The Real Thing Summary
by Tom Stoppard

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Real Thing Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a scene from Henry’s play, Max is building a house of cards as Charlotte enters the room, just returning from a trip abroad. Max has been drinking, and soon he confronts Charlotte with her passport, which he had found while searching her room. He asks her about her lovers, but she is unwilling to talk about it. She leaves, but without her bag, in which Max finds a souvenir.

Charlotte is an actor married to Henry, a playwright. Max is an actor married to Annie, also an actor, who is involved in politics. Henry tells Charlotte that Max is on his way to the house, displeasing Charlotte.

Max arrives, and Henry says that Charlotte is out, though she arrives when Henry goes to get a bottle. Henry asks them about the performance the night before, and Charlotte starts poking fun at Henry and the play. Annie arrives with some groceries, and Henry discusses his picks for the radio program Desert Island Discs, which includes more pop standards than classical pieces.

Max and Charlotte go to the kitchen to prepare some vegetables and dip. Henry tells Annie that he loves her while she asks him to touch her. Max bursts in, having cut his finger, and interrupts the lovers. Henry gives him his handkerchief for the bleeding. After Max leaves the room, Henry and Annie debate telling their spouses about their affair. When Charlotte and Max return, they lace the conversation with hidden, intimate exchanges. Max returns Henry’s handkerchief.

Annie is on her way to a rally to free Brodie, a former soldier who had been imprisoned for burning a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Henry makes a joke about Brodie, angering Max. As Max and Charlotte leave the room, Annie says she will skip the rally so that she and Henry can meet.

Annie enters her house to find Max listening to Henry’s broadcast. He confronts her with Henry’s bloodied handkerchief, which he had found in their car. She admits her infidelity, and Max embraces her and weeps.

Annie is at Henry’s house, telling him that she is unable to feel guilty for cheating on Max, who is frantically trying to contact her. Henry helps Annie memorize her lines for a production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Annie is planning on visiting Brodie, but becomes angry that Henry is not more jealous of her trips to see him. Henry assures her that he loves her, then leaves to pick up his seventeen-year-old daughter, Debbie.

Two years have elapsed. Henry and Annie are now married. She puts on an opera record that bores Henry. She asks him to read part of a play to her, a play that had been written by Brodie. Annie thinks the work would do well on television. She wants Henry to edit it, but he thinks it is badly written.

Annie accuses Henry of being an elitist. To illustrate a point about good writing, Henry uses a cricket bat. Cricket bats work so well because they are made to hit the ball far. Bad scripts are like pieces of wood trying to be cricket bats. To Henry, words have to be used properly. Annie says that she wants to appear in Brodie’s play, then Henry asks her if she is in love with Brodie; she leaves the room angrily.

Annie is on a train to Glasgow, where she will be appearing in a production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. She is approached by an actor named Billy, who is also going to be in the play and who has read a copy of Brodie’s script. Billy tells Annie that he will act in Brodie’s play if she will too.

Henry is visiting Charlotte and Debbie, who is about to leave on a road trip with a young man. Debbie is cold toward her father, calling him by his first name and having a frank discussion with him about losing her virginity. After Charlotte leaves to take a bath, Debbie insults Henry’s last play, House of Cards . Debbie leaves when Charlotte reenters the room. Henry and Charlotte have a talk about their marriage, and Charlotte admits she had nine lovers while they were married. She says marriage is more like a bargain than a commitment. Henry prefers to be a...

(The entire section is 2,906 words.)