Stanley Webber is the only guest staying in Meg and Petey Boles’s boarding house in a coastal resort town in England, where he has been holed up for the past year and has essentially no contact with the outside world. One morning, Meg and Petey sit at the breakfast table and make small talk. As Petey reads the newspaper, Meg repeatedly asks him if he’s enjoying his cornflakes and fried toast. Before long, she remarks that Stanley should be downstairs by now. She then decides to “fetch” him, finally drawing him from his room and getting him to the breakfast table, where she presents him with cornflakes and fried toast.
After Petey leaves for work, Stanley tells Meg she’s a “bad wife” for not giving her husband a fresh cup of tea. This conversation eventually turns into a back-and-forth in which Meg fluctuates between acting like Stanley’s caretaker and his lover. They switch between flirting and arguing until Meg mentions that two new guests will be arriving soon. “What are you talking about?” Stanley asks, unsettled, and Meg tells him that Petey encountered two men on the beach the night before. “Two gentlemen asked Petey if they could come and stay for a couple of nights. I’m expecting them,” she says, but Stanley claims he doesn’t believe her, since no one has ever visited the boarding house the whole time he’s been a resident.
Changing the topic, Stanley says, “When you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to?” Then he groans and puts his head in his hands, but Meg fails to understand his question, instead asking if he enjoyed his breakfast. She says she used to like watching him play piano when he used to play as a professional. Urging him to get out of the house, she suggests that he get a job playing at the pier, and he unconvincingly insists that he’s been offered a job playing at a night club in Berlin. As he explains this prospect, he adds that he would actually travel the world. Talking about his past life as a professional musician, he says, “I’ve played the piano all over the world. All over the country.” Then he describes a concert he played where celebrated for his performance and his “unique touch,” though when he went to give a second concert, the performance hall was locked. “They pulled a fast one,” he says.
A knock sounds on the door, and Meg goes offstage to answer it, having a whispered conversation in which a voice says, “What shall I do with it?” Without identifying what “it” is, Meg gives this person instructions and then goes on her way. At this point, the person ventures into the living room. Her name is Lulu, and she’s carrying a parcel, which she sets down on the sideboard and tells Stanley that he’s “not to touch it.” They then have a conversation about how “stuffy” it is inside, and Lulu encourages Stanley to go outside. Stanley lies and says that he went to the ocean early that morning, but Lulu hands him a compact mirror and points out that he doesn’t look like a man who has been outside in a long time. Looking at himself, Stanley is visibly stricken, suddenly withdrawing from his reflection. He then asks Lulu if she’d like to “go away” with him, but when she asks where they’d go, he simply says, “Nowhere,” and when she asks if he’d like to go for a walk, he says, “I can’t at the moment.” Lulu departs.
When the two new guests finally knock on the boarding house’s door, Stanley turns out the light and quickly exits before they come inside. Their names are Goldberg and McCann, and they talk about the “job” they have to do. Goldberg is clearly the boss, and he tells McCann that their task is “quite distinct” from their “previous work.” It all depends, he upholds, on the “attitude” of their “subject.” At this point, Meg enters and introduces herself, telling Goldberg and McCann about Stanley and saying that today is his birthday. Insisting that they refrain from mentioning anything, she says that they will have a party tonight in Stanley’s honor, and Goldberg expresses thanks for being invited. She then shows them to their room, and when she returns, Stanley is in the living room.
Stanley asks Meg about Goldberg and McCann, pressing her for details until she cuts him off and gives him his birthday present—the package Lulu placed on the sideboard. It is a small drum. Slinging it around his neck, Stanley walks around the living room table beating the drum, much to Meg’s satisfaction. As he keeps circling the table, though, his drumming becomes increasingly erratic, until the beat is “savage and possessed.”
