The scene is set one evening in the spring of 1912 in the dining room of the Birlings’ house in Brumley, an “industrial city in the North Midlands” of England. Priestley specifies that the room has “good solid furniture” and is “heavily comfortable, but not cozy and homelike.” As the curtain rises, the four Birlings—Arthur, Sybil, Sheila and Eric—are seated at the table with Gerald Croft. Edna, the parlor maid, is clearing the table after dinner. The Birlings have just eaten dessert. They are “celebrating a special occasion” and are “pleased with themselves.”
Birling is pouring port, which, he remarks, is the same port that Gerald’s father buys. He is going to toast the engagement of Sheila and Gerald Croft. Mrs. Birling quietly ticks down Birling for complimenting the cook on the meal they have just eaten in front of Gerald, and Birling replies that he is treating Gerald “like one of the family.” Gerald, in turn, comments that he has been trying for long enough to be one of the family, which eventually provokes Sheila to remark that he didn’t try particularly hard “all last summer,” when he “never came near” her and she wondered what had happened. Gerald simply replies that he was very busy at the works.
Mrs. Birling tells Sheila that she will have to get used to men spending all of their time and energy on their work, just as she did. Sheila disagrees and, half playfully, tells Gerald to “be careful,” which provokes a sudden guffaw from Eric. Sheila tells Eric he is “squiffy,” and Sybil, conscious of Gerald’s presence, moves Arthur back onto his toast.
Arthur says this is one of the happiest nights of his life, though he is sorry that Sir George and Lady Croft (whose forename he appears to have forgotten) cannot join this “quiet little family party.” Birling tells Gerald that he is “just the kind of son-in-law I always wanted” and that Gerald and Sheila will make each other happy. He also makes clear, none too subtly, that he has ambitions for Crofts Limited and Birling and Company (the smaller of the two firms), though they are currently competitors, to work together at some point in the future, as a result of this marriage. Birling makes the toast, and Gerald and Sheila drink to each other, Gerald hoping that he makes her “as happy as you deserve to be.” He then produces a ring, which Sheila is hugely delighted to receive.
Mrs. Birling attempts to take Sheila out into the drawing room to leave the men to talk, but Birling has not yet finished his speech. He launches into a protracted speech, touching on current events and making some predictions. Despite the miners’ strike, Birling argues, there will be no labor trouble in the future, and he openly says “fiddlesticks!” to the suggestion that war with Germany is inevitable. The world, Birling says, is making too much progress for war, and he cites airplanes and automobiles, as well as a new ship, as examples of progress. The ship is “the Titanic—she sails next week—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—New York in five days—and every luxury—and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.”
Birling’s speech is important, he argues, because the (left-leaning) intellectuals, “these Bernard Shaws and H.G. Wellses,” can’t be allowed to “do all the talking. We hard-headed practical business men must say something sometime.” As Birling finishes, Sybil and Sheila leave for the drawing room—and, presumably for a ticking down for his manners, she summons Eric, too.
Birling smokes a cigar and Gerald lights a cigarette, both men pouring themselves more port. Birling suggests that Gerald’s mother, Lady Croft, “feels you might have done better for yourself socially,” though Lady Croft does not object to Sheila otherwise. Gerald begins to disagree, but Birling has another target in sight, revealing that he might be knighted in the next Honors List. All should be well, Birling thinks, “so long as we behave ourselves, don’t get into the police court, or start a scandal—eh?”
Eric enters, commenting that the women are talking about clothes again. Birling advises in good humor that clothes to a woman are a “sign or token of their self-respect.” Eric starts to say something, but then checks himself and falls silent—even when prompted by Birling to continue. Birling sets out on another long sermon of sound advice, uttering ideas central to his philosophy:
“the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive—community and all that nonsense. But take my word for it ... that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own—and—”
Birling’s sentence is never completed, for he is interrupted by the ring of the doorbell. Edna announces that a police inspector named Inspector Goole is at the door, asking for Birling. Birling tells her to show him, commenting to Gerald that he is “on the Bench,” and that this may be “something about a warrant.”
The Inspector enters and, in short clipped sentences, greets Birling and refuses to accept a drink. Birling comments that, though he has been alderman and Lord Mayor, he has never seen the Inspector before, though he knows the “Brumley police officers pretty well.” The Inspector remarks that he is new, and “only recently transferred,” before telling Birling why he has come. A young woman died two hours ago in the Infirmary. She committed suicide by swallowing strong disinfectant. The Inspector says he has been to the girl’s room and found a letter and a diary—her name was Eva Smith, but Birling claims not to recognize it.
