‘An Inspector Calls’: Structure, Form and the Three Unities
Priestley has engineered and built the play like an architect carefully constructs a beautiful house (or perhaps, not so beautiful in the case of the Birlings). The way the play is structured has an impact on the audience just like the word choices, the tones the characters use in their expressions and the carefully placed props in the dining room. Some elements to note are:
The entrances and the exits
If we imagine that the Birling’s dining room is a sinking ship (like Birling’s ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, which can be seen to represent man’s overconfidence in
his own power – like the family’s assertion of power over others), several characters, if not all, want to jump off at some point. Sheila runs out crying; Gerald leaves with the permission of the Inspector; and Eric is absent for a large part of the play. Therefore, the exits symbolise the characters attempting to escape from their crimes. As privileged individuals, they’ve spent their lives escaping and running away from responsibility, but now it has come knocking at their very door! Priestley is particularly clever in wielding the power of the Inspector to control these entrances and exits: he leaves Sheila and Gerald alone to discuss Gerald’s affair with Daisy which in turn aids his extraction of information later on. The most dramatic entrance is perhaps Eric, who announces his arrival with, “You know, don’t you?”. This signals the final revelation is to come as now the Inspector has laid bare all of their secrets and latent attitudes. Finally, notice that the door bangs each time a character arrives or leaves which creates constant tension for the audience who wonder, who will be next to walk the plank?
The pace and the tension
Priestley often leads the audience to expect one thing, but then shifts their attention to something else. This creates a constant sense of anticipation. For example, at the beginning of Act Two we expect to hear Gerald’s confession, but instead we are pulled towards Sheila and Sybil. He also controls the amount of information that Inspector releases which builds a hierarchical order where the Inspector is the dramatic function. Something else that is important to note is the physical actions of the characters that contribute to the pace in the play. At the beginning, they are all seated, happy and laughing. This deteriorates into a room incandescent with crying, misery and bitterness.
The beginnings and endings
The beginnings and endings of the acts serve as hooks on which to hang the action to make the audience suffer with further anticipation. Act One ends with a formidable “Well?” from the Inspector which taunts us into frantically searching for what the answer might be…but we have to wait. Act Two opens in the same moment allowing the audience to reflect on the assumptions that they were making during the curtain fall. During Act Two, we hear again the ominous noise of the door slamming, which we assume is Eric’s return, but Priestley makes the audience wait until Act Three for his confession. Much like the characters, we are carried, arms flailing, along with the drama and arguably experience some of their blood, sweat and tears in attempting to stay ahead of the Inspector, which is inevitably impossible.
Perhaps most significant and fruitful through observation are the classical unities. These are:
- The Unity of Action: one action is followed throughout with few or no subplots
- The Unity of Time: the action happens over a period no longer than 24 hours
- The Unity of Place: the play happens in one physical space with the stage representing it completely
Also known as the Aristotelian unities (despite most of his references only being to action), he wrote: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude” and that if any part be removed then “the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.” Arguably we can read ‘An Inspector Calls’ as a tragedy because of the desperate and lonely fate of young Eva, and we can clearly see the three unities that make up the play’s structure: we follow the action as it happens – there are no flashbacks or gaps in the plot; the action happens over a period of several hours, no more than 24; and the stage is set in the Birling’s dining room, champagne and all. Tension seems to be at the heart and soul of this play and without the strict and sturdy walls of the three unities, perhaps as noted earlier, it might become “disturbed”. Not a breath is allowed to escape from the dining room and even Eric’s absence serves to perpetuate the palpable tension in the room; Gerald too is only allowed to leave with the permission of the Inspector who controls the action in the play and dictates its course irrevocably.