Staging choices in An Inspector Calls

Priestley provides very clear instructions about how the play should be staged. In many ways the staging of An Inspector Calls is very simple. It takes place in real time and in one location. The props mentioned in the stage directions also highlight some of the themes that Priestley wanted to explore in his play. Read the opening stage directions and consider the following staging points:

  • '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.' - This shows that the Birlings are middle-class and live comfortably, unlike Eva Smith. It also hints that not all is well in the household, despite being 'prosperous' the house is not 'cosy and homelike', suggesting that everything is done for show rather than for comfort. There is a subtle clue that the Birlings are not a truly happy family even before the Inspector arrives.
  • 'if a realistic set is used' - The key part of these instructions is 'if'. Priestley acknowledges that the set does not have to be realistic. Different productions of the play could be creative with the staging. Directors have set the play in an industrial area for example, or have included an exterior area in which Eva Smith could be shown. Either choice would add a different atmosphere to the production.
  • 'for act three can show a small table with telephone on it' - Priestley also gives directors very specific instructions about how the stage can be most easily moved around to emphasise important props at specific points. In this act the telephone is an important part of the dramatic climax of the play.
  • 'At rise of curtain, the four BIRLINGS and GERALD are seated at the table, with ARTHUR BIRLING at one end, his wife at the other, ERIC downstage and SHEILA and GERALD seated upstage.' - The spacing in the staging is important, Arthur is seated at the head of the table: this reflects his sense of self importance. He is also sitting a long way from his wife, perhaps suggesting some distance between them. Eric is also seated downstage, apart from the rest of the family; this is an early hint that he is perhaps hiding something from his parents.
  • 'EDNA, the parlourmaid, is just clearing the table, which has no cloth, of the dessert plates and champagne glasses, etc., and then replacing them with decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes. All five are in evening dress of the period, the men in tails and white ties, not dinner-jackets.' - Priestley shows that the Birlings have money - the props all indicate this - champagne glasses, port and cigars are all luxury items that they enjoy. Their costumes are also indications of their wealth.

Consider these stage directions and the staging of the play. How might you change the staging to bring it up to date? How might you change the props or the costumes and what effect might this have on the play in performance?