Theatrical Moment in An Inspector Calls

Katie Roger

Every great play reveals something beneath the surface of the plot. In J.B.
Priestley's An Inspector Calls, the message that is beneath the surface of the parlor drama
is that we must break down the surface barriers if we are to get to the real person inside.
Breaking down our walls and taking off our masks is the only way to have honest relationships with other people. The end of Act II in An Inspector Calls (46-47) is a
pivotal moment in the play because it shows how shocking it is to break down walls that
are firmly cemented.

The set is a traditional parlor-tasteful but stiff. There are fancy couches,
countless end tables with flower arrangements, a full china cabinet, and wallpapered
walls. It is ordinary and uninteresting. However, as the play progresses and the inspector
breaks down a character's walls, the each character will break or knock something over.
That object will stay as it is and will not be picked up for the remainder of the play. This
shows how the inspector shatters the perfect world of the Birling family. Also, their new
parlor and all of it's mess makes it more real because most people do not have perfectly
clean parlors. This shows how the Birling family has become more real as well because
their flaws are out in the open. The audience can identify with these flaws because all of
us have wronged another person at one time. As this scene opens there are two things out
of place as the inspector has cracked both Shelia and Mr. Birling. There is a broken
coffee cup on the floor, and the chocolates on a tray on an end table are strewn about.

The lighting is soft at the opening of the play and becomes brighter with each
following act. This is because as the play progresses more light is shed upon the family,
and the audience is able to really see the characters, inside and out.

The inspector acts as a conscience to the members of the Birling family. He is
neither human nor god-like. He is an all-knowing social conscience there to put the
priorities of society in check. He is played by a no-name actor, for few details about him
should be memorable. He is dressed in a plain black coat and pants. He is an average
male height and built, and his voice is of normal deepness. There is nothing too special
about him as he is everyman's conscience doing what he can to change society. After he
is revealed as a fake, the audience should be left racking their brains for memories of him
and should not be able to picture him clearly. He interacts enough with the other
characters to seem like a real man, but he often lurks in the background and stands behind
the speaker, much like a conscience sitting on one's shoulder.

Glenn Close plays the role of Mrs. Birling. She is a great actress for this part
because she often portrays ignorant, icy cold characters similar to Mrs. Birling. She
plays the role with a straight face, very serious and indignant. She wears white and red,
the colors of the Republican Party, to symbolize that she holds conservative ideas about
society. She likes the status quo and does not want it to change. Every hair on her head
is in place, and her face is made up because at this point in the place her mask is still on.
The inspector has not yet torn down the walls that surround her.

Shelia is played by Kiera Knightly. Knightly is young and learning her way in
Hollywood, just as Shelia is young and learning her way in the world. She is dressed in
blues, the color of the Democratic Party, to symbolize her progressive thinking. She
repents for her sins and wants society to become more responsible for each other. Shelia
has already been cracked by the inspector at this point in the play, and this is shown by
her disheveled hair. She continually runs her hands through her neat up-do, causing
pieces to fallout.

Mr. Birling is played by a white male actor in his fifties. He is large and well
built, making it physically impossible to move him, just as it is impossible to change his
views on responsibility in society. He wears a business suit with a red tie, showing that
he is a conservative, industrial man. His walls have been torn down by the inspector by
the time the scene starts, shown by his disheveled hair.

Eric is played by Edward Norton. He looks sweet, but there is a sinister layer
underneath the pretty face. He is only in the scene for a few seconds, but his entrance is
the defining moment of the scene.

The scene opens Mrs. Birling sitting on a center couch with the inspector behind
her. They are discussing Mrs. Birling's reasoning for her refusal to help an impoverished
pregnant woman. The inspector prods calmly, "Who is to blame then?" She responds
rationally while looking ahead, "First, the girl herself." As she continues her voice raises,
and she becomes more and more agitated. The inspector's voice stays calm as he says,
"And if her story is true - that he was stealing money--?" "There is no point in assuming
that..." Mrs. Birling snaps quickly, her eyebrows pushed together. They continue this
way, Mrs. Birling becoming more excited while the inspector stands in the background,
until Shelia throws up her hands and exclaims, "Mother-stop-stop!"

Mr. Birling, who is sitting on a chair on the right, running his hands through his
hair, says, "Be quiet, Sheila," with defeat in his voice. The inspector has already done to
him what the inspector is doing to Mrs. Birling now, and Mr. Birling knows their family
cannot win. Mrs. Birling prissily snaps at Shelia, "You're behaving like a hysterical
child tonight!" still oblivious to what is going on. The inspector knowingly says, "Don't
worry, Mrs. Birling. I shall do my duty." He looks at his watch and then to the door, a
hint to the audience that he knows how this scene is going to play out. It is silent for a
moment as all of the characters turn to the door. This gives the characters and the
audience a moment to imagine what the inspector knows.

Sheila breaks the silence with a pitiful shriek as she rises and walks to the door.
"Now, Mother-don't you see?" The sound of a door slamming is heard, followed by
slow footsteps. All of the characters walk toward the door in the back center of the stage,
nervously look at each other, and begin to pull at their hair. Out of breath, Mrs. Birling
says to herself, "But surely... I mean... It's ridiculous..." While the other characters are
pacing like mad the inspector stands motionless in the center, arms crossed, the
ringleader to this madness. He says coolly, "If he is guilty, then we know what to do,
don't we? Mrs. Birling has just told us." All of the characters start speaking at once, still
frantic and shaking their heads. Mr. Birling: "My God! But-look here-" Mrs. Birling
says with defiance in her voice, "I don't believe it. I won't believe it..." Sheila with tears
down her face moans, "Mother-I begged you and begged you to stop-"

Then the inspector holds one hand up to silence them. Everyone is frozen in their
positions as footsteps are heard. The door creaks as Eric walks through the parlor door
on the back center of the stage. His face is ghastly pale and his eyes are glazed over. His
foot hits a small table with a vase of flowers, knocking them to the floor and shattering
the vase. This is a symbol for the breaking of Eric's wholesome son facade. The
inspector has cracked everyone in the house now, and the beautiful parlor is strewn with
broken goods. Eric grabs his hair and looks around nervously at his family staring at him
and frozen in motion. The inspector is still facing audience and gives a small smile as the
curtain begins to fall.

This scene is pivotal in the play because it breaks down the surface barriers of the
final character. Eric constructed his walls well, and his family believed that he really was
the person he presented on the surface. It was shocking for them to see inside his walls
into the person he really is. The inspector smiles at the end of the act because even
though he knows that it is hard to discover the truth, it is better that an honest image is
projected. Priestly is suggesting by removing the walls from parlor dramas to show what
is really happening in society that we should remove the walls to our true selves so we
can move forward with more honest and responsible relationships. If we can be more
honest on an individual level, our society can move forward into an era of responsibility
for our actions and their outcomes.

Priestley, J.B. An Inspector Calls. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 1945.

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