Every time I read this play with a class, I find something new. I despised it when studying it for GCSE over twenty years ago, but now, I thoroughly enjoy it and I put that down to its ability to show me something that I hadn’t noticed before.
Two years ago, I taught what was termed as a middle set the text. They’d been armed with the task of reading it at home in preparation for study (hadn’t happened) and the more conscientious students turned up with some copies BBC Bitesize notes, but very little grasp of the characters as human beings, what motivated them or whether we could empathise with their thoughts or actions.
We read the entire play aloud. To start, they hated it. One person would read the stage directions, to prompt the actor in tone- they were categorically NOT on board with taking this direction and applying it to their dramatic delivery- but it made us stop and consider to what degree the tone was expected, or even valid or justified for the character.
As with any class read, they started to enjoy it; that is probably a post for another time. Even now, a ‘Sheila’ always emerges from the more sullen girls within the class, fighting to the death if anyone else even attempts to volunteer to read the part. The pupil reading stage directions has managed to ham it up to panto level (triUMPhantly…. cutting IN…) and before you know it, we are all having a whale of a time. But by having the directions act almost as a separate entity to study, it enables even the less confident students to notice a change, or something out of character for the character, as it may be. By presenting the ‘what’ explicitly, and the ‘how’ through modelled reading, we move onto the ‘why’ rather swiftly as a result.
Sheila’s insecurities in her relationship and her own self worth are apparent from a very early point in the play; she uses humour to detract from the fact that she is mildly possessive of Gerald’s attention, ‘with mock aggressiveness,’ has all the tone’s of a certain poem involving an onion. She is,’half serious, half playful,’ testing her honesty, and his dedication to her, but by making such a half hearted attempt to be assertive, it’s lost in translation and he doesn’t take her seriously. In fact, by the end of the play, he doesn’t react to her new found assertion, it just becomes more obvious that he has little respect for her as he tries to slip that ring back onto her finger and have the whole nasty incident done and dusted. It is her ability to think,’reflectively’ that stops her from being swooped up in the moment as she was in Act one; she can now see how valuable taking a moment can be, and that it is her reactionary behaviour that has caused her to feel guilt in the first place.
Eric’s psychological motivations are also intrinsic to what he doesn’t say.
Already on the wrong side of tipsy, Eric bumbles about in the first act ‘rather noisily,’ vying for attention. He shares Sheila’s self doubt but handles it in a completely different fashion, competing with Gerald for Birling’s attention and not quite making the cut. His frustrations with his father show, as he repeatedly goads him, but without the confidence to see it through. Whilst not an excuse of justification, it is easy to see why Eric has moments of being unable to control his emotions- he hasn’t been taught to do so. He is humoured, yet never taken seriously. In fact, the later stages of the play where he is ‘almost threatening’ towards his Mother and ‘shouting’ at Birling imply months, quite possibly years of being made to feel as though he isn’t enough. His parents have done him a massive disservice: Mrs Birling denies him any responsibility for his actions, even when he offers to do so, and Mr Birling has sought a far more suitable son figure in Gerald. What saves our sympathy level for Eric is that he is ‘uneasily’ talking to the Inspector when Eva’s story is first introduced. He feels guilt, which is more than can be said about this guy.
There are very few stage directions to indicate Gerald’s feelings, whereas the other characters give themselves away far more easily. He tries to present himself as the bird on the fence, the onlooker, but his interactions drop him in it, so to speak (I’d love to hear from the Gerald fans in THAT twitter debate a while ago who can argue differently: https://twitter.com/saysmiss/status/1047166831134478338?s=21).
Instead of giving him away in the same explicit way that the Birlings’ directions present them as an open book, Gerald’s do quite the opposite. He reacts in the very opposite way to his internal feelings, emphasising his ability to masquerade as a sympathetic human being. He smiles at Birling when he uncomfortable, he speaks ‘hesitatingly’ so as to choose the words that he believe will put him in the best light when the Inspector angles the spotlight on him. Gerald acts ‘decisively,’ realising that there’s safety in numbers as he plots the defamation of the Inspector, rather than the rehabilitation of his own reputation- he believes it to still be in tact. He and Mrs B are ‘smiling,’ whilst Arthur speaks ‘jovially’ as they find an uncomfortable sense of camaraderie in one another.
The six character cards can be downloaded on Litdrive here: https://litdrive.org.uk/cmdownloads/aic-whats-not-said-character-studies