Set in Elizabethan England. As the Overture ends, the curtain rises on a large hall in a country inn, and the Protagonist and the innkeeper enter. The Protagonist, leader of a troupe of actors, negotiates the rental of the hall for a series of performances for the local duke (Mein Saal wäre Euch zur Verfügung). The Protagonist calls in his companions–his sister and his troupe–and he assigns roles to the actors and schedules the first rehearsal (Henry, meine zärtliche Taube). The ensuing conversation between the Protagonist and the Sister reveals his strong emotional dependence on her (Deine Nachsicht erschlägt mich) and his philosophy of acting. He explains that he must lose himself in every role, and he begs her to visit him after that night's performance (Jetzt schießt schon neues Feuer in mich). As the actors warm up, the Protagonist sends an invitation to the duke. Then a young man enters to see the Sister–her lover. She is shocked to see him, but he is determined that they should reveal their relationship and get married, and she acquiesces (
Seid Ihr uns gefolgt?). She reproaches herself for a lack of honesty with her brother and fears that he will be angry to learn of her lover. Yet they decide to tell him after that night's performance.
The Duke sends his servant to request light entertainment for the evening and mentions that some of his guests are foreigners, so the performance must be done in pantomime; he contributes his band of musicians to accompany the dumb show (
Es sind Meister auf ihren Instrumenten). The Protagonist assigns parts to the other actors as they get ready to perform (Deckt mir den Tisch). They will play a comedy (Erste Pantomime): a husband enjoys a tryst with a younger woman while a monk keeps his wife similarly occupied (Erste Pantomime continued). The rehearsal ends, and the Sister enters; she confesses that she has a lover, and the Protagonist insists on meeting him (Was ist Spiel?), not convinced she is telling the truth. Then the Duke's servant re-enters to say that one of tonight's guests will be a bishop, so the Duke requires more solemn entertainment (Mit Auftrag des Herzogs). The Protagonist instructs the troupe to adapt the first pantomime into a tragedy, and they begin to rehearse (Zweite Pantomime). In this version, the Protagonist plays a jealous cuckold. The rehearsal nears its climax, and he prepares to enact the killing of his wife. At that moment the Sister enters to tell him that her lover is here (Über mir das Glück). In a fit of madness and rage, only partly induced by his role, he stabs her in the neck and kills her. As the other actors call for help, the Protagonist recovers himself, only to ask the Duke's servant to protect him from arrest until after that night's performance, so the Duke can admire his masterly simulation of madness (Geht, und sagt dem Herzog).
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