An Inspector Calls has six main characters. The Birling family are Arthur, Sybil, Eric and Sheila. Gerald Croft, Sheila's fiancé, joins the Birlings for dinner. Inspector Goole arrives to conduct his investigation.

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Arthur birling

Mr Birling is the head of the Birling household. He has made himself very wealthy by being a 'hard-headed' business man. He is an active member of the community in Brumley and thinks that he might be in the running for a Knighthood. At the start of the play he comes across as being arrogant, making long speeches about his predictions for the future. He also makes assertions about how a man should look out for number one and not waste time helping others. It is at this exact moment that the Inspector arrives. Sybil, his wife, is his 'social superior' and it is hinted that he is self-conscious about being from a more working-class background. He is materialistic and possessive and also has old fashioned views about women.

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mrs birling

Mrs Sybil Birling is Arthur Birling's wife and right from the opening of the play she is cold-hearted and snobbish despite being a prominent member of local women's charity. Throughout dinner she tells Sheila and Eric off for things that she considers impolite whilst ignorantly turning a blind eye to her son drinking too much. It is clear that despite Eric being old enough to drink and Sheila getting married, she sees them both as children, not as a young man and woman.

Her cold, uncaring nature leads to her downfall as the Inspector forces her to unknowingly condemn her own son.

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Shelia birling

Sheila Birling is Arthur and Sybil's daughter and is in her early twenties. At the start of the play she is celebrating her engagement to Gerald Croft and she is a giddy, naïve and childish young lady. The Inspector arrives and she is very shocked by the news of Eva Smith's death, she is also very regretful of her own involvement in the suicide.

Sheila Birling is Arthur and Sybil's daughter and is in her early twenties. At the start of the play she is celebrating her engagement to Gerald Croft and she is a giddy, naïve and childish young lady. 

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eric birling

Eric is the Birlings' son and is in his early twenties, he is described as being 'not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive'. In other words, he lacks confidence. At points he tries to stand up to his father but is talked down. It becomes clear that he is drunk at the dinner table and later it is revealed that he has been drinking too much for quite some time.

It turns out that Eric had an affair with Eva Smith and that she was pregnant with Eric's baby when she committed suicide. Eric stole money from his father's business to help Eva. In the final act Eric makes an emotional attack on his parents and their values and shows that he can be assertive.

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Gerald croft

Gerald is described as 'an attractive chap about thirty, rather too manly to be a dandy but very much the easy well-bred young man-about-town'. Mr Birling is very pleased that Gerald is getting engaged to Sheila because his family are upper-class business owners, Mr Birling hopes they can join forces in business.

At the beginning of the play, Gerald comes across as being confident and charming. This changes after his affair with Eva Smith is revealed. Gerald gives himself away when he hears that Eva changed her name to Daisy Renton. 

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the inspector

The Inspector arrives whilst the Birling family are celebrating the engagement of Sheila and Gerald. The stage directions state that he 'need not be a big man' but that he must create an 'impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness'. The Inspector investigates each family member one at a time and in doing so, reveals the consequences of their behaviour.

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the inspector part 2

He drives forward the drama, with his questions creating shocking moments and gripping cliff-hangers for the audience. By the end of the play it is revealed that he isn’t actually an Inspector. It is not entirely clear who he is, Priestley leaves it up to the audience to decide. His name 'Goole' suggests a supernatural or ghost like element, and he seems to know what the characters will say before they do - is he the conscience of the audience? Is he the voice of Priestley? Either way he delivers a frightening message when he leaves, that if people do not take responsibility for each other, the world is doomed.

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eva smith/ daisy renton

We never meet Eva Smith during the course of the play, but she is a very important character. It is her death that is the cause of the Inspector’s investigation which in turn drives the drama.

The audience learns about Eva through the Inspector, who has read a letter and a diary she kept. They also learn about her through the characters she came into contact with. A lot of the information about her is inferred - from the incident at Mr Birling’s factory we can infer that she was strong willed

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eva smith/ daisy renton part 2

 From her interaction with Sheila the audience can see that Eva had a sense of humour. Her relationship with Gerald, when she changed her name to Daisy Renton, reveals her sensitivity. By the time she reaches Eric and Sybil, Eva is desperate and resourceful in trying to get herself help.

