The below covers the start of the play and includes comments and thoughts on the initial introduction of some of the key characters, before the Inspector’s arrival
Setting the Scene
- The play opens with a set of detailed and specific stage directions and Priestley’s use of stagecraft, here, introduces the audience to some of the play’s key themes.
- The play begins in the Birling’s dining room, which is described as containing ‘good solid furniture’ (1) and of being ‘heavily comfortable, but not cosy and homelike’ (1).
- The play begins in medias res with the family enjoying an ‘intimate’ (1) family dinner. A parlour maid is described as clearing the table of ‘dessert plates and champagne glasses’ (1) whilst also providing a ‘decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes’ (1).
- These items are all symbols of status and power: the Birling’s ostentatious display of wealth would have immediately introduced them to what would have certainly been a largely socialist audience as unashamedly upper class.
- This would have been especially galling for an audience who has just gone through rations and rejected the materialism that the Birling family now revel in.
- Thus, one might describe these items as symbols that embodies the materialistic values of Edwardian society, which Priestley sought to dismantle and challenge.
- There is immediately created an antagonistic distance between audience and Birling family, which would make Priestley’s subsequent critique of their attitudes all the more effective.
The Dinner Party: Meeting the Family
- On the surface the gathering between Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Eric, Sheila, and Eric seems convivial and intimate: they appear to be having a pleasant evening and are clearly celebrating something.
- However, even in these early exchanges one begins to notice something amiss.
- For instance, notice how the characters treat Edna. The very first line of the play, spoken by Birling, is a request for Edna to refill his port. Then once she has done this Mrs Birling dismisses her only to declare she will soon be summoned again: ‘All right Edna. I’ll ring from the drawing-room when we want coffee. Probably in about half an hour’ (2).
- Throughout the play and established at the very beginning Edna is treated as just another prop, someone to be ordered around. Whilst these dismissive attitude towards the working class (itself a foreshadowing of later events of the play) would have been typical of the Edwardian age it would not have been looked upon favourably by the now socialist post-war audience.
- The disjunction between Edwardian values and post-war values is continues to be played out in the next few lines when Mrs Birling says this to her daughter: ‘When you’re married you’ll realize that men have important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had’ (3).
- There are several interesting things to say about this comment:
- There is created a clear hierarchical distinction between men and women where men ‘have important work to do’ and women must make themselves busy with something of far less importance.
- This is said by Mrs Birling: she has internalised the social norms of the Edwardian period. It is not simply that men are telling women what to do, but that Mrs Birling is complicit in this also. The patriarchal ideology is so entrenched within society that it is adopted and accepted by Mrs Birling.
- There is a sense of resignation: there is nothing that can be done about this and as such Sheila will just have ‘to get used to that’. This also speaks to the idea that this ideology has been passed down through the generations: just as Mrs Birling accepted the ideology so too, in time, will Sheila. However, it is exactly this cycle that Priestly seeks to break through his play. Notice, for instance, that Sheila’s response to this is: ‘I don’t believe I will’ (half playful, half serious)’ (3). She may only be half serious now, but by the end of the play she will be entirely serious.
- The audience soon discovers that the reason for the dinner party is to celebrate the engagement between Sheila and Gerald. However, Mr Birling’s initial speech is quite telling: ‘Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now – though Crofts Limited are both older and bigger than Birling and Company – and now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices’ (4).
- It is clear that what most excites Birling about the engagement is the prospect of merging his business with that of Gerald’s father and as such the ability to reduce prices and increase prices.
- This latter comment would have been anathema (despised) to the socialist audience: they were instead working towards a much more egalitarian society predicated on welfare and civic responsibility.
The Dinner Party: Mr Birling’s Wisdom
- In one of the longest speeches of the opening section Mr Birling offers Sheila and Gerald some advice: ‘There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days – but – and I speak as a hard-headed businessman […] I say ignore all this silly pessimistic talk […] there’s a lot of wild trouble about possible labour trouble in the near future. Don’t worry. We’ve passed the worst of it’ (6).
- And there’s more: ‘Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink and begin talking nonsense, you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks!’ (6).
- And still more: ‘Why a friend of mine went over this new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’ (7).
- And all of this to say: ‘There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’ (7).
- Each of these examples is what is called dramatic irony: there is a slippage between what the character says and what the audience knows to be true. In other words, we know something they do not.
- For example, when Birling says that there would be no labour trouble a 1945 audience would be only too aware of the 1926 General Strike and they would be only too aware of the war that did take place and which most of them fought in. They would also know that the Titanic did sink and that there certainly was not ‘peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’.
- What is especially interesting is the derision with which Birling speaks of those who disagree with him. The lexical choice of ‘fiddlesticks’ in relation to the war would have been especially infuriating for an audience who had just lived through a war and almost certainly known people who had died in it. To speak of the war in such a flippant manner would have, to say the least, aggravated the audience.
- Notice also the polysyndeton used in the sentence ‘There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’: the abundance of conjunctions would have only served to heighten the mounting anger as the audience is forced to listen to Birling list things that did not happen.
- By utilising dramatic irony in this manner Priestley is able to open Birling up to ridicule: the audience immediately assume he is not only an idiot, but also a character to be reviled.
- Birling is created in such a way as to be a caricature of the typical Edwardian capitalist.
- Priestly seeks to undermine these values by associating them with a character such as Birling and as such disrupt the entrenched ideology that he represents and propagates.
- This point is made even more explicit later in this same section and immediately before the Inspector arrives when Birling declares: ‘But what so many of you don’t seem to understand now, when things are so much easier, is that a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family too, of course, when he has one […] But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense […] a man has to mind his own business and look after himself’ (10).
- This is exactly the mentality that Priestly seeks to critique: that a person is willing not only to abdicate his own responsibility, but also chastise those who have retained it is precisely the problem with society as Priestly sees it.
- The moral lesson that the plays seeks to impart is the necessity of acting as part of a wider ‘community’: it is not ‘nonsense’, but the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself and this is what Priestly sought to enshrine through Attlee’s Labour Party.
- Notice also how Birling mentions his family almost as though they were an afterthought: not only does he abdicate his civic responsibility, but also his familial one.
- Birling is everything that is wrong with society: he is the apotheosis of the Edwardian ideology that ultimately resulted in war. He is not only hard headed, but also hard hearted and cares only for himself.
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