Practise reading stage directions

Read this short extract from J B Priestley’s own stage directions, which are included in most editions of the play. Answer the question then check your response against the sample answer.


This extract is from the stage directions for the opening of An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley. What do they tell you about Priestley’s intentions?

The dining-room of a fairly large suburban house, belonging to a prosperous manufacturer. It has good solid furniture of the period. The general effect is substantial and heavily comfortable, but not cosy and homelike. (If a realistic set is used, then it should be swung back, as it was in the Old Vic production at the New Theatre…

Producers who wish to avoid this tricky business, which involves two re-settings for the scene and some very accurate adjustments of the extra flats necessary, would be well advised to dispense with an ordinary realistic set if only because the dining-table becomes a nuisance. The lighting should be pink and intimate until the INSPECTOR arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder.)

… All five (characters) are in evening dress of this period, the men in tails and white ties, not dinner jackets…

ARTHUR BIRLING is a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties with fairly easy manners but rather provincial in his speech. His wife is about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior.

The first thing that is made quite clear is that this is a prosperous family. The clothes and furniture described all reinforce Priestley’s stated intention to show a prosperous manufacturer’s home. There’s a suggestion that the characters are living in the past and are also upper class wearing tails and white ties. The theatre company would be expected to use costume and furniture from the period and not experiment with a minimalistic or modern setting or this would go against the playwright’s intentions.

Priestley is obviously keen to guide casting and characterisation as well as staging. He describes Birling as a self-made man and rather bourgeois (materialistic, middle class) as his speech is described as ‘provincial’. The actor playing Birling would need to note this when performing.

What’s most interesting is the advice about the dining table. Either you need the ability to get it out of the way easily or, if you’re not playing in an elaborate theatre, the advice is not to be literal about the dining room staging. This allows you to focus on the play’s content without being troubled by a large piece of furniture.

There are also specific instructions about the lighting, which Priestley has deliberately chosen to reinforce the emotions of the characters and their situation. The inspector’s arrival changes the lighting from a warm pink to a brighter harder look. This would subtly signal to the audience that the inspector’s visit has interrupted the usual cosy status quo in the household.

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