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Note: Beginning of play to arrival of Inspector
The play begins in 1912 with a dinner at the Birling residence. Arthur leads a toast to the impending marriage of his daughter, Sheila, and his son-in-law-to-be, Gerald Croft. The family members joke happily among themselves, and Sheila teases Gerald about his distant behavior the previous summer, when, Gerald explains, he was especially occupied at “the works,” the manufacturing company his father owns. That company, Crofts Limited, is a direct competitor to Birling and Company, Arthur’s manufacturing business. Arthur believes that Gerald and Sheila’s marriage will help bring the two companies closer together. Arthur stresses that their competition, to this point, has been civil, and that the Crofts’ is the larger company and the older, more distinguished family.
Sheila and Gerald tell one another, in front of the family at the dinner table, how lucky they are to be engaged. Gerald presents Sheila a ring, and Sheila vows to keep it in her possession forever. Birling tells the couple that, despite news reports to the contrary, he believes that the world is in a “good time,” and that business operations will pick up, not slow down, in the coming years. Arthur says that reports of German aggression should be discounted, and that there is a new, “unsinkable” ship being built that will be able to travel from the United Kingdom to New York in five days. Arthur continues that capital versus labor disputes, a topic of public discussion at the time, will not go on much longer, except perhaps in Russia, which Arthur calls “always ... behind-hand.”
After dinner, the rest of the family leave and Arthur and Gerald speak privately while drinking port. Arthur tells Gerald that, based on his public service as Lord Mayor in the town of Brumley (in the North Midlands), he believes the English government might soon offer him a knighthood. Arthur is especially excited about this prospect, he tells Gerald, because he knows that Lady Croft, Gerald’s mother, thinks Gerald might be “marrying down” socially in choosing Sheila for his bride. This is because the Birling family, though wealthy, does not have a title as the Croft family does. Arthur tells Gerald that the knighthood should come barring any unforeseen problems, like a “crime” in the family, or a “public scandal.” But, Arthur notes, he is only kidding about this, as he considers the possibility of either extremely unlikely. Gerald appears relieved to hear that Arthur is up for a knighthood and offers to tell his mother when the conferral is more certain.
Eric returns to the room where Arthur and Gerald are sitting. Arthur tells Eric and Gerald that it is important for a man to look out “for himself” and “for his family.” He says that in 1912, there are some “cranks” and critics who argue that “everybody has to look after everybody else.” Arthur is suspicious of this kind of socialism, and he urges Eric and Gerald to “mind their own business,” which, he says, will guarantee success in commerce and in life. Gerald says nothing, and Eric tells his father that he has offered the family a good deal of advice that night. Edna comes into the room and tells Arthur that a man wishes to speak with him. He is an Inspector from the police department.
The first part of Act One is an occasion for much dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a situation, in performance, in which the audience knows more about the characters’ predicaments than the characters do. In this case, the dramatic irony has two forms. First, the audience senses that the happiness the Birlings rejoice in will soon be torn apart. Sheila’s semi-playful claim that Gerald was distant the previous summer will turn into the revelation of Gerald’s affair. And Eric’s casual drinking in this scene will become the heavy, dependent drinking of the later parts of the play. Arthur’s belief that he will receive a knighthood, if nothing terrible befalls the family, seems almost to invite exactly that kind of terrible event.
Read more about the play's genre, tone, and setting.
Then there is the broader dramatic irony, of the historical context in which the play occurs, and of when the play was written. Priestley, having fought in the First World War and lived through the Second, understands that German aggression will rip Europe to pieces, twice. He knows, as the audience would know, that the Titanic was an “unsinkable” ship that sank, and that Russia would overthrow its tsar and establish the first explicitly socialist government in the world.
Read more about J. B. Priestly and the play's historical context.
These instances of dramatic irony have two effects. First, they are morbidly funny, as they point out the characters naïveté and the audience’s knowledge of history and psychology. Second, they cause the audience to sympathize with and to better understand the play’s characters. After all, many people have experienced false confidence, and many people have been disappointed by personal or world events they could not anticipate. That the Birlings do not know what will happen to them does not make them stupid. It makes them realistic human beings.
The problems of the characters’ temperaments arise at this point in the play as the audience learns about the facets of the characters’ personalities that they choose to show and to conceal. Arthur presents an image of steadfastness and power, but he is deeply concerned with his social station. He reveals this to Gerald when he acknowledges the Crofts’ social superiority. Arthur’s desire for a knighthood is almost painfully poignant, and Gerald, for his part, seems relieved to hear it because he believes it will satisfy his mother. It is not clear whether Sybil’s unflappability in this section is reserve or disdain. And Sheila’s teasing of Gerald is not readily identifiable, either. Although one wonders if Gerald’s absence the previous summer will be explained, there could, of course, be a simple and innocent reason for it.
Read an in-depth analysis of Arthur Birling.
Thus Priestley sets in motion the problems that will combine to form the play’s dramatic tensions. But these problems are not announced from the beginning. Instead, they are insinuated, revealed through the characters’ words and the manner in which those words are said. The play’s lack of narrator and its revelation of plot only through dialogue means there is no third person who announces their intentions. The closest the play will come to this kind of organizing presence is the Inspector, but even he primarily asks questions. He does not feel it is necessary to answer them, and, as Sheila notes, he appears aware of the truth already, and more interested in getting the other characters to admit to it.
A final important note is the relative stasis of the play, or its “seatedness” in one place. Although other locations are mentioned, including the factories where Arthur and Eva work, and the bars where Gerald and Eric meet Eva/Daisy, the play’s action unfolds in the dining and living room of the Birlings’ home. This gives the play a small, contained, even panicked quality, as though the characters could not escape their interrogation if they tried. Of course, Eric and Gerald do leave for a time, but they return to the scene of inspection to answer the Inspector’s questions about their behavior.