State to depend on. However, Mrs. Birling, who is involved in this organisation, refuses to give assistance to Eva Smith, ‘she had only herself to blame’, which reveals Mrs. Birling’s prejudiced and inconsiderate attitude towards those who are inferior than her.
This particular scene is highly entertaining for the audience as they watch the members of the family gradually becoming disunited. On stage, the audience would be able to observe the characters’ facial expressions and gain a firmer picture of their attitudes, particularly Eric’s aggressive behaviour towards his mother. The tone of his voice increases as he seems ‘nearly at breaking point’ in blaming his own mother, ‘damn you, damn you’, while Mrs. Birling becomes ‘very distressed’ when she realises that the death of her grandchild is the consequence of her actions, which shows a sign of weakness. At the same time, Sheila is ‘frightened’ that Eric will become violent towards his mother and Mr. Birling ‘intervenes’, becoming ‘furious’ at him for disrespecting his mother. The stage directions used in this scene help the audience to enhance their understanding of the play.
Priestley also uses this technique in other parts of the play to illustrate and emphasize the character of the Inspector. An example is when he enters the dining room, creating ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.’ This is an important characteristic of the Inspector, which helps explain his ability to dominate the Birlings by ‘cutting in’ through their conversations, showing his authoritative and commanding attitude.
‘He speaks carefully, weightily’, preventing them to distract him from his inquiry by moving their attention to the death of Eva Smith to make them focus on the issue. ‘There’ll be plenty of time, when I’ve gone, for you all to adjust your family relationships. At the beginning of Act One, Priestley also clarifies in the stage directions that ‘the lighting should be pink and intimate until the INSPECTOR arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder.’ The change in lighting suggests a variation in the mood, from a ‘warm’ and ‘joyful’ atmosphere to a sense of tension as the Inspector is going to throw light on the characters to reveal some of the dark truths about them.