Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1292
Act 1 Idiot’s Delight takes place at the cocktail lounge of the fictional Hotel Monte Gabriele in the Italian Alps near the borders of Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria. Next to the hotel is an airfield for Italian bomber planes. It is set in a time before the beginning of World War II when the inevitability of the coming war was on everyone’s mind. Act 1 begins with Donald Navadel, an American expert who has been hired by the hotel to attract tourists to Monte Gabriele for winter sports, entering the lounge. He notices that there are no guests and tells the orchestra to take a break. Pittaluga, the hotel manager, enters, angry that Don has overstepped his authority. Captain Locicero, the commander of the Italian headquarters, comes in and explains that the air field at Monte Gabriele will be important when war begins, although he does not know specifically who the enemy will be.
The train that is supposed to pass through on its way to Geneva is detained at Monte Gabriele because the border has been closed. Disgruntled passengers filter into and out of the lounge, in their attempts to book rooms: Dr. Waldersee, Mr. and Mrs. Cherry, and a troupe of showgirls, led by their manager, Harry Van. The doctor is German, but he needs to get to Austria to continue his experiments, which he is sure will yield a cure for cancer. The Cherrys, a British couple, were married days before in Florence. Quillery enters and sits down at the bar to have a drink with Harry. He explains that though he was born in France, he does not think of himself as having any nationality at all, identifying himself as a laborer. Quillery tells Harry that he is a pacifist, that peace will prevail. Harry responds that he once had an insight, while on cocaine, that everyone is addicted to something: ‘‘false beliefs—false fears— false enthusiasms.’’
Quillery races out when he hears some Italian soldiers in the bar say that the war has begun. Dumptsy, the bellhop, strikes up a discussion with Harry, explaining the local political situation: Monte Gabriele was part of Austria up to the end of World War I. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the mountain was transferred to Italy and renamed. Citizens had to learn the new language, and gravestones were erased and rewritten in Italian.
Irene enters, followed soon by her companion, Achille Weber. They assure the people there that there will be no war. Harry is fascinated with her and, when she leaves, starts playing the Russian folk tune ‘‘Kak Stranna,’’ unaware that he associates it with Irene. They see bomber planes leaving from the air field, and there are rumors of war between Italy and France, but nothing is confirmed.
Act 2 Scene 1 takes place that evening. The hotel staff says that they can get no news of any war on the radio. Quillery enters and says that Weber, who is a major arms dealer, will know if there is going to be a war or not. He and Dr. Waldersee argue about the way that the Nazi party runs Germany; then he argues with Cherry because the English are too comfortable and wealthy to fight.
Harry enters after Quillery and the Cherrys leave and expresses interest in Irene. He also suggests that his girls can put on their show at the lounge that night to help ease the mounting tension.
Irene and Weber enter, and secretly he tells her that the planes that left the airfield were off to bomb Paris. When he leaves, she...
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tells the Cherrys a story about being a countess, part of the Romanoff family, and being chased out of Russia by Bolsheviks, only to be saved by English soldiers. At the end of the scene, she admits to Mrs. Cherry that she has seen Harry Van perform before.
In scene 2, Captain Locicero reports that he cannot get any news on the radio about whether or not there is a war. He leaves when some of the bomber planes return to the airfield, and Weber and Irene speak frankly with one another, professing their disdain for the people who will be killed in the war. Weber senses that Irene is going soft, becoming a little too sarcastic about the wholesale slaughter of people. Harry Van’s troupe gives a show, which is interrupted when Quillery comes in and announces that Paris has been bombed. Harry tries to calm him, but Quillery becomes enraged with a patriotic fury, shouting at the Italians in the bar, telling them that France, England, and America will stand up together against them, although Mr. Cherry and Harry, representing the latter two, apologize for his outburst. The scene ends with Quillery, who previously said that he was a citizen of no country, being dragged away shouting, ‘‘Vive la France!’’ (Long live France!).
Scene 3 takes place later that night. Irene tells Harry another one of her made-up stories about how she escaped from Russia during the revolution. As she goes on to describe what a well-respected man Weber is, he stares at her, trying to place her. The subject turns to her career, and, mentioning that he once worked a mind-reading act, Harry remembers a young redheaded Russian girl named Irene with whom he’d had a one-night stand in Omaha, Nebraska. It dawns on him that this Irene is that girl, although she denies it.
Act 3 The following afternoon, Captain Locicero announces that he has received permission from the government to let most of the people from the train leave and cross the border. Harry announces to his girls that the act will be better when they get to Geneva if he does not sing or dance. Don comes in and announces that he is leaving the hotel, too— going back to California—in part because he was in town earlier in the day when Quillery was executed before a firing squad. Mrs. Cherry reflects on how her husband will probably join the war and might end up bombing Venice, where they were married days earlier. When the captain tells the Cherrys that their passports have been released by a technicality— that the approval for them to leave came just seventeen minutes before Britain declared war on France— Mrs. Cherry repeats Quillery’s damnation of the Italians, while her husband tries to quiet her. Dr. Waldersee says that he is giving up his cancer research and returning to Germany, even though it will probably mean that he will be put to work making chemical weapons.
Irene’s passport is not approved, but the captain is willing to let her go because she is with Weber. Weber says that he will not be responsible for her, leaving Captain Locicero no choice but to detain her. Harry stays with her until the last minute, with his girls and Don calling him to the train. As he leaves, she tells him that it actually was she who spent a night with him in the hotel in Omaha, and to prove it she tells him that the room they were in was room 974. A few minutes after the train leaves, Harry comes back and tells her that he will leave with her the next day, that he will take her on as a partner and teach her the secret of the mind-reading act that he had promised to teach her in Omaha. As French bombs start dropping on and around the air field, in retaliation for the previous day’s raid, Harry is at the piano playing Wagner’s ‘‘Ride of the Valkyries,’’ but Irene asks if he knows any hymns. The play ends with bombs exploding and both of them singing ‘‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’’