Instructions for John Howell Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story, “Instructions for John Howell,” is ambiguous, for the identity of John Howell is only tentative. John Howell is a fictional character in a play that Rice attends. John Howell is also the actor who appears in the role, and, during the second and third acts of the four-act play, John Howell is Rice himself.

During the first intermission of the play that Rice is attending at the Aldwych Theater, a man in gray invites him backstage, gives him a costume and wig, and instructs him to act the part of John Howell. When Rice protests that he is not an actor, the man agrees, saying that he is John Howell. Onstage during the second act, Rice finds that his lines are entirely predetermined by the words of the other characters. He has no freedom to do what he wants to do or say what he wants to say. As the act progresses, it becomes clear that the character Eva is deceiving her husband, Howell, by having an affair with another character in the play, Michael, and that the mysterious woman in red seems to be implicated in the infidelity in some way. At one point during the action, the actress who plays Eva whispers to Rice in her offstage voice, “Don’t let them kill me.”

During the second intermission, the man in gray and a tall man congratulate Rice on his performance and serve him several glasses of whiskey. The tall man gives Rice extensive instructions on what he is to do during the third act, and it becomes apparent that the decisive moment of the play comes at the end of this act, when the woman in red speaks a line that determines the denouement of the play in the last act.

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