An Inspector Calls

What dramatic devices does J.B Priestley use to get his message across to the audience in “An Inspector Calls”?


An Inspector Calls is a play written by John Boynton Priestley in 1945, based before World War 1, in 1912. The play is about a family who live a capitalist life and existence; it is a life full of lies, pride and pure selfishness. In 1945 the Labour Party had won their first General Election with an overall majority.  They were committed to bringing in universal welfare which meant pensions for the elderly, benefits for the poorer classes, free education and free medicine. By creating this play Priestley was trying to educate the audience that such things were not available to the poorer classes of 1912 in particular to characters like Eva Smith. Throughout the play a mysterious Inspector gradually reveals the five main character’s true identity and uncaring character especially in regard to how they all contributed to the suicide of Eva Smith. Priestley wrote the play because he wanted to show the audience that one should treat each other equally even if he/she is of a higher or lower social class. The dramatic devices and techniques helped significantly to get his message across. Priestley believed that we are responsible for one another. His message is one of compassion, respect and love for all.


One of the dramatic devices that Priestley uses is the “doorbell”. “We hear a sharp ring of a front doorbell. Birling stops to listen.” This increases tension to the audience by causing a dramatic silence. The message for this dramatic device is that the Birling actually stopped his preaching about the value of capital and how much he was against those who agitated for promoting that “everybody has to look after everybody else” and that “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own” and the audience is now made to think who is at the door at this time which was dinner time. The Inspector came to the Berling’s house so he could teach them a lesson on how capitalist or wealthy class people mistreated the working class people every now and then. There is a saying that “rich will be richer, poor will be poorer!” This is because the wealthy people do not want to help the vulnerable lower class people; this is another point that Priestley is trying to show in the play “An Inspector Calls.”


In the play there was use of dramatic irony. An example of the use of  dramatic irony that is used in the play “An Inspector Calls” is when Mr Birling says that the Titanic is “unsinkable absolutely unsinkable”. This makes the audience think that he seems to be a brainless character considering that a few days after the fictitious events of this play the Titanic sank on its first voyage. Earlier Birling makes himself look ridiculous when he says “The Germans don’t want to go to war” and two years later Britain was at war with them which, furthermore, makes the audience probably pity him a bit.


The effect of the new major character, the Inspector Goole has on the rest of the characters is that when the Inspector arrives he walks in the house with smart clothes and a powerful gesture. “He is a man in his fifties, dressed in a plain darkish suit of the period”. This shows that he is an important person and is most likely to be of an upper class like Mr Birling, therefore, would only go to the Birling’s for an important matter. The Inspector also shows power in his speech for example when Mr Birling says “have a glass of port or a little whisky?” The Inspector replies back by saying “No thank you, Mr Birling I’m on duty”. This sentence leaves Mr Birling right on the spot and makes him feel as he is not that important, though it shows the Inspector came for a reason as well which, therefore, makes the audience feel intrigued.


Another thing is that the lighting is always changed through out the play. For example at the beginning of the play there is “pink” and “intimate” lighting which represents the cosiness of a family gathering and celebrating an engagement. However when the Inspector enters the scene the lighting is “brighter and harder.” This bright lighting for the Inspector makes the stage seem like an interrogation room. This adds to the intrigue of the drama.


The use of photograph in the play is another dramatic device that was used by the Inspector Goole. For example when the Inspector shows the photograph to Sheila “she looks at it closely and then runs out”. This shows that the photograph is the most effective and dramatic technique. This also makes the audience think is Sheila part of the horrific death of the poor young women Eva Smith? Sheila runs out of the scene when the Inspector shows her the photograph of Eva Smith because she must have felt remorse for her actions in the past. Priestley’s message her is that you should always do the right thing before it is too late! The Inspector cleverly utilises this photograph as he never shows it to all the characters at once.


At the end of Act One the Inspector says “Well!” This shows the use of cliff-hanger; furthermore, a cliff hanger is one of the best ways to get the audience’s attention and makes the play more interesting. This also makes the audience want to find out what will happen next in the play as they want to know what exactly Gerald Croft‘s involvement was with Daisy Renton. Priestley has certainly achieved his goal by grabbing the audience’s attention to find out more about his message. The message is really important in this play as the writer J.B Priestley wants the audience to realise that people should not be judged by what class they are and upper class people should definitely not take advantage of the lower class people just because they have a less standard of living.


A prop that J.B Priestley uses at the end of the play for a dramatic device is the telephone that is used in Act Three. When all the characters think that the Inspector is a fake, the phone rings, therefore, Mr Birling answers and then puts the phone down- he looks in a “panic stricken fashion at the others” and announces in a dramatic fashion that “a police Inspector is on his way.” Unlike with the dramatic irony, the audience don’t know what the characters are then going to do. This builds up the suspense and excitement for us, the audience.


Another device that Priestley uses is that the structure of the play is like an old-fashioned “Whodunit?” type mystery like his contemporary, Agatha Christie.  The audience is only treated to a slow drip by drip account of what the individual character’s contact with Eva Smith was.  It is highlighted that all of them could have been held morally responsible for her to commit an irreversible action like suicide which in those days was still regarded as a sin. None of the five characters have committed a crime which could have got them sent to a criminal court where they would have been suitably punished. Instead the Inspector is there to demonstrate it is their selfish, arrogant and uncaring characters that are at fault and to educate them on how they should behave in the future. Only Sheila and Eric seem to have been completely ashamed of their actions; the other three just want to go back to their previous ways of treating those less fortunate than them.


Timing is also an important device that Priestley uses.  All the action takes place within a few hours during one spring evening.  Both Act One and Act Two end on cliff-hangers and their subsequent acts carry one where the previous one left off. 


Lastly the character’s use of entrance and exits, are used to further the plot for example Sheila helps Priestley’s message about emotional feelings. She does this by running out in a dramatic way from the scene when she spotted the photograph of Eva Smith. Priestley is showing there that one should always treat each other equally no matter who you are or what class you are from because you will regret your pity actions later.


A final clever device is that we don’t see the victim perform on stage.  However, Priestley is very clever because it is through the words of the five characters and the Inspector that we know: She’s a young woman that will stand up to Birling in his stingy treatment of his employees; she was shamefully treated by both Birling and his daughter; she resorted to prostitution and had affairs with both Gerald and Eric; she had to humble herself to attempt to get financial assistance from Mrs. Birling’s charity committee.


In conclusion, I think J.B Priestley has successfully achieved his goal. He used understandable dramatic devices for instance the telephone and the photograph. These dramatic devices were magnificent because he made the audience intrigued to the play “An Inspector Calls.” Priestley’s message was successfully communicated to the audience and it taught a very good lesson to the selfish capitalist family in the play, the Birlings. The farewell words of the Inspector should be remembered even to the audience of the twenty first century:  “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other”.  Had the five characters observed  these sentiments then Eva Smith wouldn’t have been driven to take such a drastic action as committing suicide.