The port before the storm… (#LivesIntertwined pt. 5)

Arthur Birling: Giving us the port, Edna? That’s right. (he pushes it towards Eric.) you ought to like this port, Gerald, as a matter of fact, Finchley told me it’s exactly the same port your father gets from him.

Gerald: Then it’ll be all right. The governor prides himself on being a good judge of port. I don’t pretend to know much about it.

Sheila: (gaily, possessively) I should jolly well think not, Gerald, I’d hate for you to know all about port – like one of these purple-faced old men.

Arthur Birling: Here, I’m not a purple-faced old man.

Sheila Birling: No, not yet. But then you don’t know all about port – do you?

Birling: (noticing that his wife has not taken any) Now then, Sybil, you must a take a little tonight. Special occasion, y’know, eh?

Sheila: Yes, go on, mummy. You must drink our health.

Mrs Birling : (smiling) Very well, then. Just a little, thank you. (to Edna, who is about to go, with tray.) All right, Edna. I’ll ring from the drawing room when we want coffee. Probably in about half an hour.

Edna: (going) Yes, ma’am.

An Inspector Calls, Act 1

Crikey – there’s a lot going on here, isn’t there? These first lines of dialogue are ridiculously clever; the language reveals so much about the personalities of the key players, and about relationships between characters. Meanwhile, the relatively loose stage directions allow the performers a good deal of creative freedom. What exactly does Mrs Birling’s smile insinuate? How does Sheila balance “gaily” and “possessively”? These kinds of small details combine to create intriguing possibilities…

Priestley’s critique of class dynamics begins with the opening exchange between Mr Birling and Gerald artificiality. The discussion of port highlights just how artificial – how performative – social class truly is. Mr Birling may greet the arrival of the port bottle with pleasant surprise, but reveals moments later that he purchased “exactly the same port” that Gerald’s father buys – and from the very same supplier, no less. Port becomes a signifier of status here, and represents Mr Birling’s desperation to be accepted by the upper classes – to be seen as “exactly the same”. His insecurity is so palpable, his effort to impress Gerald – and by extension “the governor – so transparent, that one could almost feel sorry for Mr Birling. His wife, his “social superior”, may feel differently, of course: does she initially refuse the port out of embarrassment at Arthur’s lack of subtlety?

Gerald, of course, “does not pretend” and has no need to. Secure in his social position, his complete indifference to the bottle of port contrasts comically with the importance Arthur places on it. Their contrasting responses to port also allude to a difference in attitudes between the older and younger generations. With this in mind, it’s telling that Sheila’s first interaction with her father is her contradicting him: “you don’t know all about port – do you?”. It’s a brief moment (Mr Birling changes the subject immediately!), but one that nevertheless signposts generational conflict – a theme that becomes more and more significant once the Inspector arrives.

Edna the maid is a quietly important figure throughout this scene as she works away in the background, seen but not heard, clearing the table and serving the port. Before now, I hadn’t noticed that we are actually told Edna’s name before anybody else’s. It feels significant, doesn’t it? Is Priestley directing our attention to the maid as an ever-present reminder of the working-class labour that supports the comfortable lifestyles of families such as the Birlings? Perhaps it’s another way of highlighting Mr Birling’s poor etiquette: his informality at odds with the way that Mrs Birling addresses Edna later on, issuing commands that require a subservient response. Perhaps it’s simply important that Edna is shown to have a name in a society that treats working class men and women as disposable labour. Starting as he means to go on, Priestley uses his first line of dialogue to reminds us that workers have names, identities, and human value. This isn’t what Mr Birling intended, of course, but he’ll learn his lesson soon enough…

Image credit: Taylor’s Port

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