Last Updated on February 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
Mrs. Elbert Smythe Stevenson is the only character in Lucille Fletcher’s 1943 drama, which was originally produced for the Suspense radio program. An invalid whose unspecified health condition keeps her confined to her bed in an upstairs room, Mrs. Stevenson (whose first name is not provided) is usually attended by a maid. On the night the drama takes place, she has given the maid the night off. As her husband, Elbert, is still at work, she is alone.
The play opens with Mrs. Stevenson speaking to the telephone operator. She reports that her attempt to call a particular number was unsuccessful. Surmising that some wires had gotten crossed, she reports that she was patched into the wrong number. The conversation between two men that she listened to revealed “the most dreadful thing,” a murder plot. She directs the operator to trace the call. (The audience cannot hear the operator’s lines of dialogue.)
Mrs. Stevenson admits to the operator that it was not her business, but she defends her actions because the men she heard are “cold-blooded fiends” who are going to commit murder. The intended victim is a “poor, innocent woman,” alone in her house, which is near a bridge. She pleads with the operator to help her stop the would-be killers. Mrs. Stevenson speaks sharply to the apparently unsympathetic operator, blaming them for misdialing her original call. She suggests that the operator repeat their original, careless mistake.
The operator apparently does not comply, as Mrs. Stevenson gets the busy signal of the number she had originally dialed. Mrs. Stevenson redials the operator again and becomes more insistent, saying that tracing the call is her “civic duty.” She now agrees to be connected to the chief operator, to whom she repeats her story. Mrs. Stevenson insists that it is
absolutely necessary . . . [to stop the] terrible, cold-blooded murder of an innocent woman.
She provides her own name and phone number to the chief operator, repeating her demand that the other call be traced. She again provides the reason that her intent is to prevent the dangerous men from killing someone, which will occur at 11:15 that night. As the operator apparently tells her to contact the police directly, she first dismisses the “idiotic” suggestion as tying her up in “red tape,” then hangs up and calls the police.
Stating that she is reporting a murder, she revises the claim to indicate that it is a forthcoming murder. The men she heard are planning to murder a woman who lives “in a house near a bridge.” Other details of their conversation include references to the client who hired the men to kill her with a knife and steal her jewelry. As she provides her name, phone number, and address, she reveals that her home is near the Queensborough Bridge and Second Avenue. She also states that she is an invalid, her husband is working late, and it is the maid’s night off. She asks that they send a radio car.
As she muses that the neighborhood described sounds like her own, she also admits that she is nervous being alone. She describes her maid, Eloise, as big and strong but lazy, and tells them how much her husband adores her. She has been ill for twelve years. As the police officer apparently declines to help, she insists that her situation is high priority, calls him an idiot, and slams down the phone.
Next she calls the operator again and has them call her husband’s number, which is still busy. Then the phone rings. When she answers, there is no one there. This happens once more; then she redials the operator. Admittedly very nervous, she berates the young female operator for the inefficient service and her “unpardonable rudeness.” Stressing her own “suffering,” she explodes: “You’re so stupid!”
After she hangs up, the phone rings again, and again no one is there. The next time she picks up, however, the call is from Western Union with a telegram from Elbert: he is not coming home, but going to Boston on business at 11 p.m.
Now Mrs. Stevenson is truly distraught; she thinks that if she has to stay home alone, she will “go mad.” She decides to hire a nurse to stay with her. From the operator, she gets the number of Henchly Hospital, then dials them direct, asking for the Nurses Registry and telling the reception that she wants “a trained nurse,” whom she will “hire immediately . . . for the night.” However, the woman she must speak with, Miss Phillips, had gone to dinner at 11 p.m. In this way, Mrs. Stevenson—now shouting into the phone—learns that the time is 11:14 p.m. While still on the line, she hears a click, indicating that someone is on the extension phone downstairs in the kitchen. She hangs up with the hospital and once again dials the operator.
As the play ends, she whispers into the phone, urging the operator to believe that she is in “desperate trouble” and cannot speak louder because someone could overhear. Someone is in the house, she insists—the murderer. She knows he is listening on the extension. As she begs the operator to get the police, she hears the click when he hangs up the extension, then hears him coming up the stairs.
As she orders over and over that the operator call the police, her voice is drowned out by the noise of a train crossing the bridge outside. Her scream coincides with the train whistle.
Next, for the first time, the audience hears a different voice. At the police station, Sergeant Martin is answering a call. He responds to the man on the other end:
Yes, sir— What, sir? Wrong number? Okay. Good night, sir.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support