Priestley writes his didactic play in 1944/45 when the war was coming to an inevitable end. As he sets his play in 1912, he adds to the realism as he had first hand experience of the brutality of the war. This was also when the social divide of the two classes was at its peak. The purpose of this play is for Priestley to attack his contemporary audience on the harsh facts of responsibility. Priestley wrote his play in a social background which had a wide divide in classes. His social and moral views were greatly influenced by his father who believed that helping the poor wasn’t an act of duty but a ‘moral way of life.’
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There is a stereotypical, rich, and successful businessman of the era which represents many of the men who are in the audience this is Priestley’s character of Mr Birling. The audience immediately has a dislike to Mr Birling. Arrogance and ignorance is attached to him. His ignorance is displayed by ‘ … the Titanic – she sails next week… absolutely unsinkable.’ It is as if Birling thinks that even God can’t destroy the Titanic. The audience will have many loved ones and family members who have died in the Titanic. The audience will feel as Mr Birling is making a mockery out of it so it has an instant reaction to the audience.
Aristotle’s unities are applied with pin-point precision to create dramatic tension. The three unities of Aristotle are place, time and action. Not only are they used to improve the structure; it is crafted carefully to create tension. The unity of place, which is where all the action is set and taken place in one location. This focuses the audience on one location and the atmosphere builds up in the one location. Unity of time is the play happening in real time, as in it is set to be played in actual time. This creates realism and makes the audience feel as if it was true. Unity of action follows the criteria of, there is only one plot and no other sub plots. This makes the main storyline stand out and make the audience focus on the pain plot.
The constant battle between capitalism and socialism is evident throughout the play. Right from the beginning Priestley expresses his thoughts by the way the furniture is described to be ‘ substantial and heavily comfortable but not cosy and homelike.’ The furniture is made out to be a device to display the wealth and money of the Birlings. The furniture is used to create an effect of massiveness and intimidation which is the same effect that the Inspector is creating. A moral lesson is trying to be taught by Priestley as he uses the furniture as an example. Money and wealth can buy you anything but happiness and love is priceless.
Another way in which tension is built up is by the use of entrances and exits. The entrances create effect by changing the flow of motion. Entrances not only provides a new character but it can be refreshing to see a change of face. The entrance of the inspector is in the middle of Mr Birling’s speech. The entrance stops the speech by a ‘ sharp ring of a front doorbell.’ This gives the audience the impression that the person who rang the bell strongly disagrees with Mr Birling to stop him immediately in a manner of authority. He is changing Mr Birling’s speech just by his presence which displays his control and influence.
An additional way in which the character of the inspector creates tension is by strategically targeting one member of the family at a time. Creating tension in this manner leaves the other characters restless. By slowly unravelling the secrets of each member of the family, some of the audience members might be in danger of their wives being suspicious about their husbands affairs. The inspector only targets person at a time, as the others ‘must wait his turn.’ This would lead to the audience thinking that they are in danger of the inspector’s interrogation.
Climatic moments are created by Priestley to keep the interest of the audience and to leave the scene on a cliff-hanger. Leaving the scene on a cliff hanger; makes the audience ask questions, hence creating tension. Act 1 ends with a tense atmosphere between Gerald and Sheila. A reaction sparks in Gerald as soon as he hears the name ‘Daisy Renton’ he answers ‘What?’ Drawing attention to himself; Gerald has brought the focus onto him. Priestley implies that another member of the family is involved in this suicide, making the audience doubt themselves of a guilty conscience, which could mean that they could have caused someone to drive themselves to suicide.
Priestley expresses how the younger generation can change opposed to, supposedly, the more experienced, mature and older generation. Highlighting the ignorance and the stubbornness of the upper class; the transformation of the younger generation is acknowledged. The biggest transformation is made by Sheila. As she is a rich, pretty and upper class girl who is about to get married, the audience will have a stereotypical image about her being soft and more of a ‘daddy’s little girl.’ When she changes her personality and her attitude, the audience is taken aback with her confidence and her courage to challenge her mother. Answering back to her mother, she flares up ‘ I’m not being childish.’ The change in behaviour creates something new, the unfamiliarity creates tension as it is something unknown.
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The inspector is used as a tool by Priestley to declare his views and moral ways. Using the character of an inspector who is all knowing and fighting for justice and truth; Priestley conveys himself as being all knowing. Priestley could even be criticised of aggrandizing himself. The inspector ‘…creates at once at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.’ Intimidating the audience with the inspector’s authority and presence, Priestley creates a platform for the inspector to display himself. As the audience has already developed prejudice towards Mr Birling, when the inspector arrives the audience naturally take a liking to Mr Birling’s counterpart.
Additionally, the mystery of the inspector is a key feature in his role. His presence is felt right from his name ‘Goole.’ As it sounds like ghoul which means haunt and ghastly, which is what the inspector is doing by putting the character under pressure. As it is a monosyllabic name, it suggests that he is straight to the point and there is nothing to hide behind. He is described as ‘recently transferred’, so hi identity is not known by many people. This creates a mystery for the inspector, which enters as a surprise and leaves with a controversy.
His arrival also creates a juxtaposition to the evening which started with pleasant anticipation of a future couple and ends with a sour memory in which everyone drove a girl to suicide.
The inspector’s final speech alerts the Birlings of what is yet to come. The worst is not over yet but yet to come. Even though the characters do not show reflection to the speech, the audience is certainly admonished to the memories of the ruthless war. The inspector’s warning is powerful ‘… they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.’ His speech leaves an impact, leaving everyone stunned as it is the first time he has lost his cool and has got emotional. The ruthlessness of the phrase suggests the pain and despair of the war. The inspector ends his final speech by ‘Good night.’ It could represent the hopes Priestley has for the modern world after years of fighting, there might be a vague light of hope which brings and end to equality and injustice.
In conclusion, I believe that Priestley creates tension consistently throughout the play to keep the interest of the audience and to add effect. He uses the inspector as a tool, to create a debate which leaves the act on a cliff hanger, to spark conversation during the interval. The authority the inspector presents, makes the audience uneasy and restless under the fire of the inspector’s attack. Arguably Priestley leaves the most tense part of the play to the end, which adds a final dramatic twist. This creates a sudden pulse of tension after a period relaxed conversation. It has created an oxymoron in the atmosphere to make the audience startle in the sudden turnaround in the situation. When the phone rings; it is palpable that the family haven’t escaped from the truth. The final outcome proves a moral message that you can never hide from the truth as it will eventually come out.
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