Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

Act I
The Verge opens on a setting that is not easily recognizable. The place is dark except for a bright shaft of light that emanates from a trap door in the middle of the floor. The shaft illuminates a strange, twisting plant. A violent wind can be heard swirling outside. It is clear that this is a strange, and perhaps threatening, space. Suddenly, a buzzer sounds, and Anthony emerges from the trap door. He picks up a telephone and is instructed by Miss Claire to check the temperature in the room. He does so and reports back to her that the temperature is dropping and that the plants are in danger. She says something on the telephone that eases his concern, and he retires back down into the trap door. The curtain is briefly drawn upon this scene. A moment later, it opens to reveal the setting as a greenhouse. It is now a winter morning, filled with sunshine, but the snow is blowing and piling up outside. The frost has made abstract patterns upon the greenhouse glass giving the room a somewhat creative atmosphere. Inside, there are strange plants filling the shelves and lining the walls. Of particular interest is a plant that creeps along the low back wall of the greenhouse. Its leaves are described as ‘‘at once repellent and signifi- cant.’’ It is clear that this room is not a typical greenhouse but is a botanical laboratory, used for experimentation in creating new plant forms. Anthony is at work preparing soil, but he stops briefly to check the thermometer. Pleased with the current temperature, he returns to his work. The buzzer sounds, but Anthony ignores it.

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Harry Archer enters from outside the greenhouse, snow blowing in violently, and Anthony requests that he immediately close the door so as not to harm the plants. Harry inquires why Anthony did not answer the buzzer and discovers that Claire has told him not to so he will not be disturbed in his work. Harry inquires why the house is freezing cold, and Anthony explains that Claire has had all of the heat diverted to the greenhouse so that the plants will not be harmed. Anthony mentions that it is very important to have heat for the plants at present because the Breath of Life is about to flower. Harry opens the door once again and is propelled back out into the snow by Anthony, who promptly returns to his work.

Hattie, the maid, enters with breakfast food and informs Anthony that Mr. Archer has ordered breakfast to be served in the greenhouse because it has heat. Harry returns, and he and Hattie begin to set up breakfast. Claire enters and chastises Harry for inviting their houseguests, Tom and Dick, to eat breakfast in the greenhouse. Claire and Anthony then discuss the Edge Vine. They are both upset because the plant is not doing well. Anthony tries to cheer Claire up by reminding her that the Breath of Life will open soon. It is clear from the way Claire and Anthony talk about the Edge Vine and the Breath of Life that these mean much more to them than ordinary plants. Dick arrives, and a brief farcical exchange takes place about the lack of salt for the eggs. Dick then inquires about Claire’s work with the plants. She tries to explain the importance of her experiments, but there are no words that can truly convey her feelings. Instead, she speaks in fits and starts, ‘‘I want to give fragrance to Breath of Life—the flower I’ve created that is outside of what flowers have been. What has gone out should bring fragrance from what it has left. But no definite fragrance, no limiting enclosing thing.’’ The men continue to question Claire about her motives, and she becomes increasingly agitated. In her frustration and desire to explain, she smashes one of the eggs. She finally retires to the inner room. Harry and Dick discuss Claire’s strange behavior, and Harry confides that he is considering having a physician come out to visit Claire.

Tom arrives but is locked outside the greenhouse. Another farcical episode occurs as the men try to communicate to Tom that they do not have the key. Tom comically threatens to shoot himself with his revolver if they will not let him in. Claire finally returns and unlocks the door, but not before sending Tom on his way to fetch some salt. He mistakenly returns with pepper. The three men sit down for breakfast and continue to question Claire about her strange behavior. Claire continues to try and explain herself in stilted, inadequate language, as Harry becomes more frustrated and confused. Claire fi- nally exits to help Anthony in the inner room.

The three men continue to discuss Claire’s behavior. Harry confesses that he was hoping to get some help with the situation from Tom and Dick, but now he is concerned that they will just encourage her. Tom urges Harry to just let Claire be as she is. He says that if Claire can ‘‘do it with plants, perhaps she won’t have to do it with herself.’’ When Harry asks what he means, he explains, ‘‘Break up what exists. Open the door to destruction.’’ Harry exits to go have a smoke. Tom then confesses to Dick that he loves Claire but, because he cannot have her as he wants, he must go away to India.

