The play was written at the end of the Second World War, and performed a year later; it tells the tale of how a middle class family from the midlands are tied up inexplicably with the fate of a young woman who tragically commits suicide. It is set in 1912 (two years before the First World War) in the fictional town of Brumley. The fact that the play was set just before world war one is very significant to the message within the play.
The gap between the upper classes and the working classes was very large, and thus there was a great social prejudice between these classes, something which plays a massive part in the play. It has to be understood that Priestly, the writer of the play, had been alive during both world wars, and wanted to express how even though Britain had been through the two most significant events of recent history, her society hadn’t changed much since before the two great wars.
Living conditions for the working class was still very bad, with most people earning barely enough money to get feed themselves, let alone their families. Poverty was also rife in these conditions, as there was no national health service, and therefore many of the working classes contracted (what we would consider trivial) medical conditions that many died from.
The next step up from working class was middle class, which consisted of wealthy families (mostly those heading a business), often of high social standing (e. . Mr. Birling being an ex-mayor and a magistrate). Evidently, these families could afford amenities such as a health service, and plenty of money with which to raise a family. Slightly above the middle classes were the upper classes, who were often very important members of society and held titles. The fact that there was no NHS has a significant bearing on the life of Eva Smith, because when she had nowhere to go when she needed help, she went to a women’s charity where she was rejected.
If the NHS existed, many desperate women like Eva Smith may’ve been able to give birth and raise their children (the latter of which would have been funded by the social services). One of the messages that the playwright was trying to give could have been that even after two world wars, and no social change that one would have expected, the gap between the classes and the privileges (or not) that they received had not changed – something that needs to happen in order to improve the flagging society.
In the play I believe that the most important character is Birling – not only does he play an important role in the play as simply a character, he also acts as an interesting symbol to the play as a whole. During the play, Birling acts as an ironic symbol of Britain at the time. He plays down the thought of war, and of the impending labour strike; “The Germans don’t want a war. Nobody wants war. ” (1, 6)
“There’s a lot of wild talk about possible labour trouble in the near future… e’ve passed the worst of it. ” (1, 6) And also (as another act of irony), he mentions the doomed vessel Titanic as unsinkable, and of course we all know what happened to that ship. This is a symbol of Britain’s less cynical view on the world; Birling may have acted as Britain wanted to believe itself at the time – he was head of a successful business, and also the ‘man of the house’ in domestic terms, which is shown by the way he talks to his children; “Just keep quiet Eric. ” (1, 13)
Britain was at the time the head of the biggest empire in the world, and was very arrogant with it (an attribute that both Birling and Britain – at the time – share). Indeed, the playwright was trying to describe how with materialistic and self obsessed people such as Birling in Britain, the country will never change, despite two world wars and the preferable doctrine (socialism) would never come into play.
Birling’s materialism is shown as he is talking to Eric and Gerald after dinner, when he describes how each man should look after himself; A man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own. ” (1, 10) Having just been through two world wars, the playwright would have seen how such regimes such as rationing brought all the classes in Britain closer together, both socially and financially. It was this socialism that many believed Britain should have embraced after World War One, yet there was no change, either between the wars or the time immediately after the last one.
These flashes of a better Britain, which ironically happened during the wars, could be represented by Birling when he is being attacked by the Inspector. Birling changed during this time of the play, in that instead of being the self confident businessman, he turned paranoid about his public image, and became worried about what sentence might be imposed on him and his family for the death of Eva Smith.
However, all this apprehension seems to disappear when Gerald discovers that there is no Inspector Goole, and that no woman has committed suicide at the infirmary for years, Birling starts making jokes about the whole affair, which despite lacking tact for the others (especially Sheila and Eric), also shows that despite having been shown where his faults lie, he had no desire for change; “You all helped to kill her… and I wish you could have seen the look on your faces when he said that. ” (3, 71)
I believe that Birling showed this attitude so that Priestley could portray how he believed Britain was in danger of acting through a war, and then afterwards returning to the way life was like before. The way the audience reacted to this change is probably what Priestley most wished to achieve, although many won’t link the state of Britain to Birling, the way Birling acts (being ironic, arrogant and materialistic) should make the audience label him as the ‘bad’ character, the one with the least morals and social values, the one who strives for perfection but only for himself, leaving those who might block his path in the lay-by.
The inspector could be seen as a conscience for Birling – his mind was flawlessly dissected, and yet he refused to change, which may represent how the rich (and mostly older) upper classes could not be changed from old ways, no matter how sternly their thoughts were challenged. I would imagine Birling to wear the typical twenties style suit, with possibly a gold watch and chain on his coat, and an expensive watch on his wrist. This is to imply that he is both rich and businessman like, even when he isn’t at his place of work – which indicates his professionalism.
In terms of his physical features, I would imagine him as middle aged and balding, with a large frame, yet quite small (this last feature is essential to emphasise the inspector’s height, therefore giving him authority) in height, shorter than the rest of his family. The fact he isn’t so tall gives the actor an opportunity to portray the inferiority complex which some males of below average height have, where they act aggressively to people – especially those taller than they are – hence the fact that Birling is quite often less than pleased with the inspector.
The example of Birling’s speech on page 6 (third speech on the page) is important to the play as it gives an insight into his materialistic nature. Director’s Notes: For this speech I would recommend that Birling starts off in a very official tone, due to the fact he is talking formally concerning his daughter’s engagement – to make himself look more official, Birling would have a hand in his front pocket, and the other hand grasping a glass on wine, swirling the wine around as he speaks.
As the speech goes on, and Birling speaks of the ‘silly talk’, I believe that his voice would adopt a sarcastic tone, as one who is completely dismissing the possibility of a strike. When he mentioned this ‘silly talk’, Birling should lean forward and look into everybody’s eyes as he speaks, not as one drunk, but as one delivering a powerful speech, to give the impression he is deadly sure of what is going to happen.
As he reaches the end of his speech, Birling should straighten up his back as he talks about business, evidently being the proud owner of one (also not caring that he is talking about work at his own daughter’s engagement celebration). To the audience, this will give an impression of power, as Birling gives his speech confidently, almost nonchalantly. It also gives the impression that Birling is in control of his household and what happens within it. Another example of Birling’s speech is on page 9 (last speech on the page). This speech appears just before the inspector calls at the Birling household.
Director’s notes: As Birling is talking to Eric and Gerald, his voice should remain fairly soft throughout the monologue, as if he is speaking secretly and intimately. Also, he should speak slowly and articulately, to enhance the fact that he is trying to put across a message to the two young men in front of him. Birling’s hand movements will also be important, especially when he is dismissing a thought which, in his mind, is utterly stupid. For example, when he mentions “community and all that nonsense”, Birling should wave his hand as though he is making a half-hearted attempt at swatting a fly, therefore dismissing the idea in an instant.
Also, Birling should sound proud when he says “I’ve learnt from the good hard school of experience”, as if he has achieved something by using this “school”. In conclusion, I believe that Birling is an essential character to the general message of the play, as he is the epitome of Britain at the time at which the play was set – the way in which Britain changed through times of war was tantamount to how Birling changed when the inspector started his questioning. Along with the inspector, Birling is the most important character in the play, conveying a message about how the playwright perceived Britain to be at the time.