The Inspector reminds Birling that Eva Smith was employed in his works at one point, and, when Birling does still not remember, the Inspector shows him a photograph of her that he says he found in her room. As Gerald and Eric try too to look at the photograph, the Inspector prevents them from seeing it. When the two men ask why they can’t see the photograph, the Inspector remarks that he likes to work this way, with “one person and one line of inquiry at a time.” At this point in the play, the Inspector speaks in short, clipped answers, which can sometimes be very enigmatic.
As the Inspector surmises, Birling has now remembered Eva Smith: she was discharged from her employment at his works at the end of September in 1910. Gerald attempts to leave, sensing the potential for embarrassment, but when Birling introduces him to the Inspector, the Inspector gravely says he would prefer that Gerald stay. Birling, “somewhat impatiently,” tells the Inspector that there is nothing “mysterious” or “scandalous” about this business, since it happened more than eighteen months ago, and therefore it can have nothing to do with this girl’s suicide.
The Inspector disagrees, saying that “what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.” Birling concedes but adds that he cannot be expected to have responsibility for everyone he has ever met. He then tells the story of Eva Smith’s dismissal from his works.
Eva Smith, Birling narrates, was a lively, good-looking girl who was a good worker and about to be promoted. When the girls came back from vacation, however, they were restless and decided to ask for more money. Birling was already paying a rate that was just what “is paid generally in our industry,” and he refused to raise it.
The Inspector interrupts Birling to ask him why he refused to raise the rate, and Birling gets somewhat irritable, telling the Inspector, “I don’t like the tone.” Birling eventually explains that “if they didn’t like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else.” The girls, Birling continues, then went on strike, and after the strike failed, the company let all of the girls except the “four or five ringleaders” come back at the old rates. “She’d had a lot to say—far too much—so she had to go.” Gerald Croft concurs that Birling “couldn’t have done anything else.”
Birling is starting to become a little unsettled by the Inspector, and he asks Goole to spell his name, which he does. Birling then tries to threaten the Inspector by mentioning that he is an “old friend” of the Chief Constable, Colonel Roberts. The Inspector simply remarks, “I don’t see much of him.” Eric comments that, were it up to him, he would have let Eva Smith stay at the factory, which provokes an angry putdown from Birling, who then tries to close the case: “I don’t see we need to tell the Inspector anything more.”
Sheila enters from the drawing room to find out what is happening, and she is surprised to see the Inspector. As Birling attempts to shoo her out, the Inspector asks her to stay, much to Birling’s chagrin. He launches into an angry little speech, telling the Inspector he has “half a mind to report you.”
The Inspector ignores him and tells Sheila what happened to Eva Smith. He also tells her that Eva was very pretty and only twenty-four years old. In the course of the conversation that follows, the Inspector reveals that he thinks that Gerald, Eric, or Sheila might know something about this girl; he did not come simply to see Birling. The atmosphere in the room changes as everyone begins to feel that something ominous is coming.
Sheila continues to ask about Eva Smith, despite the fact that Birling is keen to get her to leave the room, though she comments that she has never heard the name before. The Inspector then reveals that Eva Smith used more than one name, and she changed her name after being sacked by Birling. Eva Smith, the Inspector continues, was an orphan and had no parents to return to, so she spent two months living in lodgings, making no money, “lonely, half-starved ... desperate.” Sheila is horrified, only to be told by the Inspector that
“There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in this country, Miss Birling. If there weren’t, the factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labor.”
“It would do us all a bit of good,” the Inspector adds, if “sometimes we tried to put ourselves in the place of these young women.” Eva Smith, the Inspector continues, then managed to find work at Milwards, a shop which Sheila immediately says she goes to. Eva worked at Milwards very happily until, after a couple of months, she was suddenly told that she had to go. There was nothing wrong with how she was doing her work, but, the Inspector adds, a customer had complained about her. The Inspector shows an agitated Sheila the photograph of the girl, and she runs out of the room, clearly having recognized the girl. Birling, angry with the Inspector’s behavior, follows after her.
