Putting the Characters on Trial | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
 Sketch of Main Court Room Guildhall, Kingston.

Putting the Characters on Trial

Students finish reading the play and participate in a court trial to decide which character is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith.


Two 50-min class periods


English — UK


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students were encouraged to consider the social systems that can impact the extent of the power we possess, the way we treat others, and how others treat us. They were then introduced to the complexity of human behaviour and the roles of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander. Students explored how these roles were relevant to the characters in the play, whilst considering their fluid nature – people can move between these roles and embody multiple ones at the same time.

In this lesson, students will participate in a mock court case, in which they will put each of the Birlings and Gerald on trial for their role in the death of Eva Smith. The aim of the trial will be to decide which character in the play is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith. Putting the characters through a mock trial not only enables students to re-examine the text in depth and develop their argument-building skills, it also introduces them to the notion of justice. Students can reflect upon the power of justice, and how justice is a means of giving victims a voice and an attempt at healing wounds, though scars may well remain. Trials not only challenge wrongs and hold people accountable, they also are a means of giving a voice to the voiceless. 

Again, students here will discuss the roles of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander, and think about how they apply to the characters’ decisions and actions over the course of the play. They will also consider the impact of taking responsibility for one’s actions, and how failing to do so often perpetuates the harm caused by an unjust action. It is important for students to understand the importance of taking responsibility as this can guide their behaviour and interactions with others. They are more likely to engage in the challenging, but restorative, process of owning up to and apologising for mistakes if they understand the power of engaging in such a process. Such understanding can make them active, responsible citizens who build healthy relationships based on empathy and responsibility. 

In the first part of the lesson, students will discuss justice and how justice might be served in the world of the play. They will then finish reading the play before going on to prepare a case for a court trial that seeks to decide which character in the play is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith. In groups of three, they will be given a position (i.e. prosecution or defence) and character (Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Sheila, Gerald, or Eric) to prosecute or defend.

In the second part of the lesson, students will have the chance to either participate in the classroom court trial, or watch the court trial and take notes. Each prosecution and defence group for each character will elect a representative who will outline their case to the class. After hearing all of the cases and engaging in a quick discussion, students will vote on who they feel is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith.

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 65–72 (the end of the play) of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO1/AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Knowledge of Content (Lit-AO1/AO3)
  • Spoken Language Skills (Lang-AO8, Lang-AO9)

Students critically read the final section of the play, reviewing the characters’ behaviour, reflecting on the ending and evaluating the different characters’ involvement in the death of Eva Smith. Students then scour the play for evidence in preparation for the trial, cementing their knowledge of the play’s plot and content, and employing evidence-based reasoning to find ways to either defend or prosecute a character. The court trial itself develops spoken language skills and encourages students to engage critically with the information presented when they vote on who they feel is most responsible for the death of Eva Smith. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • In what ways do the characters exhibit the range and complexity of human behaviour when making decisions about how to treat others: perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander?
  • Who is most responsible for the death of Eva Smith?
  • Students will explore the role that each character played in the death of Eva Smith.
  • Students will be given a specific stance to take on who is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith and will present their views to the class in the form of a court case.
  • Students will discuss the potential impact of trials and of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 extension activities

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that after they have finished reading the play they will be participating in a mock court case, in which each of the Birlings and Gerald is put on trial for their role in the death of Eva Smith.
  • First, ask them to journal on the following prompts concerning justice: 
    • Write about a time when someone wronged you or someone you care about. It might be a situation in which you or someone you love was treated unfairly, or it might be an accident that resulted in a loss or injury.
    • After this event, what would have needed to happen for ‘justice to be served’?
  • Before having students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, acknowledge that it can be hard to share our ideas with others, and then model risk-taking by sharing something from your journal reflection with the class. Then, lead a short class discussion in which students share their ideas about what it means for them for ‘justice to be served’. Consider writing their ideas on the board to refer to later in the lesson.
  • Let students know that they will be finishing the play in this lesson. Assign five students different reading parts and their relevant props. You will need students to fill the following roles: Eric, Sheila, Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, and Gerald. 
  • Pass out the props and read the section from Eric, ‘According to you, I ought to feel a lot better—’ (top of p. 65) to the end of the play (p. 72), and ask students to focus on whether or not any characters take responsibility for their actions and what this tells us about the lessons being learnt, annotating or taking brief notes as they read.
  • After finishing the play, give students the opportunity to discuss the following questions in pairs: 
    • Did the play end how you expected it to or were you surprised by the ending?
    • What do you think of the different characters at the end? Is this different from how you felt about them previously? If your views changed, what factors accounted for this shift?
    • What do you think about the character props? Would you change any of them in Act Three? If so, which and why?
    • Who do you think is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith?
    • Who do you think is the guiltiest character in the play?
  • Tell students that in the next class they will be conducting a court trial to decide which character is the most responsible for the death of Eva Smith. They will spend the remainder of this lesson preparing their arguments.
  • To prepare for the court trial, divide students into ten pairs or small groups, depending on your class size. Each of the characters involved in the death of Eva Smith (Gerald, Sheila, Mrs Birling, Mr Birling, Eric) will have two groups representing them: one will be a prosecution team, and the other, a defence team. 
  • Assign each group a character and a side and give them fifteen minutes to find evidence in the text to support their case: they are either fighting to prove why their character is the most responsible or why their character is the least responsible for the death of Eva Smith. Students should write their evidence and corresponding page numbers in their books. They will need this information for the trial in the next part of the lesson. 
  • They will need to use quotations and evidence from the text to support their case, and, in the case of the defence, they may wish to outline why another character bears greater responsibility. They should also think about how they can undermine evidence that the team they are arguing against might use to strengthen their own argument (e.g. If I was defending Eric, I might say the fact he drinks so much is indicative of a deep-seated unhappiness, which suggests that there are problems in his life). 
  • Project the following ideas to help students consider the types of evidence they should find: 
    • Find details that relate to your character’s treatment of Eva Smith.
    • Find details that relate to your character’s general conduct (e.g. prosecution would select examples of negative behaviour, whilst the defence would select examples of positive behaviour).
    • Find details that highlight how your character has been treated by others.
    • Find details that explore the way in which social systems have impacted their choices and behaviour.
  • Encourage students to refer to the roles of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander, if relevant.
  • Students can finish finding evidence for homework as needed. 

