“Heavily comfortable” in the Birling residence (#LivesIntertwined pt. 4)

ACT ONE

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 production at the New Theatre. By doing this, you can have the dining-table at the centre downstage during Act One, when it is needed there, and then, swinging back, can reveal a fireplace for Act Two, and then for Act Three can show a small table with telephone on it, downstage of fireplace; and by this time the dining-table and its chairs have been moved well upstage. Producers who wish to avoid this tricky business, which involves two re-settings of 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.

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. EDNA, the parlour maid, is just clearing the table, which  has no cloth, of dessert plates and champagne glasses, etc., and then replacing them with decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes. Port glasses are already on the table. All five are in evening dress of the 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. SHEILA  is a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited. GERALD CROFT is an attractive chap about thirty, rather too manly to be a dandy but very much the easy well-bred young man-about-town. ERIC is in his early twenties, not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive. At the moment they have all had a good dinner, are celebrating a special occasion, and are pleased with themselves.

– ‘An Inspector Calls‘, Act 1, opening stage directions.

Like his contemporary playwright (and fellow ardent socialist), George Bernard Shaw, Priestley makes use of very long, very detailed stage directions to establish clearly how the play should look and feel on stage. One of my favourite classroom activities is simply to ask students to draw and label the stage based on Priestley’s instructions. It’s a fun way to get a sense of Priestley’s vision, and it also helps students to get their heads around all of the fascinating details on display. There’s such a lot here to unpack here, and every individual component contributes to a sense of palpable unease.

Every prop has a purpose, and gives us valuable insight into the Birling family. The furniture is “good” and “solid”, reflecting the family’s wealth and initial sense of stability. The overall effect of the decor, though, is “heavily comfortable” – an oxymoronic phrase that feels stifling, claustrophobic, and creates the sense that the grandeur on display is perhaps a facade that hides an unpleasant reality. Elsewhere, the champagne glasses, the port, the cigars, the evening dress all suggest wealth, prosperity, and conviviality, even while the descriptions of individual characters imply the potential for conflict: Gerald’s “easy” nature feels designed to clash with the “not quite at ease” Eric; Priestley points to a social discrepancy between Mr and Mrs Birling; how might Mrs Birling, a “cold woman”, interact with the “rather excited” Sheila?

Other details reflect in the development of the characters over time. The table with the telephone is “small” – an indicator of the Birlings’ lack of meaningful connection to the outside world, and all the better to emphasise their surprise at the play’s conclusion. Meanwhile, the fireplace is revealed in Act 2, as their world begins to burn. The whole space is coloured by a “pink and intimate light” – the colour of rose-tinted spectacles – that shifts to become “brighter and harder” as the Inspector interrogates the family and illuminates uncomfortable truths.

The most revealing stage directions, though, are also the vaguest. For example: although Priestley is clear that the space is “not cosy or homelike”, the phrase is tantalisingly imprecise, telling us what the space is not rather than what it is. How does one create a sense of “not homelike”? What might such a sensation look like on stage? By inviting these questions Priestley encourages imaginative directorial interpretation. His reason for doing so may be linked to the difficulties of the original production: realism apparently became a “tricky business” and a “nuisance” in practice at London’s New Theatre! For this reason, he advises future directors to “dispense with an ordinary realistic set”, indicating that – to the playwright, at least – the atmosphere matters more than rigid adherence to historical accuracy.

Like the Inspector, Priestley’s message is only as effective as the impression that he leaves upon us. For this reason, the atmosphere created by these opening stage directions is all-important. From the moment the curtain rises, Priestley demands that we, to paraphrase Sheila, remember what he made us feel.

A small child in tattered wartime clothing stares up at a giant, glowing doll's house, representing the Birlings' home.
A war orphan looks up at the doll’s house-style set of Stephen Daldry’s 2016 adaptation at the Playhouse Theatre (credit: WhatsOnStage.com)

Featured image: a wide shot of Stephen Daldry’s 2016 adaptation at the Playhouse Theatre. Credit: BBC.

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