Eva is always referred to in a positive light by the characters that met her but the Inspector never lets the audience or the Birlings and Gerald forget her gruesome death. The Inspector's final speech reveals Priestley's lesson that there are millions of Eva

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quotes- Mr birling

"Well it's my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we'd have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs. Does that satisfy you? So I refused. Said I couldn't consider it. We were paying the usual rates and if they didn't like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else. It's a free country, I told them."

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quotes- Mrs birling

"Secondly, I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have. If, as she said, he didn't belong to her class, and was some drunken young idler, then that's all the more reason why he shouldn't escape. He should be made an example of. If the girl's death is due to anybody, then it's due to him."

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quotes- shelia birling

"I don't dislike you as I did half an hour ago, Gerald. In fact, in some odd way, I rather respect you more than I've ever done before. I knew anyhow you were lying about those months last year when you hardly came near me. I knew there was something fishy about that time. And now at least you've been honest. And I believe what you told us about the way you helped her at first. Just out of pity. And it was my fault really that she was so desperate when you first met her. "

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quotes- eric birling

"Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It's still the same rotten story whether it's been told to a police inspector or to somebody else. According to you, I ought to feel a lot better - (To Gerald) I stole some money, Gerald, you might as well know - (As Birling tries to interrupt.) "

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quotes- Gerald croft

 "I discovered, not that night but two nights later, when we met again – not accidentally this time of course - that in fact she hadn't a penny and was going to be turned out of the miserable back room she had. It happened that a friend of mine, Charlie Brunswick, had gone off to Canada for six months and had let me have the key of a nice little set of rooms he had – in Morgan Terrace – and had asked me to keep an eye on them for him and use them if I wanted to."

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quotes- the inspector

"But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone - but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other."

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themes throughout the play

The difference between the younger and older characters' reactions to Eva Smith's death shows how Priestley viewed different generations . He viewed the younger generation as hope for the future and this is why both Sheila and Eric learn a lesson from the Inspector.

How the male characters behave towards the females in the play highlights important points on gender and inequality.

Class issues are also dealt with by having a middle-class family involved in the death of a working-class girl.

J B Priestley explored these themes in a lot of his work. They are political in nature and are still relevant today.

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theme - social responsibility

An Inspector Calls was first performed in the UK just after the end of World War Two, in 1946. It was a time of great change in Britain and many writers were concerned with the welfare of the poor. At that time there was no assistance for people who could not afford to look after themselves. Priestley wanted to address this issue. He also felt that if people were more considerate of one another, it would improve quality of life for all. This is why social responsibility is a key theme of the play. Priestley wanted his audience to be responsible for their own behaviour and responsible for the welfare of others.

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theme - age

Age is an important theme in An Inspector Calls. Priestley uses it to show how he believed that there was hope in the younger generation's ability to learn and change.

The older characters' opinions and behaviours are stubbornly fixed. Mr Birling refuses to learn and Mrs Birling cannot see the obvious about herself and her children. Eric and Sheila however are younger - they accept their mistakes and offer the chance for a brighter future.

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theme - gender

An Inspector Calls was written after World War Two. As many British men went away to fight during the war, their positions in work had to be filled by women. This helped change existing perceptions. Men had to acknowledge the fact that women were just as capable as them. As a result of this, many women enjoyed a newfound freedom that working and earning money allowed them.

Not all men saw this change in attitude as a good thing and stayed stuck in the past. Priestley explores the impact of these new gender roles through the independence of Eva Smith and the sexist attitudes of Mr Birling.

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theme - class

Before World War Two, Britain was divided by class. Two such classes were the wealthy land and factory owners and the poor workers. The war helped bring these two classes closer together and rationing meant that people of all classes were eating and even dressing the same. The war effort also meant that people from all classes were mixing together. This was certainly not the case before.

