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Lies & Hypocrisy

GCSE Exam Question & Answer

Q: How does Priestley show that lies and hypocrisy are at the heart of the Birlings’ household?

Make the point that lies and hypocrisy lie at the heart of the Birlings’ household

The Birlings and Gerald Croft begin the play with a facade of perfect happiness and harmony yet the Inspector’s investigation shows us how their lives are built on fragile webs of lies and hypocrisy. Even at the opening of the play, we see hints of unrevealed deceit and hypocrisy in the relationships. Despite the happiness of the engagement, Sheila refers to the summer when Gerald had been inexplicably distant: ‘when you never came near me, and I wondered what had happened to you’. Sheila does not fully trust her fiance. There is an underlying tension that the audience picks up on, foreshadowing the future turmoil that the exposure of the lies will bring.

Move to the point that the Inspector’s role is to expose the lies and deceit

When the Inspector first comes on stage, the lighting changes to become ‘brighter and harder’. This stage direction shows how the Inspector destroys the cosy, intimate atmosphere as he begins to turn the spotlight on the lies and hypocrisy at the heart of the Birling household. His control is clear as he ‘takes charge’ ‘cutting in’ and forcing all the Birlings, including the impregnable Mrs Birling, to admit their part in Eva’s death. In Stephen Daldry’s famous production, the Birlings’ house is on stilts and collapses at the end of the play after the Inspector’s investigation. It is a very clear and dramatic demonstration to the audience of just how much of an impact the Inspector had, and how he has completely destroyed the pretences and falsehoods of the Birlings and Crofts. The Inspector does this by taking charge of the investigation with ‘one line of enquiry at a time’ and so controlling the pace of the story; here, the Inpsector is a dramatic device used by Priestley to expose the lies of the Birlings and the Crofts in a methodical, ruthlessly efficient manner.

Make the point that the Birlings are divided in whether they accept the truth of their actions

The older generation refuse to accept the truth: that their actions do have an impact on wider society. At the end, when it is realised that the Inspector was a ‘fake’, Birling sneers at his children for still being troubled by the evening’s events. He is a character who has learned nothing from the events; he dismisses a girl’s suicide and his part in it as ‘a lot of stuff’. This off-hand phrase diminishes the tragedy of Eva’s death and shows that the Inspector’s warnings have not touched Birling. He is still more interested in public facades than in doing the right thing; his hypocrisy is unchanged. Birling shows his pretensions to achieve a higher social standing in his desire to avoid a ‘public scandal’ that could damage his chances at moving up the social ladder by being given a knighthood. At the end of the play, he is unchanged- and as snobbish and unlikeable as at the start. Society in 1912 was strictly controlled with a rigid hierarchy of social class. Despite being rich, Mr Birling does not have the social status he craves and is desperate for this knighthood. Priestley condemns this social climbing and the hypocrisy and artifice it leads to. It is the younger generation who learn lessons from the exposure of the lies and hypocrisy. In Act 3, Eric states, (shouting) ‘And I say the girl’s dead and we all helped to kill her- and that’s what matters’. Eric has changed from the unconfident boy we see in Act 1; here he admits that he killed Eva, blames his family as well and dismisses his father’s concerns over public exposure.The stage direction shows his great passion for them all to acknowledge the truth; earlier in the play he was easily silenced but here he is ‘shouting’, reflecting his desire to be heard and to challenge his family to honestly accept their share of responsibility. His declarative statement ‘we all helped kill her’ clearly states that they are guilty. The inclusive pronoun ‘we’ means that no one is allowed to excuse themselves from their actions. Eric, as part of the younger generation, is a symbol of hope for the future; he has changed from the beginning of the play and is now aware that society also needs to change and be more fair and honest in its dealings with all people.

Explore how Priestley uses structure to expose the lies and hypocrisy

Priestley uses the three unities of classical Greek theatre; unity of action, unity of time and unity of place. This means that the story unfolds in real time with no gaps; the effect of this is for the audience to witness the exposure of the series of lies and hidden secrets live on stage, heightening the dramatic tension. The opening of Act 1 forms the exposition as the self-satisfied complacency of the Birlings is established with the celebration of the engagement, then the rising action occurs as the Inspector enters and begins to uncover each of the Birlings and Gerald in turn. There is the climax as the Inspector gives his dramatic warning about what will happen if the hypocrisy in society is not addressed, then the falling action as the characters deal with the fall-out of the evening’s revelations. Yet there is an unexpected final climax as the telephone rings at the end of the play with the announcement that a girl has killed herself, which leaves the audience on a note of unexpected tension. By the end of the play, with another investigation pending, we can see that the Birlings and Gerald have no place left to hide.

Essential Exam Tips

  • Re-read the play about a fortnight before the exam from start to finish. It should only take a couple of hours to do this.

  • Watch a film or TV version of the play at least once.

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