The play opens on a stage set as a medieval throne room. A king’s councillor, Berthold, is puzzled that the monarch is the eleventh century German king Henry IV, not the French king Henry IV of the sixteenth century. Soon a group of visitors in modern dress arrives, and the situation becomes clarified: They have come to try to cure a man who twenty years earlier had struck his head and subsequently has lived with the delusion that he is the medieval German monarch Henry IV. The man, who is never identified by any name other than “Henry IV,” had in his twenties passionately loved a woman named Donna Matilda Spina, but she had scorned him. For a historical pageant, Matilda had chosen to play the role of the eleventh century Marchioness Matilda of Tuscany; to be near her, her suitor had chosen the role of Henry IV. Being an intense and sensitive person, he immersed himself in preparing the role. During the pageant, another of Matilda’s suitors, Tito Belcredi, apparently caused his rival’s horse to stumble and his rival to strike his head. When he retained consciousness, he believed that he actually was Henry IV; in his passionate intensity, the blow to his head caused him to forget his identity and become absorbed by his dramatic role.
In response, his wealthy sister set him up in a castle with councillors and attendants, enabling him to live indefinitely as the German emperor. Twenty years later, just before she died, she had come to believe that he was regaining his sanity. At her request, her son, Charles di Nolli, has brought a doctor to try to cure his uncle. With Charles is his fiancee Frida, the daughter of Matilda Spina. Along with these three come Matilda and her lover Belcredi. Much of act 1 is taken up with these five characters’ discussion of the patient’s history. In order to meet with him, Matilda, the doctor, and Belcredi must enter his world as all of his visitors do: They costume themselves as medieval personages. Matilda poses as the king’s mother-in-law Adelaide, the doctor as his godfather the Bishop of Cluny, and Belcredi as a monk. Finally, the protagonist, dressed as the king, enters. His behavior is erratic and...
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