The stage directions describe Birling as a ‘prosperous manufacturer’, and we are told he lives in a ‘heavily comfortable / large, suburban house ‘which is not ‘cosy and homelike’. The ‘decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes’ replacing the ‘champagne’ all create an impression of both affluence and self- indulgence. At this stage Birling is revealed as a successful, wealthy, capitalist businessman. As Birling himself is described as being ‘heavy- looking’ and ‘rather portentous’, these descriptions create dramatic interest as the suggestion of arrogance and pomposity is shown by both his choice of residence, material possessions and physical description. From the beginning of the play the audience will very quickly have developed a dislike for Birling.
The beginning of Act One finds the Birling family celebrating a family engagement. However, Arthur Birling, the head of the household, continues to focus on his business plans, even on such an important occasion as his daughter’s engagement party. In the first of one of his self-important speeches he tells his daughter’s fiancï¿½, ‘now you’ve brought us together, Croft’s and Birling’s are no longer competing.’
He has mentioned their happiness briefly, but it is clear that his real priorities lie in furthering his own economic success and raising his social status. This will create dramatic interest as the audience’s dislike of Birling grows as his true character is revealed; they realise his motives are purely selfish. A further much more provocative speech shows the audience his unassailable views as he states his foolish perception of the world and future events. He claims, ‘Nobody wants war’, ‘we’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity’ and even states the Titanic is ‘unsinkable’. This dramatic irony creates interest and would not be lost on the audience as they know that all of his predictions are fundamentally wrong. Indeed, Birling’s overly assertive speeches would have, and still do, leave the audience with a bitter frustration at his foolish attitude.
Mr Birling continues to ramble, and show total resistance to the rest of the world as he proclaims, ‘community is nonsense… I’ve learned in the school of experience.’ This is very irritating and shows the audience that experience is only useful in intelligent hands. When the doorbell ‘rings sharply’ not only does it provide dramatic tension but it is also a relief to the audience as it cuts through Birling’s opinionated speeches. When the Inspector enters the room, Birling is irritated at the intrusion and although he doesn’t feel threatened initially; his attitude towards the Inspector increases our dislike of him.
He has to make sure of his social status and power as he quite obviously feels intimidated. He tells the Inspector, ‘I was Lord Mayor… I know the Brumley police officers pretty well.’ Dramatic interest is created at this point as we are given the impression that he may use his power to corrupt justice; it shows he is not completely honest. The investigation unravels, and as Birling finds out about Eva Smith’s suicide he ‘impatiently’ and coldly states, it is a ‘Horrid business’. This callous, unsympathetic reaction to the suicidal death of a young girl shows how little he regards ordinary working class people. Not only does he regard her death as little more than an inconvenience, he denies knowing her, and ultimately as his annoyance grows calls Eva Smith a ‘wretched girl’. As he continues to try to intimidate the Inspector the audience’s dislike of Birling grows, together with their interest in his role in the mystery.
Birling’s wife, Sybil, appears to be even more hard-faced and arrogant than her husband. She is introduced as ‘her husbands social superior.’ The manner which she addresses people with instantly shows that she is very conscious of social position. She even corrects Birling’s ‘provincial’ manners, telling him ‘Arthur you’re not supposed to say such things.’ Mrs Birling is extremely pretentious, expecting everybody to defer to her opinions and show her utmost respect.
Mrs Birling shows that she has traditional views on marriage, as she tells Sheila, ‘men with important work sometimes have to spend all their energy and time on business.’ The audience would not find this out of the ordinary, but when she tells Sheila, ‘You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had,’ there is an element of resentment. This creates dramatic tension as it appears there may be an undercurrent of tension between the couple; Mrs Birling may be slightly resentful of her husband’s activities away from home again, making the audiences interest rise.
The audience would regard Mrs Birling as almost the perfect partner to Mr Birling, they would react to her in the same way as her husband; she would be disliked. The audience would feel unsympathetic towards her hoping that ultimately she would be taught a lesson because of her indifference and her inability to see what’s happening in the real would around her. From the moment the Inspector is introduced dramatic tension is created as ‘we hear the sharp ring of a front door bell.’ This is almost a wake up call, and the audience would appreciate the interruption as Birling was incessantly rambling; there is also the mystery as to who is at the door creating audience interest.
As the Inspector slowly unravels his reason for being there, ‘a young woman died in the infirmary,’ more dramatic interest is created as both the audience and the Birling family would wonder why they were being questioned over this young girl’s death. This soon becomes clear to Mr Birling as the Inspector tells him her name, ‘Eva Smith…Do you remember her, Mr Birling?’ Again, as Goole ‘takes a photograph, and goes to Birling,’ the audience would want to know what was on the photograph and why this was significant to Birling, thus creating dramatic tension and interest.
Once the Inspector has uncovered Birling’s part in the young girl’s death he is told, ‘Mr Croft is going to marry Miss Sheila Birling,’ and ‘gravely’ tells Gerald, ‘I’d prefer you stay.’ This suggests Mr Croft is involved, but Croft doesn’t ask why, which suggests he is hiding something, that there is more to him that meets the eye. The Inspector continues to ask open ended questions, and certain phrases indicate that it is not only Birling and Croft that have played a part in this innocent girl’s death. The Inspector tells them all, ‘a chain of events…May have driven her to suicide.’ At this point every single member of both audience and household would be wondering if they may be somehow partly responsible for such a tragedy. The audience are therefore desperate to know what this mysterious ‘chain of events’ are, and who they concern, driving their interest even more.