Last Updated July 17, 2023.
Robert Cokeson is the managing clerk at James and Walter How’s law firm. He is a short, balding man of about sixty with an honest face and a kind heart. Cokeson is respectable and conventional, and takes his responsibilities seriously. He has great respect for the law, but his compassion and his Christian belief lead him to see the cruelty of the prison system. He is deeply religious and ends the play by saying of Falder: “No one’ll touch him now! Never again! He’s safe with gentle Jesus!”
William Falder, the junior clerk at the Hows’ law firm, is a sensitive young man of twenty-three. The play charts his downfall and ends with his suicide. Falder commits forgery and theft in order to save the woman he loves from her violent husband and is overwhelmed by a series of misfortunes. His employer, James How, and the prosecuting counsel, Harold Cleaver, suggest that he is a weak character, but others, including Cokeson and Ruth, see him as the harmless victim of a harsh, inflexible penal system. Falder also takes this view, saying of himself and his fellow prisoners: “if we’d been treated differently the first time, and put under somebody that could look after us a bit, and not put in prison, not a quarter of us would ever have got there.”
Ruth Honeywill is a young woman who is married to a violent, abusive man who comes close to killing her. She loves William Falder and is desperate to escape from her dangerous situation, saving herself and her children. Ruth has a calm manner and a natural dignity but, like Falder, is crushed by adversity.
James How is a lawyer and the senior partner in his firm. He adheres strictly to the law and is initially harsh and unsympathetic. However, even How eventually comes to see that life and the legal system have dealt harshly with Falder and is willing to give him another chance.
Walter How is the son of James How and the junior partner in the firm. He takes his position less seriously than his father, and is inclined to be sympathetic to Falder and to overlook his crime.
Detective-Sergeant Wister is a police officer who arrests Falder in Act 1 and attempts to do so again in Act 4 before Falder jumps to his death. He is a representative of the system, which crushes Falder and says that he “couldn’t take the responsibility” of being lenient.
Mr. Justice Floyd
Mr. Justice Floyd is the judge who sentences William Falder to three years in prison. He is described as seeming “unconscious of and indifferent to everything” and rejects the idea of showing mercy to the prisoner or taking any extenuating circumstances into account.
Harold Cleaver is the prosecution counsel at Falder’s trial. He is “a dried, yellowish man, of more than middle age” and ridicules the emotional nature of the mitigating circumstances put forward by Falder’s defense.
Hector Frome is William Falder’s defense counsel. He is a young man and a passionate orator, who describes his client as a weak, sensitive man rather than a vicious one, and says he should be treated as a patient rather than a criminal.
Captain Danson is the governor of the prison where Falder is incarcerated. He is inclined to admire the prisoners who show spirit and attempt to escape. However, he does not see any way to deal with Falder but to allow the system to destroy him.
Dr. Edward Clements
Dr. Edward Clements is the prison doctor. He sees that Falder is nervous and dispirited but insists that nothing is wrong with him medically. Clements sees the prisoners as units to be processed and insists that if he made an exception for Falder, he would have to do so for many other men in similar situations. This view prevents him from considering what would be best for Falder as an individual.