Priestley wanted to highlight that inequality between the classes still existed and that the upper-classes looked down upon the working-class in post-war Britain.

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use of form -

The form is the type of text and genre that the writer chooses to write in. An Inspector Calls is written in the form of a play and so it is meant to be heard and seen in performance. There are stage directions to help guide actors and it is written in lines of dialogue. All productions of An Inspector Calls will be different, some might focus on a particular theme or could use staging in different ways which will give the performance a slightly different feel.

An Inspector Calls fits into two possible genres:

  • well-made play
  • morality play
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use of form - well-made play

A well-made play is a popular dramatic genre from the 19th-century. In a well-made play the plot is intricate and complex and the action builds to a climax. This is often concerned with events that happened before the events of the play. A well-made play usually ends with a return to order but Priestley moves away from this genre with the revelation at the end.

An Inspector Calls is a well-made play because the events are all influenced by what happened to Eva Smith before the play takes place

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use of form - well-made play effect

This structure allows J B Priestley to manipulate the audience. They do not know what happened to Eva Smith and so each revelation about her treatment by the Birlings and Gerald Croft adds to the drama. Each revelation is more shocking than the last and so Priestley cleverly builds to the climax. In An Inspector Calls there is a twist at the end of the plot - the characters are unsure if the Inspector existed at all. This gives the audience time to reflect on the events of the play. When it is revealed that another inspector is on their way and the curtain falls, the audience would be stunned.

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use of form - morality plays

Morality plays were popular during the 15th and 16th-centuries. Historically they sought to teach the audience lessons that focused on the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Whilst characters who committed these sins were punished, morality plays showed that if a character repented then they could redeem themselves.

An Inspector Calls is a morality play because all of the Birlings and Gerald Croft commit crimes which are similar to the seven deadly sins. Mr Birling is greedy because he wants more money, Sheila is guilty of wrath and envy when she spitefully complains about Eva Smith and so on. 

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use of form - morality plays effect

What is the effect of this?

Priestley uses the morality play structure to teach a 20th-century audience a series of lessons that relate to his beliefs about social responsibility, age, gender and class. The audience is invited to enjoy judging these characters - they are also forced to question their own behaviour. Priestley would have hoped that people watching the play would have left the theatre as better people.

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analysing the form

To analyse the form of An Inspector Calls you should:

  • remember that An Inspector Calls is a play and so it is meant to be seen in performance
  • consider how the events that happened before the action on stage keep the audience guessing
  • as it is a morality play, think about how the audience judges the characters and themselves
  • remember that the audience would be trying to work out if any one person was to blame for Eva Smith's death
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JB Priestley's, An Inspector Calls, was intended to be performed, rather than read. There are many factors that need to be considered when casting, performing and staging a production of the play.

Reading a novel is something that you would usually do on your own - watching a play in the theatre is very much a shared experience. An audience is made up of different sorts of people, all of whom will have different reactions to what they are seeing and hearing. We all react differently to what is in a novel too but not usually all at the same time.

Another key difference is that a novel is like a finished building whereas the script for a play is just the foundations. The words will be built on and developed by a director and the actors and this will be further enhanced by costumes, lighting, scenery and a whole host of technical and artistic choices. These will have an influence on how the audience reacts to the play. 

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The three key areas we are going to look at are:

  • 1. casting choices
  • 2. performance choices
  • 3. staging choices

As the idea of dramatisation is all about getting the play off the page and onto the stage, there are a number of clips to watch and think about to help your understanding of the process.

One of the first and probably most important jobs for the director of a play is to choose a cast. Choices that are made will heavily depend on the look and feel that the director wants for the production of the play. 

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casting choices part 2

For An Inspector Calls to work on stage it is vital that all cast members work well together. They would all need to understand one another, delivering their lines with pace - especially as the tension of the play increases. It would also be important for the change in characters like Sheila and Eric to be clear as the play progresses.

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more quotes

"The Inspector need not be a big man but he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness. He is a man in his fifties, dressed in a plain darkish suit of the period. He speaks carefully, weightily, and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking."

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