An Inspector Calls

by J. B. Priestley
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In the opening stage directions, what does the reader learn about each of the characters present in act 1 of An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley?    

In the opening stage directions in An Inspector Calls, the reader learns that the main characters are wealthy. Mr. Arthur Birling is a successful business owner. His wife, who has a cold personality, is his social superior. His son, Eric, is somewhat socially awkward, half shy and half assertive. His daughter, Sheila, is enthusiastic and pleased with life. Her betrothed, Gerald Croft, is a socially polished and well-connected gentleman with money.

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In general, the reader learns that all of the main characters are well-to-do. The Birlings have a comfortable suburban home with a large dining room. A maid is clearing away dessert and champagne and bringing out port, a cigar box, and cigarettes. We learn that Mr. Arthur Birling is a...

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In general, the reader learns that all of the main characters are well-to-do. The Birlings have a comfortable suburban home with a large dining room. A maid is clearing away dessert and champagne and bringing out port, a cigar box, and cigarettes. We learn that Mr. Arthur Birling is a successful businessman. The family is in evening dress, the men in tails and white ties. All of these details suggest that the family has a substantial amount of disposable income and can live to upper class standards. However, although wealthy, they would be called middle-class in Edwardian England because they are not part of the aristocracy.

The home is comfortably furnished. Some class tensions are suggested by Mr. Birling being in trade—a manufacturer—and having a "provincial" accent, indicating he is not from one of the prestigious home counties. This implies he might be a self-made man rather than having the pedigree to have inherited wealth. This idea is reinforced when we learn that Mrs. Birling is her husband's "social superior."

Mr. Birling is described as fat and "portentuous," (trying to impress others), while Mrs. Birling is said to be cold. Sheila, the daughter, is pretty and has an "excited" personality. She is pleased with life. Her brother, Eric, is somewhat awkward. He is described as a mix of shyness and assertion. Gerald Croft, Sheila's betrothed, is more self-possessed than Eric, described as "well bred" and a "man-about-town," which indicates he is well connected and wealthy.

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From the opening stage directions we can infer that the Birling family are reasonably wealthy. The furniture, for example, is described as "good solid furniture of the period," and there is a fireplace with "two leather armchairs on either side." However, we are also told that the "general effect" is "not cozy and homelike," implying that this is perhaps not an especially happy or spirited family but instead a rather formal and conservative one.

As for the individual characters, the opening stage directions offer some clues as to their personalities. Arthur Birling is described as "a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle-fifties." From this description, we might infer that he is a rather imposing man, who, as the word "portentous" suggests, may be a little pompous and solemn. His voice is described as "provincial," which implies that he was not born into an upper-class family.

Arthur's wife, who is not named in the stage directions, is described as "a rather cold woman" and as "her husband's social superior." The implication here is that Arthur's wife is perhaps supercilious and certainly upper class. One might infer that she has married beneath her. This, together with the description noted above of Arthur's "provincial speech," implies that Arthur has recently made what money he has, rather than inherited it. Perhaps his wife is "cold" because she resents that her husband is not her social equal.

The Birlings's daughter, Sheila, is described as "a pretty girl . . . very pleased with life and rather excited." Sheila seems immediately more likeable than her parents, and her excitable manner is emphasized in contrast to the seemingly cold, reserved manner of her parents. The description of her character also emphasizes her youth. And we are told that she is "in her early twenties."

Sheila's fiancé, Gerald Croft, is described as "an attractive chap . . . too manly to be a dandy, but very much the easy, well-bred young-man-about-town." The implication here is that Gerald is easy-going, charming, and keen to enjoy life. He and Shelia seem to be a good match.

Eric Birling, the last character to be described in the opening stage directions, is said to be "not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive." This suggests that Eric is somewhat bashful and self-conscious, and these characteristics would no doubt be emphasized in contrast to the easy-going, confident personas of Shelia and Gerald. The stage directions also tell us that Eric is sat "downstage," meaning that he will likely, as the curtain rises, have his back to the audience, facing Shelia and Gerald who are sat upstage. This small detail may help to portray Eric as a character who doesn't quite fit in.

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In the opening stage directions, the reader obtains information about the social status of the various characters present, as well as a little about their attitudes.

The play opens with the four members of the Birling family and Gerald Croft seated at a substantial table where the parlor maid moves the dinner dishes to the sideboard. The family and their guest are in evening dress--the men in tails, and the women in gowns. The port is poured and Mr. Birling is quite pleased with himself and the present situation of Gerald Croft's engagement to his daughter, as Croft is a "well-bred man" of a higher social class than Mr. Birling, who apparently has risen in financial class because of his industry. Birling is described as having "fairly easy manners" and is "provincial in speech," as opposed to his more sophisticated and urbane wife, "a cold woman" who is described as her husband's social superior.

From the stage directions, also, the reader learns that the Birlings' children, Shiela and Eric, have been protected from the vicissitudes of life. Eric is described as shy and "ill at ease" in the company of the well-bred Croft. His sister Sheila has obviously been sheltered from many realities, as she is "pleased with life" and excited about little things as a child would be. 

In the opening scene focusing on a contented family (only with the discomfort of Eric is there any hint of something else) that seems typical of the upper social and economic classes of Victorian/Ewardian England, Beasley sets a tone that leads to the irony of the situation later presented to them by Inspector Goole. 

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