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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

After dinner, the Smiths sit down in the sitting room of their typically English home. Mr. Smith smokes his pipe and reads the newspaper. Mrs. Smith, insisting that they are a typically English couple, speak of what they ate and what the children did. Mr. Smith clicks his tongue.

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When Mrs. Smith remarks that Dr. Mackenzie-King had his own liver removed before operating on Mr. Parker’s liver, Mr. Smith argues that if Mackenzie-King was really a good doctor, he should have taken his own life when Parker did not survive the liver operation; he asserts that a doctor should perish with a patient just as a captain goes down with the ship. Mr. Smith then changes the subject, mentioning that he read that their friend Bobby Watson died. The couple speaks about Bobby but quickly become lost in a confused conversation; because all of Bobby Watson’s relatives are also named Bobby Watson, they are unable to figure out whom they are talking about, who died, and who is still alive.

Mary, the Smiths’ maid, returns from her day off and announces that the Martins, whom they invited to dinner, were waiting for a long time downstairs. The Smiths, before leaving the room, instruct her to bring them up. Mary shows the Martins into the sitting room, then leaves. As if they never saw each other before, Mr. and Mrs. Martin begin to question each other, wondering where and when they previously met. Gradually, they are able to deduce that they both took the same train from Manchester and that they both live in the same room and sleep in the same bed. Moreover, both have a daughter who seems to be the same child. Therefore, they conclude, the two of them must be married. As they kiss, thrilled to have found each other again, Mary comes in and announces to the play’s audience that Mr. and Mrs. Martin reasoned incorrectly, that the daughter they think they have in common is really two different children, and that they are not in fact husband and wife. Mary tells the audience that she is Sherlock Holmes; then she leaves.

The Smiths return, welcoming the Martins and yelling at them for arriving so late. They sit and attempt to make conversation but are unable to say much. Mrs. Martin is prompted to describe an incident that shocks her: She saw a man on the street who bent down to tie his shoelace. Mr. Smith, in an attempt to outdo her, recounts a tale that they find even more bizarre, of a man on the subway who is reading a newspaper.

Their interchange is interrupted by the doorbell. When Mrs. Smith opens the door, there is no one there. Again the bell rings, Mrs. Smith goes to the door, and no one is there. When the bell rings a third time, Mrs. Smith refuses to answer the door because she learned that when the bell rings, there is never anyone there. Mr. Smith disagrees, and the Martins join the fight. Finally, Mr. Smith goes to the door and opens it to discover the Fire Chief standing on their doorstep.

The Fire Chief, an old family friend, played a prank by ringing the bell and hiding. He is looking for fires. Even though Mr. Smith insists that there has not been a fire at their house for years, the Fire Chief is happy just to stay for a visit. They welcome him in and ask him to join them in telling amusing stories. Although the stories they tell sound like fables, they are all meaningless, pointless, and nonsensical. The conversation is interrupted by Mary, who wants to read them her own poem. Before she can begin, however, she and the Fire Chief recognize each other. They were sweethearts once and are glad to meet again. She then begins to recite her poem, which is about different things catching on fire. Mr. and Mrs. Smith push her out of the room.

The Fire Chief, very pleased with the poem, asks if anyone heard of the bald soprano. For some reason, the Smiths and the Martins become very embarrassed. The Fire Chief then tactfully departs, and the Smiths and Martins begin an angry discussion. Once again, what they say sounds as if it ought to make sense, but it does not. Nevertheless, they pursue the argument until their enraged chatter builds to a climax, during which they throw words and sounds meaninglessly at each other. In the short scene that follows, the Martins appear after dinner, sitting down in the same sitting room. Mr. Martin smokes his pipe and reads the newspaper. Mrs. Martin, insisting that they are a typically English couple, speaks of what they ate. Mr. Martin clicks his tongue.

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Themes