Gerald: On the face of it the charming and elegant man about town who gives Eva sanctuary from the hellish pit of the Theatre Bar and who is upset at the story of her demise… or the calculating womaniser, using wealth and power to entrap a vulnerable girl; willing to play the long game and ultimately shirking all responsibility for his actions…
Actually, it’s probably a bit of both, certainly when viewed from Priestley’s perspective when writing this political propaganda play.
If we assume that Priestley’s prime (sole?) purpose was to raise support for a socialist Britain in this play, whilst providing three hours of entertaining puzzlement and the opportunity to see one’s home and life presented on the stage, then Gerald has a clear function: He is the fulcrum point – neither old nor young, ‘experienced’ enough to support Birling in his business endeavours, yet ‘innocent’ enough to follow Sheila’s lead in telling the truth. Weak enough, and damaged by his class, so as to seek the loophole in the final act and to work as the catalyst for the final denouement.
To anyone reading the play in the 21st Century, this is not enough, however. Gerald needs to be taken apart in the #metoo world, though students must be fully aware of the original context of creation and the contexts of ‘acceptable’ male behaviour in the pre-war years.
Gerald buys Sheila’s affection with the ring, yet she is complicit – the knowing looks when discussing the clothes bought for his enjoyment – and the whole liaison seems to be based on an understanding of gender roles. Mr Birling is happy – he has a link to a bigger and more powerful firm; Gerald’s parents are so annoyed they don’t even attend the party. Despite the apparent affection between the pair, Gerald is one of a kind – Paxman calls this ‘the breed’. His friends are wealthy young men, products of an arrogant and complacent upper class in Edwardian England. They keep ‘rooms’ in town for the sole purpose of ‘entertaining’ their young ladies; they habituate the bars and brothels in order to find vulnerable young girls who are only too willing to accompany them to a restaurant or a private room in order to get away from the overtly predatory elder men of the town. Today we might call this behaviour ‘grooming’. There is no reason for Gerald to be drinking in the Palace Bar if he is not actively seeking female company -unless he is some form of voyeur. He is so kind – he plays a long game and Eva eventually succumbs to his charms. It may well be the happiest time of her life – warm, well fed, secure… but she is a plaything to be dropped as soon as she is no longer convenient. Such was the lot of the ‘kept woman’.
In all this, Gerald is a product of his upbringing and the male world of the older generation. His youth still shows at times, most particularly in his following (reluctantly) of Sheila’s instruction to tell the truth when questioned. One might argue that he does this partly to please her – knowing that his infidelity is at the heart of the discussion – and partly out of an understanding in the part of his psyche which is not yet fully tainted by the selfish doctrine of capitalism, that is the right thing to do. It is also the swiftest and least painful path – Sheila might be considered to be his collateral damage as his vanity presents a vision of the knight in shining armour riding to rescue the damsel in distress.
His behaviour at the end seals his fate and places him firmly in the ‘Capitalists are evil’ camp. His willingness to find a loophole may be understandable – the meeting with the constable is presented as chance and the question about Goole is reasonable, given the hold which the wealthy families have over society in the town. His response to the information gained is unforgivable, but vital for Priestley’s message – Capitalists will try anything to avoid having to take any responsibility for their actions. Priestley will drop the idea of Eric and rape swiftly so as not to muddy the sole political message he wishes to convey. Don’t be fooled by the exterior charm. Gerald is a capitalist and capitalists are bad. Studying the play today, we reads so much more into the character and our era sees him clearly as a cad – the cheating, manipulative and patriarchal product of a deeply complacent and morally corrupt class.
The play is set in 1912. What chance of Gerald living to see 1915?
The world was a vastly different place in 1944. The shift in attitudes to 2018 simply adds layers to what is a timeless exploration of morality and class.
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