A theatrical company is rehearsing a comedy when six strange Characters intrude, seeking to have their dramatic story completed. They are a Father, Mother, Stepdaughter, Son, Boy, and Girl. The Father explains that the author who created them has dropped them right in the middle of the tale.
The Mother, he says, is his wife, but she is in black because she is a widow--the widow of her lover. The Son is her only legitimate child; the Stepdaughter, the Boy and the Girl are children of the lover, now dead. The Mother has come back to her husband with her illegitimate brood, but the Son protests that "the whole thing is so vile!" The Stepdaughter interjects: "Especially that incident in Madame Pace's house of ill fame," where, apparently, the Father had unknowingly consorted with her. The theater manager quickly calls for a clearing up of the tangle.
The Father starts at the beginning: A clerk at his office fell in love with his wife, and she with him, so he discharged the clerk and turned out his wife. They went to another town, and there had three children. With the lover's death, they returned and nearly starved because the Mother shrank from asking help of her husband.
The Stepdaughter and Mother found work at Madame Pace's establishment, where the Mother was a milliner and the Stepdaughter one of the pretty girls whom Madame Pace supplied to rich gentlemen. The Father met her there and, he says, the Mother interrupted them "in the nick of time." But the girl contradicts this maliciously: "Almost in time!" The Father then took them all to his home.
The Stepdaughter interrupts: "Not a home, but a mere lodging. This Son of his regarded us as intruders who had come to disturb the kingdom of his legitimacy. It was his unbearable behavior that made me so defiant--that transformed me from his father's guest into his father's mistress." The Father concurs in blaming the Son, declaring that his sneers are bringing tragedy for the Boy and Girl.
The manager agrees that here they have the material for an excellent drama, but he has never been an author and can't help them. The Father offers a solution: the Characters will play their parts and the actors then can re-enact the scenes, with the manager recording the lines and action as the Characters proceed.
But the Characters, when the professional actors attempt to mimic them, find that they are unreal. The Stepdaughter protests: "You don't begin to understand us. For example, when I met this man (pointing to the father) at Madame Pace's establishment, I told him I was wearing black in mourning for my father. And what do you think he answered? 'Let's put an end to this mourning; let me help you take off this little dress.'"
The manager protests that such a scene would create a riot, that a professional artist cannot afford to tell the truth, and that a dramatist cannot tell everything about his characters; he must be selective. The Stepdaughter declares: "... Kill our parts, if you wish. But you can't kill us, our passions, our bitterness, our shame, our remorse, our disgust. Go on with your artificial scenes ... make a mere pretense of it all when I embrace this man, closing my eyes and letting my head sink on his breast--like this--when suddenly my mother comes in and cries out--"
The Mother rushes between the Stepdaughter and Father, crying: "MY daughter!... Let her go, you brute!... Don't you know she is my daughter?" The manager agrees that this is a perfect ending for a first act.
At length the Characters are ready to play the last act. The setting is the garden of the Father's house, a house into which the Mother and her children have moved despite the Son's indignant protest. The manager orders the last act, adding: "Let's see how cleverly we can turn an illusion into a reality." But the Father corrects him, contending that they are turning a reality into an illusion.
It is the Characters who are real, he asserts, and the manager, the authors and the actors are merely fantastic and unreal; living characters die, but characters in drama are immortal. The manager protests that he has never heard of a fictitious character who steps out of his part and makes up speeches never intended by the author, but the Father stoutly insists that every experienced author knows that he is wholly at the mercy of his characters and must follow wherever they lead him.
The Six Characters attempt to carry out their story to a logical conclusion. The Father and Mother strive to make the best of a bad situation, and to establish some semblance of harmony in this strange family, but evidently it cannot be: the Stepdaughter cannot adjust herself, and the Son relentlessly persecutes her and the Boy and Girl in his self-righteous scorn. At length the Boy, with growing realization of the sorry pattern of his home, makes a tragic resolution.
The Stepdaughter interjects: "Let the Son tell about it ... he was to blame for it all...." The Son first refuses: "Let me alone! I don't want to tell! The original author didn't want to tell, either. That's why he refused to put us on the stage." The Father compels him, however, with the reminder that he is "too real to quit," and the Son goes on: "I was walking in the garden ... I came near the fountain ... the Child, there in the water ... I was about to jump in to the rescue when I saw the Boy standing there and staring ... at his drowned little sister.... And then--"
He is interrupted by a shot from the stage trees where the Boy has hidden himself. The manager rushes to the spot: "Is he wounded?" One of the actors replies: "He's dead!" Another actor adds: "But the whole thing isn't real! It's only make-believe!" Says the manager: "Reality? I've never seen anything like it.... To hell with it all! I've lost a whole day on account of these crazy people--a whole day!"
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