The Dog Beneath the Skin opens in the garden of the vicarage at Pressan Ambo; the setting resembles that of a prewar musical comedy. The villagers promenade with several of the principal characters—the Vicar, General Hotham, his wife, and Miss Iris Crewe—who introduce themselves in lilting verse.
The Vicar explains the fairy tale quest that is to serve as the main structure for the plot. He says that the patriarch of Pressan Ambo, Sir Bingham Crewe, has died, leaving behind two heirs: his son, Sir Francis Crewe, and his daughter, Miss Iris Crewe. Sir Francis Crewe, however, has disappeared; consequently, Sir Bingham’s estate is left unsettled. Each year a man is chosen by lottery to find Sir Francis, and, if successful, his reward will be half of the land and Iris Crewe’s hand in marriage. So far, eight have tried, and eight have failed. This year, the task falls to Alan Norman, a somewhat unassuming young man whose success seems no more likely than that of his predecessors.
At this point, the Dog enters and “begins sniffing about.” It is apparent that both the Vicar and General Hotham have kept the Dog at one time or another. As the General puts it, he turns up “like the prodigal son,” stays one or two weeks, and then is off again, “cool as you please.” Alan takes the Dog along as he sets out on his quest.
After a brief scene in the saloon of a channel steamer, in which Alan meets the First and Second Journalists, the remaining two scenes of the act take place in the kingdom of Ostnia. There he witnesses preparations for the execution of several political prisoners. As the prisoners are led onstage with their wives and mothers, the Master of Ceremonies and the king of Ostnia discuss the matter as if it were itself a bit of show business, critiquing the previous execution and settling plans for the one now under way. Although the king is both apologetic and sympathetic, he carries out the execution with a gold revolver (amid Latin invocations to Zeus and Mars). The ladies of the court serve champagne and cakes as the queen attempts to comfort the bereaved wives and mothers. One of the women shouts “Murderers!!” and is “instantly and politely removed by footmen” as several courtiers “cough and look at the ceiling in pained embarrassment.” Alan Norman and the two Journalists enter to enquire after Sir Francis. No one seems to have heard of him, but the king suggests that they try the red light district. They do, but do not find Sir Francis among the prostitutes and drug addicts of Ostnia.
The second act opens in Westland, a highly politicized and militarized lunatic asylum. At the back of the stage, overlooking the lunatics, there is a large portrait of a man in uniform, beneath which “Our Leader” is written. Instead of a face, the Leader of the Lunatics has a loudspeaker. Two medical officers push Alan onstage in a wheelchair and leave him with the lunatics, bound in a straitjacket. The Leader of the Lunatics, through the loudspeaker, makes a blatantly paranoid speech against the threats to the safety of their homeland. Noticing that he does not cheer...
(The entire section is 1284 words.)