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Justice

Saturday Review, Justice

prison galsworthy weak time

a play by John Galsworthy, first performed in 1910. It involves a weak young lawyer's clerk, William Falder, who steals money from his employers in order to run off with a married woman, and is apprehended, convicted, and sent to prison for three years. On his release he finds it impossible to obtain work, commits a new crime by forging a reference, and, on being traced by the police, defenestrates himself. Galsworthy uses this unglamorous and unsensational story as a case study through which to explore everyday ‘justice’, showing the workings of the courts and the prison system in what was described at the time as a ‘cinematographic’ style, one which eschewed special pleading or easy sympathies and antipathies. The counsel for the prosecution and the judge do no more or less than their duty, and the prison governor is a notably humane man. As Max Beerbohm argued at the time in the Saturday Review, such fairness and impartiality give extra force to the implied argument: which is that, notwithstanding the good intentions of individuals, justice is, in Galsworthy's words, ‘a blind goddess…quite unable to fit punishment to crime—a disproportionate creature blundering along in obedience to the herd instinct to stamp out … the weak and diseased’. Justice is one of the few plays which have influenced public policy: the scene in which Falder is shown pacing his cell and dementedly beating on its door may be credited with ending the practice of putting felons into solitary confinement at the start of their sentences; and the last act helped bring about reforms in the ticket-of-leave system.

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