Gerald asks to see the photograph, and the Inspector replies, “all in good time.” After a short discussion, Eric tries to go to bed, and the Inspector stops him in turn. Sheila returns and “looks as if she’s been crying.” Sheila realizes her responsibility, which prompts the Inspector to say that she is not entirely responsible, but “partly to blame. Just as your father is.”
Sheila then tells the story of her encounter with the dead girl. She had gone into Milwards to try something on, and she insisted on trying a dress which, in the end, didn’t suit her at all. The girl had brought the dress up from the workroom and had held it up against herself to illustrate something—and “it just suited her. She was the right type for it, just as I was the wrong type,” Sheila reports. When she had tried the dress, she had caught sight of the girl smiling, as if to say, “Doesn’t she look awful.” She complained to the manager and made a big fuss.
At the end of this narrative, Sheila almost breaks down. “How could I know what would happen afterwards?” she asks, adding that if the girl had not been so pretty, she would never have done it. “I couldn’t be sorry for her,” she concludes. Sheila wishes she could help the girl, but, as the Inspector cursorily points out, “Yes, but you can’t. It’s too late. She’s dead.”
Sheila plaintively wonders why this had to happen, and the Inspector announces that he is not going “until I know all that happened.” He then reveals that, after being sacked from the shop, the girl changed her name to Daisy Renton. Gerald starts at the name and asks to get himself a drink. The Inspector, taken by Eric, leaves the room, going to the drawing room to find Mr. Birling, who in turn has gone to update Mrs. Birling on what has happened. Sheila and Gerald, the engaged couple, are left alone onstage together.
Sheila has realized that Gerald knew Daisy Renton, and she also correctly guesses that he was seeing her last summer—during the time when Sheila herself hardly saw him. Gerald admits it but says that it “was all over and done with, last summer. I hadn’t set eyes on the girl for at least six months.” Gerald then asks Sheila to keep this information from the Inspector. She laughs at him, saying that the Inspector already knows—and knows more than any of them. “You’ll see,” she finishes, just as the door slowly opens to reveal the Inspector looking at them. “Well?” the Inspector asks, as the curtain comes down at the end of Act One.
An Inspector Calls, as its curtain rises, does not seem particularly different from many other plays popular in the same period. A middle-class family sits around a table, having just enjoyed a satisfying dinner, and the maid clears the table. The scene sets the expectation that this is going to be a family drama, maybe even a comedy, and the focus will be on this happy family environment. Yet, Priestley’s play undergoes a subtle shift in mood and tone until it has become something much more unusual, which defies both its initial expectations and its seeming naturalism.
This first tableau, for example, can be seen as something other as a cozy emblem of this rich family’s life, for among them is a picture of one of the “millions and millions” of Eva Smiths, here working for what is likely a minimum wage, clearing the table and putting out port and cigars. It is no accident, surely, that “Eva” the girl and “Edna” the maid have such similar names. The presence of Edna onstage throughout the play symbolizes the presence of Eva and reinforces Priestley’s ultimate point about the abuse of power and the failure to take sufficient responsibility for one’s actions toward others.
Immediately, with the Inspector’s interrogations of Birling and Sheila, we see Priestley’s key salvo: the lower-class individuals are the responsibility of the middle and upper classes. This idea draws on traditional class morality. But as the society has become less hierarchical, the new way of expressing this morality is to say that society at large should care for people who are poor and need support. As Birling did not worry about firing the girls who led the strike for more wages, as Sheila did not think twice about causing the shop assistant to get in trouble, so too do the Birlings routinely ignore Edna during the play. Edna’s silence in the play, though she begins as a natural component of the comfortable family room as the curtain rises, gradually comes to seem more and more significant as the play goes on.
The early part of the act provides further indicators of what is to come. Sheila’s slightly acidic comment about Gerald’s supposed absence last summer plants the idea that there must be a better reason for the absence (we will learn it soon enough: Gerald has had a lover), and her comment illustrates the cracks which are present from the very beginning in the relationship between Sheila and Gerald. Eric’s unmotivated laugh in the middle of the conversation helps us to understand, later in the play, that he probably is “squiffy” as Sheila suggests, though it is not until much later that his alcohol problem will come to light. Priestley carefully structures the play so that the careful listener or reader will hear these ambiguous possibilities of trouble.
