Idiot’s Delight takes place at the cocktail lounge of the fictional Hotel Monte Gabriele in the Italian Alps near the borders of Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria. Next to the hotel is an airfield for Italian bomber planes. It is set in a time before the beginning of World War II when the inevitability of the coming war was on everyone’s mind. Act 1 begins with Donald Navadel, an American expert who has been hired by the hotel to attract tourists to Monte Gabriele for winter sports, entering the lounge. He notices that there are no guests and tells the orchestra to take a break. Pittaluga, the hotel manager, enters, angry that Don has overstepped his authority. Captain Locicero, the commander of the Italian headquarters, comes in and explains that the air field at Monte Gabriele will be important when war begins, although he does not know specifically who the enemy will be.
The train that is supposed to pass through on its way to Geneva is detained at Monte Gabriele because the border has been closed. Disgruntled passengers filter into and out of the lounge, in their attempts to book rooms: Dr. Waldersee, Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, and a troupe of showgirls, led by their manager, Harry Van. The doctor is German, but he needs to get to Austria to continue his experiments, which he is sure will yield a cure for cancer. The Cherrys, a British couple, were married days before in Florence. Quillery enters and sits down at the bar to have a drink with Harry. He explains that though he was born in France, he does not think of himself as having any nationality at all, identifying himself as a laborer. Quillery tells Harry that he is a pacifist, that peace will prevail. Harry responds that he once had an insight, while on cocaine, that everyone is addicted to something: ‘‘false beliefs—false fears— false enthusiasms.’’
Quillery races out when he hears some Italian soldiers in the bar say that the war has begun. Dumptsy, the bellhop, strikes up a discussion with Harry, explaining the local political situation: Monte Gabriele was part of Austria up to the end of World War I. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the mountain was transferred to Italy and renamed. Citizens had to learn the new language, and gravestones were erased and rewritten in Italian.
Irene enters, followed soon by her companion, Achille Weber. They assure the people there that there will be no war. Harry is fascinated with her and, when she leaves, starts playing the Russian folk tune ‘‘Kak Stranna,’’ unaware that he associates it with Irene. They see bomber planes leaving from the air field, and there are rumors of war between Italy and France, but nothing is confirmed.
Scene 1 takes place that evening. The hotel staff says that they can get no news of any war on the radio. Quillery enters and says that Weber, who is a major arms dealer, will know if there is going to be a war or not. He and Dr. Waldersee argue about the way that the Nazi party runs Germany; then he argues with Cherry because the English are too comfortable and wealthy to fight.
Harry enters after Quillery and the...