Dramatic Irony and Birling: Character Building

When we think of dramatic irony, we tend to think of plays like Othello and focus on the idea of a response to the plot derived from the superior knowledge which the audience has over the characters involved. However, in a Well Made Play such as An Inspector Calls, the whole point is for the audience to gain knowledge at the same time as the characters on stage. What Priestley does at the beginning of Act 1 is to present Birling through the medium of dramatic irony to ensure that the audience, whether in 1945 or 2021, see the character as idiotic and they are already predisposed to reject him before any of the Eva Smith plot has appeared.

I have written before about the play as a political work. Possibly one designed to bolster the Socialist point of view prior to the election at the end of the war. The actual plot is relatively thin and the language hardly coruscatingly brilliant, yet the play should move and should leave the audience feeling distinctly uncomfortable as characters, recognisably similar to themselves are shown to be so lacking in humanity and care. Surely we are all Arthur Birling? A discussion piece, Priestley, politics and AIC – a talking head.

Looking at the opening scene of Act 1, the setting is recognisably suburban, albeit with a sense of over-dressed and self satisfied characters indulging in a good meal and plenty of luxury. In itself this is not going to change the opinions of anyone. Priestley puts into Birling’s mouth a series of prophecies which will establish him in the audience’s minds and antagonise them to an extent which would not be possible were he too clearly a member of the aristocracy – he is ‘one of our own’ and so we respond angrily when we see him being quite so arrogantly ignorant.

The prophecies go something like this:

ProphecyActual outcome
‘Don’t worry, we’ve past the worst of it’
By the end of 1912 the army had been called out onto the streets of Liverpool, among other cities to maintain order at a time of unprecedented labour unrest. By 1926 and the General Strike, the whole country would be aware of the fight for reasonable employment rights and the establishment of Trades Unions in all areas of work through the period form the 1880s to the 1920s would be recognised as a shift towards social responsibility and fairness. As a factory owner, Birling can be seen as clinging onto a status quo which clearly favoured him and which was rapidly changing.
‘The Germans don’t want war’May be true, but the audience have lived through 2 World Wars, both fought against Germany which country has been portrayed as warmongers in popular press and by Churchill..
‘It’ll make war impossible’This absurd certainty is followed by a list of the advancements in aeroplanes and the automobile industry. Given that war since 1914 were increasingly fought in the air and with the memory of the blitz and of the carpet bombing of German cities so visible in the streets around the theatre, this statement seems utterly imbecilic.

‘The Titanic…  unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’
This idea would have been shared by the vast majority of people in 1912. The doomed liner, however, became a symbol for the excesses of Capitalism almost as if the sinking was somehow a deserved response to such ostentatious wealth. Birling is obsessed by size, as if the sheer bulk of the ship is all that matters. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and here Priestley is using it for all it is worth.
‘In twenty or thirty years time… you may be giving a little party like this…’In April 1940 the audience will have been living though the ‘phoney war’  but from September 1940 they will have been living though the Blitz. The idea of nice little party like this one would not go down well. Such complacency just seems to be wholly out of touch with reality.
‘Except of course in Russia, which will be behindhand, naturally’His insult to Russia looks particularly stupid when the audience know how much Russia has contributed to the defeat of the Nazis. It is also given further weight when one considers the premieres of the play in Leningrad and in Moscow.
‘ a few scaremongers here…’Could be describing the view of senior Tories of Churchill in the run up to the beginning of the war. The Appeasement policy of Chamberlain was so thoroughly discredited by events that such a reference would be recognised and would seem absurd.
‘These Bernard Shaws and H.G. Wellses’Such a reference to great writers (socialists both) of the early 20th Century simply increases the sense of utter phisinism. In particular, Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933 filmed in 1936) gave a remarkably prescient picture of the kind of total war just experienced. It is Birling who is clearly out of step.

In the first 7 pages of the play, Priestley has set up his focus for his Socialist message. Regardless of the fate of Eva, he has ensured that the audience are deeply negative towards Arthur Birling, solely by relying on Dramatic Irony and the awareness of socio-historical context made possible by the play’s being set 30 years earlier- well within living memory, but also a different country in which things are done differently…