In his stage directions Priestley ensures that the audience are aware of the Birlings status in society before the play has started by setting the scene in a “large suburban house”. The house and furniture are described collectively as “comfortable” as against “cosy”; this is a subtle suggestion that not all of the characters are at ease with one another. In Act One Priestley introduces all his characters, their personalities and behaviour, including the one character who is intrinsic to the meaning of the play but who never actually appears.
Mr Birling opens the play with “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.” Birling’s first line of dialogue shows him trying to ‘social-climb’ by showing that he too drinks the same Port that Gerald (in a position of higher status than Mr. Birling) drinks. This simple statement begins to give the audience insight into Mr. Birling’s personality; he is portrayed as a shallow person, social class having the utmost importance to him.
During a speech to congratulate the ‘happy couple’ Mr. Birling expresses his hopes that the marriage will lead to profit and success in his business, “we look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together”. This action reveals Birling’s attitudes towards marriage and society. His first priority is to make money “It’s my duty to keep labour cost down”. He is also a social climber, and Sheila is engaged to the son of his “friendly” rival, which is why it could mean a lot to him in the business world because Gerald’s father is of higher class than the Birling family. “You’re just the type of son-in-law I wanted…” emphasises this point and makes the audience wonder whether Birling wants them to get married for themselves, or for him. This raises questions about both his priorities and moral issues.
“The Titanic unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.” is one of many examples of the ironic comments from Mr Birling as the 1945 audience knew the fate of the Titanic. Due to this, Mr. Birling immediately appears in a bad light as his views on the matter colour the audience’s view of him, his naive statements appear to show how wrong he can be, although to be fair his view was that of most people in 1912 and so he is stereotypical of society then.
Mr. Birling’s attitude is shown in his words, “…A man has to make his own way has to look after himself” and, referring to the working class, “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people they’ll soon be asking for the earth”. Mr. Birling has a selfish attitude towards life; he only cares for himself and family, and ignores everybody else. In fact, this is exactly what he expresses in a speech on at the celebration of Sheila’s and Gerald’s engagement, “… a man has to look after himself – and his family too, of course…” which gives the impression of the selfishness, and also greed.
Another example of this is when he delivers a speech about how it is the best day of his life, “Gerald, I’m going to tell you frankly, without any pretences, that your engagement with Sheila means a lot to me. She’ll make you happy, and I’m sure you’ll make her happy.” Sheila is the daughter of Mr. Birling and is engaged to Gerald. She has a totally different attitude to Birling, and we see this emphasized as the play progresses. Sheila is described in the stage directions as “a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited.” J.B Priestly is deliberately trying to portray Sheila as perhaps dizzy or unable to make an independent decision of her own.