To the strains of seventeenth century courtly music, derisively played, the curtain rises on Exit the King to reveal a shabby throne room. On either side of the King’s throne are two smaller thrones for the two queens, Marguerite (the King’s first wife) and Marie (his second, and younger, wife). The room has several windows and doors; one small door leads to the King’s apartment. The King, his queens, the Doctor, and Juliette are announced by the Guard, who remains onstage with Queen Marguerite and Juliette, the servant. There is a brief glimpse of King Berenger the First, bedecked with crown and crimson robe, holding a scepter.
All is not well. It is soon apparent from the severe comments of Queen Marguerite that Berenger is losing control—of his court, his kingdom, nature, and himself. The central heating has gone out, there are cigarette butts on the floor, and the sky is overcast; even the sun has refused to cooperate with the orders of the King. The court is awakening to its last day, and as the Guard mentions a new crack in the wall, even Marguerite admits that things are moving more rapidly than she expected.
Queen Marie returns to the stage, eyes red from sobbing over the impending death of the King. Marguerite offers little sympathy: Since death is natural and inevitable, Berenger the First (of all people) should have kept this fact always in view, should have organized his life for a “decent” departure. Marguerite is determined in these last moments “to do what ought to have been done over a period of years.”
The universe seems to be folding up as well. The doctor-cum-astronomer reports to the queens that the sun is going out, that Mars and Saturn have collided and exploded, and that time itself is speeding up, with cows giving birth twice a day. However, the King, as he enters at last, slipperless, through one of the doors, is more concerned with his stiff legs and sore ribs, and the strange noises at night that have kept him awake. When Marguerite tells Berenger that he is going to die, he brushes the message aside; everyone is going to die, he says, and he will too—when he gets around to it. The queen, however, is adamant: “You’re going to die in an hour and a half, you’re going to die at the end of the show.”
Marie urges the King not to abdicate his moral and titular position, but with an act of the will to order his kingdom restored and death put at bay. But the Guard is mysteriously paralyzed, unable to speak or carry out His Majesty’s wishes. The King, provoked by Marguerite’s announcement, stands up, then falls, over and over again. Stage directions suggest that the scene be played “like a tragic Punch and Judy show.” Berenger regains his feet and insists...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)