Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383
A Life in the Theatre opens backstage after the end of an opening night performance. Two actors talk. They are Robert, an older actor, and John, a relative newcomer to the stage. Robert compliments John on his performance and asks about his plans after the show. John informs Robert that he is going out for dinner. He compliments Robert’s performance in one scene, but tells him he was ‘‘brittle’’ in another. When Robert questions him on the latter, John backpedals, faulting the actress in the scene. Robert pontificates on being an actor. Robert asks about another scene, and John flatters him. Robert takes the opportunity to expound on his feelings about the scene, implicitly praising himself. John later invites Robert to join him for dinner. As they leave, John notices that Robert still has some makeup on. John fetches a tissue and wipes it off.
In the wardrobe area backstage, John worries about being in Robert’s way. Robert soliloquizes a line, to which John is indifferent.
John and Robert are onstage in a play set in the trenches of World War I. John plays a character very upset over the killing of a fellow soldier by the enemy. Robert’s character tries to calm him down. John’s character decides to charge the enemy. He is shot after running offstage.
Backstage after a curtain call, Robert chides John for his swordplay in the Elizabethan piece they are in. Robert shows him how to do it right, and they practice a couple of times.
Robert pontificates to John on how actors, and others, work on their bodies but not their voices and accents. Offensive sounds are his pet peeve. He tells John about the importance of style and that they, as actors, must continue to grow. Robert admonishes John several times to keep his back straight. When John asks if his back is straight, Robert says no.
At the end of the day backstage, John is on the phone telling someone he cannot go out with him or her because he is obligated to go out with an actor, Robert. Robert appears, telling John that he must have a life outside of theater. John will not tell him who was on the phone.
The pair meet coming in for a morning rehearsal. Robert is more friendly than John.
At the backstage makeup table, John and Robert ready themselves for a performance. Robert believes the show will be special this night. Robert pesters John about a new brush he has. John is terse with him. Robert compliments John on how he takes care of his possessions, then asks him to do a little less during their scene together. John is offended by Robert’s implications.
Robert becomes frustrated when the zipper on his fly breaks. John insists on helping him pin it, but has problems completing the task.
John and Robert are in a scene onstage in a lawyer’s office. Robert plays the lawyer. John’s character, David, enters, informing Robert’s character that David’s wife is pregnant with the lawyer’s child. In the middle of the scene, Robert flubs a line, but corrects himself. The scene ends with Robert’s character wondering if he will be harmed by David.
Robert and John are in the wardrobe area. Robert is angry at ‘‘all of them,’’ and though John inquires, he never finds out who ‘‘they’’ are.
The pair are appearing in a scene together. Robert forgets several words and whole lines. John has to prompt him.
Robert and John change clothes backstage. Robert complains that their costumes should be washed more often. He asks John if he is tired. John says only a bit.
John and Robert are reading a new script. Robert reads along, commenting on the author’s intention. John reads his lines, though Robert interrupts him with his musings and directions related to his needs.
Robert and John are eating at the makeup table during a break. Robert inquires about an audition John had that day. John tells him it went well, which prompts Robert to speak of how a person cannot control what others think of him. He assures John that if the people holding the auditions seemed not to like him, it does not mean he is not a good actor. John tells Robert that he knows this. Robert hopes that John gets the part.
John and Robert are dressing backstage for a performance. Robert is complaining that the play would be better if there were more experimentation.
Robert is onstage doing a scene with a monologue. He flubs his lines.
John and Robert are at the makeup table. When Robert begins musing aloud on the objects at hand, John asks him to be quiet. Robert is offended, telling John that he has breached theater etiquette. Robert says he is only trying to educate the younger generation. John is indifferent, but apologizes. Robert does not accept the apology, and the scene ends at an impasse.
Onstage, Robert and John are performing a lifeboat scene rehearsed in scene 13. Robert forgets some of his words. John has a monologue at the end of the scene in which he tells Robert’s character that he does not know what he is talking about.
John and Robert stand in the wings waiting for the cue to go onstage. Robert is talking to himself. John asks Robert about a line of his that he has forgotten. Robert does not know what the line is, though he tries to remember it. His insistence that he will remember it leads to John missing his cue. John panics, but finally goes onstage.
Backstage, John is dressing in street clothes. Robert enters, talking to himself, when he notices and compliments John’s new sweater.
John is on hold on the telephone backstage. Robert enters, complaining about everyone taking a piece of his paycheck. Robert wants John to go for a drink. The person John is waiting for comes on the line, and he makes an appointment. Robert leaves to go for a drink on his own.
John and Robert are taking off their makeup after a scene. Robert complains about critics, saying that they praised John’s performance too much. John listens politely, but disagrees. Robert calls him a ‘‘twit,’’ then uses one of John’s towels. John tells him to use his own towels.
On a darkened stage, John rehearses some lines alone. Robert interrupts, informing John that he has been watching. Robert tells John that he has become a good actor. Robert goes on about the theater being part of life before leaving. John starts to rehearse again when he realizes that Robert is still watching him. John calls him out, and sees that Robert is crying. Robert pulls himself together and seems to leave again. John begins again, but Robert is still there.
In a play set in a hospital, John and Robert play doctors performing surgery. John and Robert disagree about what line they are on. John says his line, but Robert shakes his head, then forgets his next speech. Robert insists they are at a different part of the play. John walks offstage, leaving Robert alone. As Robert addresses the audience, the curtain is brought down on him.
Backstage, Robert has cut his left wrist deeply. John wants to take him to the hospital or doctor, but Robert insists that he is fine. Robert will not let John take him home either, but sits and rests for a moment after John leaves.
After a show, Robert and John exchange compliments on their scenes. Robert tells John that his father always wanted him to be an actor. John gets ready to leave. When Robert asks, John says that he is going to a party. Robert talks about life as an actor in the theater. John asks him for a loan. Robert gives him the money, and John exits. Robert addresses the empty house from the stage, thanking him for their attention. John reappears, telling him they are locking up the theater so he has to leave. John goes again, and Robert says good night.