Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980
Mr. Dangle, a well-to-do gentleman of London, sits one morning with his wife at breakfast. While Dangle reads the newspapers, Mrs. Dangle complains that her husband’s hobby, the theater, is making her house unlivable, with disappointed authors, would-be actors, musicians, and critics making it their meeting place. Dangle protests vigorously, but as he does so a stream of callers arrives to prove her point.
The first caller is Mr. Sneer. He and Mrs. Dangle get into a discussion on the morality of the stage and the proper material for comedies. Then Sir Fretful Plagiary, a dramatist, is announced. Before he enters, Dangle reports that Plagiary is a close friend but that he cannot accept criticism of his work. Sir Fretful tells how his new play was sent to the Covent Garden theater, rather than to Drury Lane, because of the envy he uncovered there.
Sneer, Dangle, and Sir Fretful Plagiary begin to discuss the last’s new play. In the discussion all criticism of his drama is brushed aside in one way or another by the author, who ends up with a diatribe against all who will say anything against his work, including the newspapers. At the end of their talk, a group of musicians enters looking for Dangle’s assistance in securing work with the theaters. They are led by an Italian who knows no English and a Frenchman who knows little English but is to act as interpreter.
The Frenchman and the Italian try to make Dangle understand what they want, but with little success. After a trilingual conversation, in which not one of the participants can understand the others, Mrs. Dangle takes the musicians into another room for refreshment and so relieves her husband of their troublesome presence. As the musicians leave Dangle and Sneer alone in the room, Mr. Puff, another dramatist who has a play in rehearsal at the theater, enters. Puff is introduced to Sneer by Dangle as a puffing writer for the newspapers, whose job it is to praise anyone or anything for a price; he is, in short, an eighteenth century press agent. He explains for the benefit of Sneer the various kinds of “puffs” he writes: the direct, the preliminary, the collateral, the collusive, and the oblique. At the end of the conversation, the three agree to meet at the theater to watch a rehearsal of Puff’s new play.
Later the three meet, and Puff informs his two friends, Dangle and Sneer, that the time of his play is the days following the defeat of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I. The under-prompter, appearing to notify the author that the rehearsal is ready to begin, says that the play was somewhat shortened. The actors, informed that anything they find unnecessary in the tragedy can be cut, took full liberties with Puff’s script.
When the curtain rises, two watchmen are found asleep at four in the morning. Sir Christopher Hatton and Sir Walter Ralegh appear on the stage and begin the exposition of the plot. They are interrupted at intervals by protestations and explanations by the author, who speaks to the actors on the stage and to his two friends observing the rehearsal.
In the second act of the play a love story between the daughter of the fort commander and a captured Spanish prince is introduced, again with continued interruptions by the dramatist, who is enraged at the liberties taken by the actors in cutting his lines and parts of scenes. He and his friends, Sneer and Dangle, discuss dramatic art as the rehearsal continues and find various aspects of the play to point up their discussion. Puff is particularly proud of the second sight credited to the heroine, a device by which he is able to describe the defeat of the Spanish Armada without showing the sea fight on the stage.
He is also quite proud of a verbal fencing match between the heroine and the Spanish prince. When Sneer and Dangle find the repartee ambiguous, Puff explains that he wrote the dialogue completely in fencing terms, an explanation that his friends find scarcely more intelligible. Puff irritates the actors by directing them as the rehearsal progresses, and they, in turn, continue to irritate him by cutting out more lines. At their protestations that they cannot act because of his interruptions, he replies heatedly that he has feelings, too, and does not like to see his play shredded by the players.
At the end of the love scene in the play, Puff begins an argument with the under-prompter, who informs him that it is impossible to rehearse the park scene because the carpenters have not built the scenery. Puff angrily announces that they can cut his play as they will; he intends to print it in its entirety.
The next scene in the rehearsal of Puff’s play is a sentimental discovery scene not connected with the main story. In reply to his friends’ comments, Puff explains that there is no need to have a logical connection between the main plot and the subplot. Then comes what Puff calls the most perfect scene in the play. An actor enters, sits down, shakes his head, arises, and goes off the stage. The shaking of the head, according to Puff, says more than all the words he could write.
In the last scene of the play the Spanish prince is killed in a duel, and his English sweetheart goes mad. After her exit from the stage, a masque procession of all the British rivers and their tributaries passes over the stage, while an orchestra plays George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. Following the procession, Puff announces to his friends that the rehearsal was good, but that the actors are not yet perfect. To the actors he announces that another rehearsal will be held the next day.