Here’s a brief analysis of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls setting – we’ll take a look at the location where the play is set, as well as the time period which is certainly specific in its own ways.
LOCATION: A SUBURBAN MIDDLE-CLASS HOUSE
An Inspector Calls is a three-act play with a single setting: the dining room of ‘a fairly large suburban house belonging to a fairly prosperous manufacturer’. The year is 1912, and we are in the home of the Birling family in the fictional industrial city of Brumley in the North Midlands. Brumley is loosely based on Preston, where Priestley himself lived. In the dining room, five people are finishing dinner: four members of the Birling family, and one guest. Arthur Birling is a factory owner; his wife Sibyl is on the committee of a charity, and is usually scolding someone for a social mistake. Their adult children are Sheila and Eric, and their guest is Gerald Croft, Sheila’s fiancé, who is from a wealthier manufacturing family than the Birlings. One other person is present: Edna the maid, who is going back and forth to the sideboard with dirty plates and glasses.
Brumley is described as “an industrial city in the North Midlands” – it is a fictional city that is based on Preston or other similar Northern industrial locations. In these places in the early 20th Century, there were very few opportunities for the lower classes to get a job. Without access to good education, they would have to work in industrial settings, e.g. factories. Through this setting, Priestley draws attention to the difficulties of living in the early 1900s as a lower class person, particularly for women in this era.
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TIME PERIOD: 1912 (Edwardian Era)
All three acts of the play take place in one evening in the spring of 1912. They are all set in the dining room of the Birling’s house. According to the stage directions, we know that the dining room is ‘substantial and comfortable, but not cosy and homelike’, is inside ‘a fairly large suburban house belonging to a fairly prosperous manufacturer’ and contains furniture that is ‘good’, ‘solid’ and ‘of the period’. At the point when the play opens, ‘Edna, the parlour maid, is just clearing the table, which has no cloth, of dessert plates and champagne glasses etc., and replacing them with a decanter of port, cigar box, and cigarettes. Port glasses are already on the table.’ These stage directions inform us that Mr. Birling and his family are very well off. A suburban house is quite an expensive type of home, all the furniture is large and modern, they can afford a parlour maid, they have different plates and glasses for each meal, and have a choice of cigars or cigarettes.
However, by using the modifier ‘fairly’ before the adjectives ‘large’ and ‘prosperous’, Priestley hints at the fact that Mr. Birling is not top of the social hierarchy. He is wealthy, but not the absolute wealthiest. There is also too much of a fixation with appearing wealthy in the Birling household – although their house is large, it isn’t ‘cosy and homelike’. It is very much a house, not a home. This house itself is set in the fictional industrial suburban city of Brumley in the North Midlands. This is a manufacturing Northern English city, where factory owners provide employment for the working classes. The place has typical features for a city of its size: a mayor, an alderman, a police force, the town hall, The Brumley Women’s Charity Organization, a department store called Milwards, and The Palace Variety Theatre Bar.