Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In a scene from Henry’s play, Max is building a house of cards as Charlotte enters the room, just returning from a trip abroad. Max has been drinking, and soon he confronts Charlotte with her passport, which he had found while searching her room. He asks her about her lovers, but she is unwilling to talk about it. She leaves, but without her bag, in which Max finds a souvenir.
Charlotte is an actor married to Henry, a playwright. Max is an actor married to Annie, also an actor, who is involved in politics. Henry tells Charlotte that Max is on his way to the house, displeasing Charlotte.
Max arrives, and Henry says that Charlotte is out, though she arrives when Henry goes to get a bottle. Henry asks them about the performance the night before, and Charlotte starts poking fun at Henry and the play. Annie arrives with some groceries, and Henry discusses his picks for the radio program Desert Island Discs, which includes more pop standards than classical pieces.
Max and Charlotte go to the kitchen to prepare some vegetables and dip. Henry tells Annie that he loves her while she asks him to touch her. Max bursts in, having cut his finger, and interrupts the lovers. Henry gives him his handkerchief for the bleeding. After Max leaves the room, Henry and Annie debate telling their spouses about their affair. When Charlotte and Max return, they lace the conversation with hidden, intimate exchanges. Max returns Henry’s handkerchief.
Annie is on her way to a rally to free Brodie, a former soldier who had been imprisoned for burning a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Henry makes a joke about Brodie, angering Max. As Max and Charlotte leave the room, Annie says she will skip the rally so that she and Henry can meet.
Annie enters her house to find Max listening to Henry’s broadcast. He confronts her with Henry’s bloodied handkerchief, which he had found in their car. She admits her infidelity, and Max embraces her and weeps.
Annie is at Henry’s house, telling him that she is unable to feel guilty for cheating on Max, who is frantically trying to contact her. Henry helps Annie memorize her lines for a production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Annie is planning on visiting Brodie, but becomes angry that Henry is not more jealous of her trips to see him. Henry assures her that he loves her, then leaves to pick up his seventeen-year-old daughter, Debbie.
Two years have elapsed. Henry and Annie are now married. She puts on an opera record that bores Henry. She asks him to read part of a play to her, a play that had been written by Brodie. Annie thinks...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Real Thing refers to true married love, a condition that Henry has to learn to preserve after divorcing his first wife. The play begins with a clever device, a scene between Max and Charlotte, who seem to be husband and wife. Charlotte has just returned from a business trip, and Max has discovered her infidelity. When he confronts her, she walks out on him. The reader then discovers that this scene is actually from a play, “House of Cards,” written by Henry, the main character of The Real Thing, who is in “real life” married to Charlotte. Henry is having an affair with Annie, Max’s real wife, so the situation of the play-within-the-play parallels that of the main play, although with a different cast of characters. When Henry leaves Charlotte and Annie leaves Max, Henry and Annie marry and are very much in love. The story jumps forward two years, when Annie is acting in a provincial theater in Glasgow and is tricked into having an affair; the play in which she is performing is John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633). Henry, one of the “last romantics,” must avoid Max’s failure to keep his marriage intact but must also find some dignity and strength that will attract Annie, in spite of her guilt over committing adultery.
With this play Stoppard departs from his previous experiments in stagecraft and the avant-garde. There is no absurdist-existential empty stage, no acrobats swinging from chandeliers, no Dada poets, and no Russian revolutionaries. Instead, the audience sees the pain and suffering of a middle-aged man and his slightly younger second wife, characters who are mature, articulate, and highly sensitive...
(The entire section is 686 words.)