The centerpiece of this first part of the play, though, is the self-satisfied attitude of Arthur Birling. He is indeed, as he puts it, every inch the “hard-headed man of business.” Smug and sure of himself, he launches into a series of assertions which Priestley’s 1946 audience would have known only too well to be false. Birling asserts that there will not be another war, yet, two years after this utterance (the play is set in 1912) the First World War was to begin. Moreover, the 1946 audience would have only just managed to live through the Second World War of 1939 to 1945. Birling also asserts that the Titanic, which sets sail “next week,” is “unsinkable,” yet the audience knows that the ship sank only a little later in 1912. Priestley’s original audience probably would have found Birling’s reference to the Titanic more distressing than a modern audience because some of them may have known people who died in the disaster. Priestley’s dramatic irony, then, is poignant, not merely coy and comfortable, for the audience.
Birling’s politics of self-reliance and personal responsibility are staunchly and unashamedly capitalist, perhaps even right-wing. He believes in “low wages, high prices,” is absolutely dismissive of Eva’s strike, and, even at the close of the Inspector’s inquiry, can only limply claim that he would “give thousands” to make things better. Money, indeed, dominates the way he thinks, even to the extent that, Priestley subtly illustrates, he sees his daughter’s engagement to Gerald Croft as a financial move and potentially the first step towards a merger between the Birling and Croft businesses. Birling represents the political point of view opposite to Priestley’s own. Birling even makes himself out to be the antithesis of left-leaning writers and intellectuals generally, namely George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, both very famously left-wing voices.
Birling, moreover, represents “Middle England.” This term is used generally to describe the right-leaning majority of the British public. Though it is a modern-day term, it could just as well apply to the middle-class, right-leaning majority of Priestley’s Britain.
Yet, although Birling and his wife are indeed middle-class, Priestley tells us in one of his stage directions (though it is never explicitly referred to in the play itself) that Sybil is “a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior.” Birling is throughout the play ticked down by his wife: early in this act, for instance, for complimenting the servants on the meal in front of a guest. Sybil, presumably from a better social background than Birling, seems to be, in an imperious, passive way, the one in control of the marriage—and of her husband. Birling himself seems to have worked his way up to the middle classes (he is “provincial in his speech,” Priestley tells us in another stage direction, which might be another clue to his background) and, as he explains to Gerald, he is currently trying to see his way to a knighthood and therefore greatly improving his social position. In short, the Birlings have ambitions to move up the social scale.
Gerald’s parents, for their part, “Sir George and Lady Croft,” already have their knighthood, and their business is considerably older and more successful than Birling’s. They, we presume, are an upper-class family, and although we never meet them, Gerald’s mother (like Sybil) seems to have a real eye on social status, feeling that Gerald “might have done better for [himself] socially.” Is this, we might suggest, the reason for their not being at the Birlings’ little celebratory dinner—do they disapprove that much? The initial lack of interest of the Birlings and people like them towards the fate of Eva Smith, in turn, is part of the overall class structure in England at this time, and Priestley, even this early in the play, draws our attention to the way that Lady Croft looks down on Birling just as he looks down on Eva.
It is interesting to examine who is control in each part of the play, and interesting too that the visiting police inspector (a staple, in fact, of drama in plays like Dial M for Murder) begins not as an avenging angel, but as a rather unremarkable character. Birling dominates their first conversation, boasting about his status as a former Lord Mayor and a magistrate. Yet Priestley still leaves us interesting clues. From what we know about the Inspector’s later (seemingly supernatural) abilities, his statement “I’ve only recently transferred” carries tantalizingly ambiguous double meanings. How and from where (what town? what planet? what time?) has he “transferred?”
The Inspector’s power and insight into the situation is only really glimpsed, in this first act, by Sheila, who ominously predicts to Gerald as the curtain goes down that everyone will come to see that the Inspector knows far more than anyone realizes. Yet Priestley, in the first act, gives the Inspector no explicit moment of surprising the family by knowing more than they do. The level of tension in the play starts extremely low, builds gradually as the Inspector enters, and builds more as the characters come to understand the fate of Eva and their roles.
Indeed, at the end of Act One, structured by Priestley so as to end on a point of tension, we discover that it is not just Birling and Sheila, but also Gerald, who is involved in Eva Smith’s demise. The comfortable, warm atmosphere of the opening has been largely destroyed by the time the curtain comes down at the end of the act, with three people so far responsible for Eva’s fate, all responding differently. Significantly, we have little indication of where the play might go next, but the audience might predict that more family members will prove responsible for Eva’s fate as we learn what else happened to her.