Part of the Pendragon cycle, The Art of the Fugue is acted on a unit set representing the front porch of the Rose house in Armitage, Ohio, in 1920, some rooms in Europe three years later, and perhaps elsewhere, all present at once. The two women and two men remain on stage for the most part, moving in and out of the shadows as others take focus, but characters who are not physically present during a scene will speak from other times and places in a continuous flow analogous to the music—Bach’s ‘The Art of the Fugue’—played on a piano, that carries us into the scene and then fades out.
The play begins in darkness as we hear a piano playing Contrapunctus 1 of Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’ and then lights come up on Felicia Sullivan (18) at the piano, but not playing, Jane Rose (18) on the porch swing, her brother Jamie (23) sitting on the porch steps, and her other brother Andrew (22) standing in the yard. As the play opens, the characters speak in counterpoint, Felicia defining the meaning of fugue, the brothers making short comments about the war, and Jane telling us that she brought her Cleveland Conservatory classmate Felicia home for the summer so they could prepare for their European concert tour. The music ends in mid-phrase and we hear the sound of crickets as Felicia begins playing Contrapunctus 2 quietly and Jane says that on their concert tour she will play the violin and Felicia the piano. Andrew says everyone in the Conservatory wants to sleep with Felicia and that she has a head as empty as the inside of a tennis ball. He asks Felicia if Jamie told her about their adulterous, suicidal father who died for the love of a fair maiden and part-time murderess half his age and not his wife. He moves into the downstage shadows and drinks from a flask. Jane says he has not been himself since the war and goes to sit with him. Felicia asks Jamie if their father was as horrible as Andrew and Jamie tells her that their father was a good but troubled man. She tells Jamie that his brother hates him and warns him against falling in love with her. We hear crickets as Felicia sits at the piano and begins playing Contrapunctus 3. Jane talks with Jamie about his feelings for Felicia, saying that Andrew won’t stop until he gets her.
As Contrapunctus 4 plays in the background, Felicia, walking with Jamie, tells him about her vulgar father who got rich taking cattle to the slaughterhouse and died choking to death on roast beef. She tells him she will hurt him if he doesn’t stay away from her. She kisses him on the lips and walks to sit with Andrew on the porch as we hear Contrapunctus 5 playing. Andrew tells her he always wanted to kill Jamie because the entire family worshipped him. He says he and Felicia both want to kill Jamie. He tells her to leave her bedroom door unlocked and she says that one night she might forget to lock it. She goes to the piano and begins playing Contrapunctus 6 as Jane joins her on the bench and challenges her about her relationship with Andrew. Jane lies on the bed as Felicia plays Contrapunctus 7 quietly as Jamie and Andrew talk on the porch about Felicia and why she wants Andrew. Andrew says Jamie can borrow his service revolver to shoot him but he warns him not to miss.
Felicia is playing Contrapunctus 8 as Jamie joins her on the bench. She tells him that Andrew really hates him and that she and Andrew have done pretty much everything you can do that’s legal and a couple of things that probably aren’t. She says she really likes living in east Ohio nowhere but she has to rehearse for her autumn performances. She says Andrew is not a distraction but a release of tension. We hear Contrapunctus 9 as she goes to sit on the porch and Jamie sits at the DR table and drinks. Jane sits with Felicia on the porch. Felicia thinks Jane’s mother must have known about her father’s affair with the teenage girl and may have killed him. Felicia wonders what they’ll be like in a few years when they’re famous all over Europe. She thinks time may be like a fugue that keeps circling back on itself in a loop and what seems like now is something we’re remembering and wishing we’d never left this porch on this long summer night. Light fades on them as we hear Contrapunctus 10 playing softly.
The light changes so the porch is in shadows behind them. A few years have passed and they are now living in Europe with Jamie sitting, drinking, at the DR table and Jane telling him he is wasting his life. He says he has accepted the fact that Felicia doesn’t want him and points out that Jane no longer plays solos but only accompanies Felicia for a couple of numbers. Jane says Andrew has taken over as their agent and all Jamie does is lug trunks on and off trains and see that the piano gets tuned. Jamie says he walks at night and gets into fights but that it’s better than lying in bed all night trying not to hear the noises Andrew and Felicia make in her room. He says he can’t leave because there’s something seriously wrong with Felicia and he needs to be here when it happens.
