Truth is in short supply at Bridge Farm. Helen has devised an alibi to continue her adulterous relationship with Rob; she asks her mother to babysit in order that she might go to a jewellery class. Strangely, she failed to foresee the obvious question that her mother would ask about this fictitious craft group: what was she making? Pushed on this she bought a cheap item from a craft market, with which Pat is so impressed that she is urging Helen to enter some of her work in the forthcoming flower and produce show. ‘O what a tangled web we weave….’
Helen and Kirsty are now engaged in fabricating artefacts sufficiently poor to quash any idea that they might be exhibitable, though Kirsty gets carried away by their success and proposes entering the show after all. Kirsty is in the extremely uncomfortable position of being an accessory to this deceit. She is torn between her friendship for Helen and her apparent (though unvoiced) conviction that the affair with Rob is wrong and likely to end in unhappiness. Rob, meanwhile, is also lying, presumably, to Jess, his wife.
Meanwhile, Tom is being economical with the truth. He has overstretched himself in the production of ready meals for Bellinghams, whose sales of the products are falling. The result is a cashflow crisis. Kirsty advises that he seek help from his parents, but Tom’s attempt to broach the subject with his father goes badly. So hostile is Tony to the expansion that Tom has begun (partly because he discerns the hand of Rob behind it) that Tom ends up denying that there is anything at all wrong in the business. Extraordinarily, embarrassed to admit his failure that he tells Kirsty that all is well.
It is hard to see how those now caught in Scott’s web can extricate themselves. The result (unless all the lies are somehow undiscovered) is almost inevitably a breakdown of trust. Even should all pan out without repercussion, Helen and Tom seem certain to be damaged by these episodes.
One of the first theologians to wrestle with the ethical question of lying was Augustine of Hippo. In his treatise, On Lying, Augustine explored a number of scenarios in which for a number of reasons people tell untruths. Some of these, he concedes, are not intended to harm others and do no harm to others. However, they harm those who have been deceitful. He distinguishes at one point between those who (like Helen) lie in order to practice deceit and those who (like Tom) do so to avoid unpleasantness. But Augustine excuses neither: “to the persons who tell these lies, they do much harm: to the former sort, because they so desert truth as to rejoice in deceit: to the latter, because they want to please people better than the truth.” (On Lying 18).
Augustine’s central idea throughout the treatise is that lying is to be avoided because it damages the soul. To 21st century ears, that might sound overdramatic; but as the stories of Tom and Kirsty, Helen and Rob, and Pat and Tony progress, we may well see that the tangle of deceit leaves the relationships and the individuals concerned damaged in their own and each others’ eyes.