This analysis of The Liars was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 44-46.
The Liars is as fine an example of the comedy of manners in England as any written during [its day]. The skilful plot-construction, clever dialogue, and genial good-natured satire combine to make it a masterpiece. Behind all the amusement is the eternal "lesson": that society in order to exist must adhere to a set of regulations, and that any infringement of its laws invariably brings social ruin. Needless to say, the idea is not forced upon us; it is allowed, as it should be, to evolve out of the story.
In Francis's Change, the dramatist eliminates in the third act all the characters except the mother and Lizzie Ann, and concentrates his attention on these two. He does this in order to make of his climax, which occurs at the end of the third act, a unified and striking scene. More than this, he must select from among his characters those to whom the sympathy of the audience is most naturally attracted. An audience must always have its attention directed, as the play approaches its climax, to one person or one small group of persons; or else to one situation or crisis: when the plot becomes tense there must be no scattering of attention. In Henry Arthur Jones's Mrs. Dane's Defence, there is a similar narrowing down of the interst, until the climax begins, in the cross-examination scene, where Mrs. Dane and her interlocutor occupy, figuratively as well as actually, the center of the stage. If the action were to be diagrammed it would be represented by a pyramid, the apex of which is the climax.
In The Liars, the dramatist appears to adopt the reverse method: instead of eliminating characters, he adds to the number from moment to moment. From the very beginning of the third act, he begins building up for the climax. First, the letter from George, which Lady Jessica reads to Lady Rosamund; then Freddie's entrance, adding a further complication; then Sir Christopher's, which seems to promise a way out of the disagreeable predicament; then Mrs. Crispen and Mrs. Coke, and finally George. Most inopportune of all, comes Archibald Coke, who precipitates the final downfall, and not long after, Gilbert, followed by Falkner.
Study in detail the methods by which the cumulative effect is made. If, in Change and Mrs. Dane's Defence, the rise in tension and the elimination of characters can be represented by a pyramid, would not that of The Liars be represented by an inverted pyramid? What is the unity of the act?
The play is virtually over at the fall of the curton on the third act. What function does the last fulfil? To what means does the dramatist resort to make the last act interesting? Is it really superfluous?
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