We hear and then see Felicia playing Contrapunctus 11 with Andrew asking her if she can play something else. She stops and he says he has had headaches since the war. She asks him if he loves her and says the music is like voices whispering in her head and she feels disoriented as if she’s drowning in the music. Andrew tells her he is fonder of her than he expected to be. After he leaves, she says the complexity of the eleventh contrapunctus made Bach afraid of losing his mind. Jamie looks across the stage at her and, from another time and place, tells us he can hear her playing like a lost soul deep into the night. She begins playing Contrapunctus 12 as Jamie joins her. She tells him to stop bothering her and to go away. Jamie joins Andrew at the DR table, then goes as Felicia begins playing Contrapunctus 13. Jane tells Felicia she has bruises and that she can hear her through the hotel room walls. Jane says Felicia needs to get away from Andrew. Felicia tells her that she hears the music everywhere and gives herself up to a Bach fugue as if diving into the ocean and drowning in it. Jane says it is horrifying to watch her and Andrew together but she can’t turn away or stop listening. Jane goes and we hear the Augmented Canon with Inverted Motion as Felicia sits on the bed and Andrew moves toward her. He says she is locking her door and he can’t get to her when he wants to. She says nothing is going on between her and Jamie, or anybody, and Andrew wants her to say that she wants to be his slave. He slaps her until, sobbing, she gets on her knees and he grabs her by the hair, telling her to worship him. Jamie enters and tells Andrew to leave her alone. Felicia tells both of them to leave her and, after Andrew leaves, she goes to the piano and starts to play the Canon At The Octave, Two Voices Separated By An Octave.
Jamie tells her that Andrew is going to kill her, and she says that she almost did love Jamie on a number of occasions but then a voice in her head reminded her that we can only love what kills us. She says that if he kills Andrew she will sleep with him and be his slave forever. She starts playing the Canon at Tenth, Counterpoint at Third as Jamie joins Andrew drinking at the DR table. Andrew asks him if he has worked up the courage to kill him, saying that he has his story about killing Jamie all worked out. He says he has hated Jamie since they were children because he was so damned perfect and now he is killing him slowly. As they talk, Felicia goes to the bed, takes off her shoes and dress, and lies down in her slip. Andrew tells Jamie he is fucking the mad princess and treating her very badly and she loves it. Jamie grabs Andrew and slams his face on the table five times. Andrew tells him to put his hands around his throat and press, but Jamie lets him go and leaves as we hear the sound of Canon At Twelfth, Counterpoint At Fifth.
Jane tells Felicia that she is leaving before she loses her mind and she wants Felicia to come with her. Andrew crosses to them saying that having his head bashed violently five times has helped him see things clearly. He says Jane can leave but Felicia can’t. Jane tells Felicia to put her clothes on but Felicia refuses, saying the pattern was worked out by Bach a long time ago and she can’t tell if she is playing the music or whether the music is playing her. Jane leaves and Andrew accuses Felicia of seducing his sister. He says Felicia is pure evil, but she says the music is evil, haunted by the Devil. She sits at the piano and starts playing Contrapunctus 14, Triple or Quadruple Fugue, Unfinished, telling Andrew that if he listens he can hear the Devil breathing. He tells her to stop playing but she continues until he grabs her by the throat, pulls her off the bench, and starts strangling her. Jane comes back, tells him to stop, raises a gun, and shoots him. He falls and Jamie comes in. Jane says she shot Andrew because he was strangling Felicia. Jamie takes the gun, checks Andrew’s pulse, and says he is dead. He tells Jane she didn’t do anything, that she and Felicia had already left. He tells Jane to take Felicia back to Ohio, that he will take care of the situation. Felicia says it is all Jamie’s fault and she hates him, calling him a murderer as Jane takes her away. We hear again Contrapunctus 14, Triple or Quadruple Fugue, Unfinished as Jane leads Felicia back up to the porch, where they sit together. Jamie tells an imagined officer that his brother was cleaning his gun and it went off and struck him in the temple. Felicia speaks about the last of the fugues, unfinished, ending in the middle of a phrase with the four notes that signified Bach’s name. Lights begin to fade as Jamie stands over his brother’s body, saying he was a hero, with Jane and Felicia sitting on the porch. As the music plays Felicia says, “But apparently further developments were halted by death. Except—except that—” The music ends abruptly in the middle of a phrase. Darkness.