The play opens in 1846 in the garden of Sokolovo, an estate near Moscow. Ogarev is reading to Natalie Herzen, and Turgenev is nearby. Natalie and Ogarev discuss the fact that things have changed amongst everyone. Turgenev is in love with Viardot, an opera singer, and Ogarev's wife, Maria, is living in Paris with a painter. Natalie tells Ogarev her views on love and the difference between youthful infatuation and real, adult love. She confesses to Ogarev that she knows of an affair Alexander had, too. Turgenev and Ogarev discuss the Contemporary, a newspaper they are reading. Ogarev mentions Belinsky's ill health. Natalie talks about Kolya's deafness and how difficult it is for her to bear it. Herzen and Granovsky come in from picking mushrooms, and Ketscher comes in with coffee that he has been trying to make taste better. They tell him it is the same and they all argue. Ketscher tells everyone that there is a new word in the dictionary to describe them: intelligentsia. Aksakov comes in to tell everyone that he can no longer be friendly with them because he believes too strongly in Russia and disagrees with them on their socialist views. They begin a long debate about socialism, religion, and Russia versus France and Germany. A policeman enters and gives Herzen a letter from Count Orlov telling him that he may apply to travel abroad to seek help for Kolya's deafness. They cannot find Kolya; everyone begins looking for him. The scene ends with thunder in the distance and Ogarev insisting that Kolya reacted to it.
The next scene is in Salzbrunn, a spa town in Germany in July of 1847. Belinsky and Turgenev are living together and reading manuscripts. Belinsky is very ill. Belinsky has written a letter to Gogol that Turgenev is critiquing. Belinsky has a coughing fit, and Turgenev asks him to travel to London with him. Belinsky tells Turgenev that he will be one of Russia's few great writers.
We next see Turgenev and Belinsky in the Place de la Concorde in Paris shortly after that. Belinsky tells Turgenev that Herzen is living in high style in Paris. Turgenev apologizes for running off to London and leaving Belinsky behind. Belinsky wants to go back to see a red-and-white dressing gown that he wants.
The next scene takes place in September of 1847 at a party. Belinsky is better. Herzen is there along with Turgenev, Natalie, Madame Haag, Sash, Kolya, George Herwegh and his wife Emma, Sazonov, and Jean-Marie, the servant. Herzen and Natalie are very Parisian in their appearance. There are several separate, overlapping conversations going on throughout this scene. Turgenev opens a present from Belinsky, and it turns out to be the dressing gown from Paris. Natalie gives Belinsky presents for his daughter, and he tells Sasha that his son died. Turgenev reveals that he has been in London to hear Viardot sing. Michael Bakunin comes in and tries to talk Belinsky out of going back to Russia, telling him that he could publish his critical essays in France without censorship. Belinsky prefers to write in Russia and be censored because he can inspire people. Bakunin says that he, too, will soon be going home to take part in a revolution. Herzen reminds everyone that there will need to be a European revolution first, and that does not look likely. Bakunin informs everyone that Herwegh was expelled from Saxony for political activity, mainly keeping company with Karl Marx. Natalie is touched by Emma's love for George, which leads to a debate about what love is and should be. They all start arguing over each other, and then become silent and "mime" their conversations while Kolya sits alone playing with a top. Turgenev and Sazonov help Belinsky leave, and he forgets his dressing gown. There is thunder again, and Kolya looks around. The thunder becomes gunfire and drumming. Natalie runs in and takes Kolya offstage.
The next scene takes place in March of 1848 outside in the Place de la Concorde. Bakunin is holding up a banner and meets Marx, carrying a copy of the Communist Manifesto. They discuss Bakunin's revolutionary activities, and Marx encourages Bakunin to get money from the French Provisional Government to go to Poland. Marx asks Turgenev for advice on his writing. Herwegh enters in military gear, planning to lead some German exiles in a march on Baden. Emma comes in with provisions for the troops. The shooting continues while Natalie and her friend Natasha come in chanting "Vive la Republique."
The women enter the next scene, which is set on May 15, 1848 near the not quite finished Arc de Triomphe. Herzen is encouraging Kolya to speak by holding Kolya's hands to his face while he talks. Natalie has given her dress to Natasha because she was wet, and she takes off her shawl to give to Herzen. He is embarrassed by her state of half-undress and her behavior with Natasha, which is like that of a lover. Benoit comes in with Sazonov and Turgenev. They are back from Italy. The think that the tsar is going to turn to them when Russia changes, like the rest of Europe. Herzen reminds them that the revolution in France did not really change anything; it simply renamed the government. Herwegh comes in with his beard shaven having returned from his mission in Germany with a price on his head.
The next scene in the act takes place in June...
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