That evening, Stanley meets McCann in the living room. Suspicious of this newcomer, he tries to discern why he’s come to the boarding house and begins asking questions about Goldberg, whom he hasn’t met yet. “Has he told you anything? Do you know what you’re here for?” he says, but McCann denies that he knows what Stanley’s talking about, instead focusing on Stanley’s birthday party until Goldberg himself enters and introduces himself. Desperate to keep Goldberg and McCann from staying in the house, Stanley pretends he’s the manager and tells them there’s no room, but they don’t listen to him, instead insisting that he sit down. When they finally force him into a chair, they start asking him strange questions, which become increasingly inscrutable. They ask why he came to the boarding house in the first place, whether or not he properly stirs his headache medication, and when he last took a bath. They then accuse him of betraying “the organization,” though they never specify what organization they’re referring to. Later in the conversation, they ask why he killed his wife, and he says that he doesn’t have a wife, but they hardly listen, moving on to ask if he recognizes “an external force.” “What?” Stanley replies, but they don’t make themselves clear, instead pushing on and asking him—among other things—if the number 846 is “possible or necessary.” Finally, in response to a question about whether the chicken or the egg came first, Stanley screams, and their conversation is interrupted by the sound of a drumbeat as Meg enters wearing her evening dress and playing Stanley’s drum.
Before long, Lulu arrives and Stanley’s party begins without Petey, who’s unable to attend. Pouring drinks, Goldberg suggests that Meg make a toast to Stanley. When she does, Goldberg and McCann turn out the lights and shine a flashlight in Stanley’s face. In her toast, Meg hardly says anything about Stanley himself, instead focusing on how happy she is to be having a party in her home. Despite the impersonality of this speech, Goldberg upholds that he’s quite moved by Meg’s words, and then he delivers his own toast. Next the group decides to play a game, though Stanley himself has yet to say a word, still reeling from Goldberg and McCann’s strange interrogation.
Producing a blindfold, the group decides to play “blind man’s buff,” a game in which one person has a scarf tied over their eyes and tries to find the other players, who are scattered throughout the room. As the game progresses, Goldberg and Lulu fondle one another while McCann and Meg flirt and Stanley stands catatonic on his own. When it’s Stanley’s turn to play the blind man, McCann puts the drum in his way and his foot breaks through it. Dragging the instrument on his foot, he falls over and Meg makes a noise. When he rises, he advances toward her, and then the lights suddenly cut out and he begins to strangle her. After great commotion, the others separate him from her, but he slips away. Then everyone hears Lulu scream and fall to the floor, having fainted as Stanley approaches. In silence, Stanley lifts her onto the table, and when McCann finally finds the flashlight, the audience sees that Stanley is about to rape Lulu. Goldberg and McCann wrest him away and back him against the wall as he lets out a psychopathic laugh before the curtain closes.
When the curtain opens again, it is the next morning and Meg and Petey are having breakfast as if nothing has happened. Meg claims to not remember anything about the party and focuses on serving breakfast, but there aren’t any cornflakes. Finding the broken drum on the floor, she hits it and says, “It still makes a noise.” She remarks that Stanley should be awake because he’s going to miss breakfast, and Petey says, “There isn’t any breakfast,” to which she responds, “Yes, but he doesn’t know that.” She tells Petey she went upstairs to check on Stanley, but McCann and Goldberg were in his room having an intense conversation with him. She then leaves the house to get food for lunch, and Goldberg comes downstairs and talks about the party to Petey, who asks him “what came over” Stanley. “Nervous breakdown,” Goldberg says. He then explains that these kinds of breakdowns sometimes brew “day by day” before erupting, though for some people there are no warning signs because their spiraling mental health is a “foregone conclusion.”
When Stanley finally comes downstairs, he’s completely incapable of speaking. As he spews gibberish, Goldberg tells Petey that he and McCann are taking him to a doctor, though it’s clear from his tone that this isn’t the case. Petey is suspicious, but he finds himself unable to do anything as they escort Stanley out the door. When they turn to go, Petey calls after them, saying, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” When Meg returns, Petey tells her that Stanley is still asleep upstairs, and she says he’ll be late for breakfast. She then talks about how “lovely” the party was the night before, insisting that everyone told her she was “the belle of the ball.” “Oh, it’s true,” she says, though nobody actually told her this. After a slight pause, she says, “I know I was,” and then the curtain falls.