The mood in act 1 changes from relaxed to tense. Explore the ways Priestley transforms the tone throughout act 1 of An Inspector Calls.

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Whenever you are reading a play, it can be easy to just focus on the dialogue and miss out on the stage direction. The stage direction is the italicized portion, featuring specific instructions from the playwright—in this case, Priestly—for the organization of the set or the movement of the actors....

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Whenever you are reading a play, it can be easy to just focus on the dialogue and miss out on the stage direction. The stage direction is the italicized portion, featuring specific instructions from the playwright—in this case, Priestly—for the organization of the set or the movement of the actors. In his instructions for the construction of the set of the Birlings dining room, Priestly is already planning a significant shift for act 1 in the use of the lighting:

The lighting should be pink and intimate until the INSPECTOR arrives and then it should be brighter and harder.

This subtle change not only affects the mood in making the rest of the act more tense, but it also highlights the main theme of the play: bringing the family’s crimes into the light of their consciousnesses.

I’d say there’s also tension being built in the argument between Sheila and Eric, as she notices that he’s “squiffy,” (a little drunk), and Eric attempts to deny it. Then there’s Arthur Birling’s speech, full of inaccuracies about his hopes for the future, which instantly discredits him in the eyes of the audience—those have been mentioned in two other educator answers—which further discredits the advice he gives to the younger generation surrounding him. It’s clear that the young men are relieved to have the doorbell interrupt him when the inspector arrives.

Returning to the stage direction, the reader is told that Eric is incredibly “uneasy” and speaks “sharply” when he realizes there’s an inspector at the door. When asked what is wrong, he speaks “defiantly” that it’s “Nothing.” Finally, the Inspector’s presence and his line of question will continue to increase the tension through act 1 and the rest of the play until the audience learns of Eric’s involvement in Eva Smith’s suicide.

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As well as Birling's wildly inaccurate predictions about the chances of war and the alleged unsinkability of the Titanic, there is dramatic irony aplenty in Gerald's complacent comment that the Birlings seem like a nice, well-behaved family. If only that were true!

The change in mood from jollity to uncomfortable tension is reflected in the use of lighting. According to Priestley's stage directions, the arrival of the inspector is to be accompanied by brighter lightning. This could be interpreted as shining a light on the Birlings and their sordid little secrets. More significantly, it gives the impression that these complacent rich folk, who thought that everything in their gilded little world was going just swimmingly, are now to be subjected to the harsh spotlight of the inspector's relentless interrogation.

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At the beginning of Act 1, there is a mood of celebration as the group celebrates Sheila and Gerald’s engagement. There are hints of tension; for example when Sheila refers to the fact that Gerald was curiously absent

 all last summer

The members of the party congratulate each other for their successes. Mr. Birling notes when toasting the couple-

Sheila’s a lucky girl – and I think you’re a pretty fortunate young man too, Gerald.

The tone begins to change with Birling’s speech. His words on the prospect of

 steadily increasing prosperity

is littered with errors which the audience would clearly note. He discusses how there

 isn’t a chance of war

and how the Titanic is

 absolutely unsinkable

From this point we realize that Birling is an unreliable judge of events and character, but is convinced of his point of view. When he is giving manly guidance to Gerald and Eric, we realize that these words will be similarly misguided-

a man has to make his own way--look after himself

The arrival of the inspector quickly dampens the spirits of the party as he reveals the horrific death of a young woman. The tone changes as the inspector takes charge of the situation, questioning each member of the party to reveal their social failings in respect of the young woman. By the end of Act 1, Sheila no longer feels “lucky”, and she is devastated by her own cruelty.

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