The handbill that the audience receives upon entering the theater notes that the evening’s performance is based on a true tragedy: the suicide of La Vela, a young artist, whose fiancé, the noted actor Amelia Moreno, had betrayed him through an affair with Baron Nuti, a nobleman engaged to La Vela’s own sister. The handbill informs the audience that the number of acts to be performed cannot be stated specifically because of “unpleasant incidents” the management fears may arise during the evening.
The performance opens at the Palegari home, with the report of an argument of the previous evening between Doro Palegari and Francesco Savio concerning the guilt of this unfaithful woman, here played by Delia Morello. Doro had defended her as innocent of any intent to harm the artist by her flirtation, while Francesco had blamed Delia for the young man’s suicide. Under probing by his friend Diego Cinci, Doro reverses his position and declares Delia guilty of treacherous deceit. At this point, Francesco arrives to apologize for his angry words to Doro on the previous evening; he too, under questioning by Diego, reverses his opinion, so that he now professes Delia blameless in the affair. Paradoxically, Doro and Francesco again quarrel from their new positions, this time to the point of a duel to take place the following morning at Francesco’s home.
At this juncture, Delia herself appears to thank Doro for his brave defense of her character, although she confesses herself deserving of blame for the artist’s death since she had gone off with Michele Rocca not out of love but rather merely to spite her young fiancé’s family for treating her as unworthy to marry their son. Her admission of such motivation only confuses Doro further. He sees himself now as committed to a duel with a close friend over a sordid affair concerning whose moral truth even the chief precipitator has no clear notion.
The curtain falls on the first act, only to go up again immediately on a replica of the side hall and a corner of the lobby of the theater itself. Here actors mingle as “critics” and “audience” to discuss the events of the first act. Some praise it as a true view of life in which “a single conception may present different phases, according as you look at it”; others condemn it as “just word play! All on the surface!” Suddenly Amelia Moreno appears among them, supposedly from her box in the theater, protesting that she is being maligned by this distorted and thinly veiled presentation of her painful situation. Her friends intervene and lead her off...
(The entire section is 1058 words.)