The action is set in the Hall of David Bliss’s house at Cookham in Berkshire, on the banks of the River Thames..
- A Saturday afternoon in June
Sorel and Simon Bliss, a brother and sister, exchange artistic and bohemian dialogue. Judith, their mother, displays the absent-minded theatricality of a retired star actress, and David, their father, a novelist, is concentrating on finishing his latest book. Each of the four members of the Bliss family, without consulting the others, has invited a guest for the weekend. Judith announces that she has decided to return to the stage in one of her old hits, Love’s Whirlwind. She and Sorel and Simon amuse themselves acting out a melodramatic passage from the play beginning, “Is this a game?” “Yes, and a game that must be played to the finish!” They are interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
Clara, Judith’s former dresser and now her housekeeper, opens the door to the first of the four guests, Sandy Tyrell, a sporty fan of Judith’s. The next arrival is the vampish Myra Arundel, whom Simon has invited. The other two guests arrive together: Richard Greatham, a diplomat, and Jackie Coryton, a brainless but good-hearted young “flapper”. Tea is served. Conversation is stilted and eventually grinds to a halt. The scene ends in total and awkward silence.
- After dinner that night
The family insists that everyone should join in a parlour game, a variety of charades in which one person must guess the adverb being acted out by the others. The Blisses are in their element, but the guests flounder and the game breaks up. Simon and Jackie exit to the garden, Sorel drags Sandy into the library, and David takes Myra outside.
Left alone with Richard, Judith flirts with him, and when he chastely kisses her she theatrically over-reacts as though they were conducting a serious affair. She nonplusses Richard by talking of breaking the news to David. She in turn is nonplussed to discover Sandy and Sorel kissing in the library. That too has been mere flirtation, but both Judith and Sorel enjoy themselves by exaggerating it. Judith gives a performance nobly renouncing her claim on Sandy, and exits. Sorel explains to Sandy that she was just playing the theatrical game for Judith’s benefit, as “one always plays up to Mother in this house; it’s a sort of unwritten law.” They leave.
David and Myra enter. They too indulge in a little light flirtation, at the height of which Judith enters and finds them kissing. She makes a theatrical scene, with which David dutifully plays along. Simon rushes in violently, announcing that he and Jackie are engaged. Sorel and Sandy enter from the library, Judith goes into yet another bout of over-theatrical emoting. In the ensuing uproar, Richard asks “Is this a game?” Judith, Sorel and Simon seize on this cue from Love’s Whirlwind and trot out the melodramatic dialogue as they had in Act I. David is overcome with laughter and the uncomprehending guests are dazed and aghast as Judith ends the scene by falling to the floor as if in a faint.
- The next morning
A breakfast table has been laid in the hall. Sandy enters and begins eating nervously. At the sound of someone approaching he escapes into the library. Jackie enters, helps herself to some breakfast and bursts into tears. Sandy comes out and they discuss how uncomfortable they were the night before and how mad the Bliss family are. When they hear people approaching, they both retreat to the library. Myra and Richard now enter and begin breakfast. Their conversation mirrors that of Sandy and Jackie, who emerge from the library to join them. All four decide that they are going to return to London without delay. Sandy agrees to drive them in his motor car. They go upstairs to collect their things.
Judith comes down, asks Clara for the Sunday papers and begins reading aloud what the gossip columns say about her. The rest of her family enter. David proposes to read them the final chapter of his novel. Immediately, a minor detail about the geography of Paris is blown into a full-scale family row, with everyone talking at once about whether the Rue Saint-Honoré does or does not connect with thePlace de la Concorde, and hurling insults at each other. They are so wrapped up in their private row that they do not notice when the four visitors tiptoe down the stairs and out of the house. The Blisses are only momentarily distracted when the slam of the door alerts them to the flight of their guests. Judith comments, “How very rude!” and David adds, “People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days.” Then, with no further thought of their four tormented guests, they happily return to David’s manuscript and to what passes for their normal family life.