Part II Activities

  • Start the class by having students sit with their group members from Part I and review any evidence they might have collected for homework. 
  • Then, explain to students that in the trial there will be a series of speeches, one for each character and from each side (prosecution and defence). 
  • Ask each group to nominate one person from their group to represent their argument to the class and then give the group ten minutes to prepare their three key points for a speech that lasts for a maximum of two minutes. Explain that you will be setting a timer to ensure that they do not go over their allotted time.
  • Outline clearly that what they do will have a bearing on the class decision of who is the most responsible character for Eva Smith’s death as the class will do a vote on this after the court trial.
  • You may wish to project sentence starters on the board to help them and encourage them to think about what persuasive writing techniques would be effective:
    • Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand before you today to. . . 
    • The individual that harbours the greatest blame. . .
    • [Insert name] are without a doubt guilty beyond measure. . . 
    • I beseech you, members of the jury, to vote with justice. . . 
  • Begin the court trial: Run through each character one at a time, allowing both the prosecution and defence to speak. You may choose to have a student represent the character on trial by sitting down wearing their prop, and a judge to watch over proceedings. Give each side for each character a maximum of two minutes to outline their case. 
  • Ask the rest of the class to take notes on the arguments presented.
  • Once the sides have represented their case, lead a short class discussion using the following questions:
    • What was the most powerful piece of evidence you heard? 
    • Given that all of the characters were involved with Eva somehow, what made one character more responsible for her death than another? 
    • What is the purpose of a trial? How can trials give voice to people who have none?
    • What needed to happen in this case for justice to be served? Who, if anyone, does serving justice help? 
  • Invite the students to vote on who they think is most responsible for the death of Eva Smith.
  • Next, invite the students to vote on who they think is the guiltiest character in terms of overall conduct. This is important as it allows the students to reflect on the act of taking responsibility and helps them to consider what they feel about the characters who took responsibility for their actions and those who did not.
  • Now that students have considered who they think is most responsible for the death of Eva Smith, they will examine the roles that other characters also played. It is important for students to understand that naming one character as ‘most responsible’ does not relinquish responsibility for Eva Smith’s death from the others.
  • Ask students to create a pie chart to represent the distribution of responsibility between the characters for the death of Eva Smith. They should include the following characters on their pie charts: Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Sheila, Eric, and Gerald. 
  • After having drawn their pie chart, students should write a short paragraph that explains their allocation of responsibility, thinking about the characters’ choices, roles, values, and the systems in which they exist. 
  • If there is time, invite students to share their pie chart percentages in small groups or with the class.

Extension Activities

Ask students to journal on the following prompts:

  • Does apologising for one’s mistakes make a difference to a situation? 
  • Do you judge people differently if they take responsibility for their behaviour? 
  • Why might showing repentance be an important step for a perpetrator to take? 
  • What, if anything, do you think a perpetrator’s repentance might mean to the victim and others negatively affected by the perpetrator’s actions?

If your students enjoy drama, you can divide them up into groups and ask them to act out their favourite scene from the play. After having done some theatrical warm-up activities as a class, give the students time to rehearse and then call them back to watch each group’s performance in chronological order. You may want to ensure no groups are doing the same scene by giving different groups specific scenes.

Materials and Downloads

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