Elizabeth, Claire’s daughter, arrives with Harry. Claire returns but is unable to embrace her daughter or show her any affection. Claire tries to exit, but Harry stops her. It is clear that Claire is very uncomfortable with her daughter’s presence. Elizabeth tries very hard to win over her mother, but Claire will have none of it. Elizabeth wants to help her mother with the plants, but Claire vehemently tells her that it will not be. Claire once again launches into a diatribe about what she is attempting to do, and the words again fail her. She suddenly focuses on the Edge Vine, and her disappointment that ‘‘it isn’t—over the edge’’ but is reverting to traditional forms. She decides it should be destroyed. Claire flies into a rage and rips up the Edge Vine. She then tries to strike Elizabeth with the vine, but Harry wrests it from her and quickly ushers Elizabeth out.

Act II
The scene opens upon Claire alone in a strange tower. She is seen through the downstage window. Adelaide and Harry enter. Adelaide reprimands Claire for not being a proper mother to Elizabeth. Claire argues with her and says she has no interest in being what Adelaide considers a proper woman. Harry then informs Claire that he has invited Dr. Emmons, the neurologist, to dinner in hopes that he can make her well. Claire quickly flings open the window of the tower and yells down to Tom that she is in trouble and needs help. Tom quickly runs up to the tower to see what is wrong. Claire intimates that she needs help to escape from Adelaide’s absurd ideas. Harry suggests that they all go down for dinner, but Claire refuses. She convinces Tom to stay and talk with her as Harry and Adelaide exit.

Claire confesses to Tom that she loves him, but he tells her it cannot be. He is afraid that if they became lovers they would no longer be able to communicate the way they do now. Tom asks Claire to tell him about the Breath of Life flower. She says that she will know tomorrow if she has succeeded and asks him to stay until she finds out. Tom says he will try. Claire once again pleads for Tom to stay and help her find what she is seeking, but he again refuses. Claire continues to try and persuade Tom, becoming more poetic in her speech. Tom begins to be swept away by her words and almost gives in to her, but cannot. Claire realizes she has failed and breaks the moment by running down the stairs to scold Harry for playing the phonograph. She then returns to the tower, followed by Harry. She asks Harry to have everyone come up to the tower, including Dr. Emmons, so he does. Claire rails against Dr. Emmons and says that ‘‘It must be very interesting—helping people go insane.’’ Dick arrives, and Claire immediately runs to him and asks him to take her away. Harry now realizes that Dick and Claire have been lovers. He tries to go after Dick, but Dr. Emmons stops him.

Act III
The action is now back in the greenhouse. Anthony is working on the plants when Hattie, the maid, rushes in. She tells Anthony that Mr. Archer is talking to Dick heatedly and that she is worried for Dick’s safety. In the next instant, Dick rushes in and tries to escape down the trap door. Harry chases him with the revolver. Anthony stops him by saying ‘‘You can’t shoot him in here. It is not good for the plants.’’ Claire enters and calmly removes the revolver from Harry’s hand. Then Tom enters. He has come to say goodbye. Anthony reminds Claire that it is time to go see what has happened to the Breath of Life. Anthony goes to see and reports to Claire that they have succeeded. But, she is not happy. Harry is distressed and tells Claire he wishes she would be satisfied. The three men then leave. Tom returns and tells Claire that he has decided he does not want to go away without her and urges her to come away with him to India. This upsets Claire because she realizes that Tom is just like all of the others. He wants her on his own terms. Claire becomes so distraught that she feels she has no alternative but to kill him. Claire strangles Tom and then picks up the gun and ‘‘raises it high and fires above through the place in the glass left open for ventilation.’’ The others, hearing the shot, run in to find Tom dead. Claire is now totally engulfed by madness, and the play closes as she quietly sings ‘‘Nearer My God, to Thee.’’

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Themes