Priestley’s brilliant, poignant and often moving play about social inequality is a GCSE and York Notes favourite. Get the most out of it by using our Top Ten Tips as a starting point for your study of this play.
Get your head round characterisation and dramatic techniques; how to embed quotations and bring in context to your argument. Don’t leave for your exam without reading this first!
York Notes: Helping you get the best grade for you!
The starting point is, obviously, to read the play. You could read it on your own, or with your friends, playing different parts. Whilst reading, highlight your favourite moments/lines and anything that really stands out for you.
Doing this means that you are critically interacting with the text, which will serve you well when you come to study the play more closely.
Get some key quotations under your belt for themes, language and characters – sometimes you can find quotations that touch on all three.
REMEMBER: embed your quotations into a paragraph in your essay for a more sophisticated answer.
It will impress the examiner if you can identify and comment on the effect of the literary techniques used by an author. Grasping some of Priestley’s dramatic techniques and using the proper terms is a sure way to boost your grade!
For example, do you know what a euphemism is? How about irony and symbolism? Does Priestley use imagery? What’s a coup de théâtre?
REMEMBER: always comment on the effect of Priestley’s techniques.
The title of the play is An Inspector Calls, so the chances are that he’s an important figure. Ask yourself the following questions:
✓ What is the Inspector’s function?
✓ How does the Inspector differ from Mr Birling, for instance?
✓ Think about his name, Goole – what does it evoke? How does it relate to the somewhat spooky, eerie ending?
Finally, make sure you look at the Inspector’s final speech, it is the climax of the play!
Understanding the themes will help you to understand both the context of the play and Priestley’s characterisation.
There are four themes that immediately come to mind when considering An Inspector Calls. They are:
✓ An equitable (fairer) society
Draw a spider-diagram for each theme, noting any specific moments in the play that can be linked to these themes. For example, for Time, one key point is Mr Birling’s comment about the Titanic being ‘unsinkable’. Why is this important when thinking about the time that the play is set (1912) compared to when it was written (1940s)? What are Priestley’s motives? What is he trying to get us to consider?
Paying attention to the stage directions and the way Priestley structures the dialogue is key to picking up on important moments in the play and what he wants to communicate to the audience:
✓ Notice how, towards the end of the play, the dialogue speeds up through short sentences and quick shifts in mood. What does this do to the pace of the play? What are we building towards?
✓ Can you note any specific stage directions that convey Priestley’s intentions? Which stage directions are particularly interesting?
REMEMBER: dialogue can have an effect on the pace, mood and tension of a play. Map these shifts as you read An Inspector Calls.
By the end of the play, there is a clear divide between the two generations of characters in the play. On the one hand, we have the stuffy, supercilious (snobby) and unchanging views of Mr and Mrs Birling.
Then, we have the more enlightened and responsible reactions of Sheila, Eric and Gerald, who acknowledge their role in Eva Smith/Daisy Renton’s downfall. Think about these questions:
✓ How does this generational difference link to the theme of responsibility?
✓ What link is there between the older generation and the ideas of a fairer society? Is it going to be the older, more powerful generation that are likely to change, or is it the younger, more forward-looking generation that could change society for the better, making it fairer?
Think of the context like the backdrop to the play: without understanding it, the play will not make complete sense. Make sure you are familiar with:
✓ Social position/hierarchy in the early 20th century
✓ Working conditions and relationships between workers and bosses
✓ Why Priestley sets the play in 1912 and not in his day, post-Second World War?
✓ The setting of the play itself – are there many scene changes in the play? What does this tell us about the focus of the play?
Knowing the context will give your answers more depth and maturity. But make sure you apply the social/historical context to the play, don’t just repeat what you know. For example, how does the industrial setting of Brumley add to the oppressiveness of the play? You may well find that understanding the context will allow you to empathise with the characters more fully.
Test your knowledge of the play! Try and answer these questions – if you’re not sure, go back to the play, or use the York Notes study guide to help you.
✓ Why is Mr Birling so afraid of a scandal?
✓ How did Eric obtain the money he gave Daisy?
✓ In which town is the play set?
✓ What happens when Sheila is shown a photograph of the girl?
✓ Who do you think is most responsible for the death of Eva Smith/Daisy Renton? List your reasons and support them with evidence.
✓ Think of the play as a ‘chain of events’. What are the key turning points and why?
Nothing will prepare you as well as practising some exam questions. Here are a few to get you started.
For more exam- or controlled assessment-style questions, see the Grade Booster section in the print and online study guide:
✓ Which of the characters is most affected by the evening? Write about:
i) what the Inspector’s visit reveals about the different characters;
ii) how each is affected;
iii) why you feel any one character is affected more than another.
✓ Examine the evidence to decide whether Eva Smith and Daisy Renton are the same person. Write about:
i) how each character knew Eva/Daisy;
ii) what the Inspector told them about the girl;
iii) how the Inspector got his evidence.
✓ Explore the importance of family ties in An Inspector Calls and Romeo and Juliet.