The unit set for The Ogre (6m, 2w), “some old furniture scattered about,” represents Brede Place, a damp, haunted mansion in the south of England, 1899-1900, “and occasionally elsewhere.” We hear the sound of wind as lights come up on a young woman (Marthe) talking to herself of crows, owls, witches, and a prohibition against touching as Ford (Ford Maddox Hueffer), sitting in a chair, speaks, years later, to an invisible friend about “an extraordinary collection of remarkable writers”—Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, H. G. Wells, and Stephen Crane—all living close together in Sussex in 1899. Marthe speaks of her fear of “a creature” that follows her and, from the darkness, we hear a voice (Sir Goddard Oxenbridge) speaking to her. Stephen and Cora (Taylor) enter, exploring the mansion but noticing neither Marthe nor Ford. Although Stephen thinks the house is damp, Cora plans to rent it. Marthe says that the man and woman who have come into the house will be destroyed. We hear wind and crows as Marthe moves into darkness, Ford remains in his chair, and Stephen and Cora walk into the downstage light. They talk about renting the huge, damp, haunted place, and although Stephen has misgivings Cora has plans of inviting artists, intellectuals, and orphans. Stephen says the house reminds him of a recurrent nightmare and Cora takes that as a sign that the house full of ghosts is their destiny. She tells Stephen that Moreton, the landlord, said that a girl was hanged in the garden and that years ago they dug up the skeleton of a priest in the chapel. Hearing a flapping noise, Cora thinks there are bats in the house and, hearing a shuffling noise, goes off to the kitchen, leaving Stephen staring into the darkness above as the lights fade and we hear crows and wind.
The lights come up on Ford in his chair, with Conrad and Wells talking about Ford helping Conrad with English. They speak of writing, of Stephen, and of Cora taking in the children of a friend’s mistress and a pack of dogs. Frustrated with English, Conrad thinks that perhaps he should write in German. The lights fade and we hear the sound of a thunderstorm and a girl crying as Stephen enters with a lamp. Seeing Marthe, he asks if he can help. She wonders if he is a ghost and tells him that she is a servant to The Ogre and that Stephen should leave. She says that she was hanged from an oak tree in the back yard during the reign of Henry the Eighth. As she runs into the shadows we hear thunder and wind and Stephen’s lamp goes out. In the darkness we hear birds singing, children laughing, and dogs barking; then lights come up on Stephen in a downstage chair, writing in a black notebook, as Cora walks toward him, wearing a gardening hat and gloves, carrying a muddy wood and metal box. Stephen shakes the box and suggests it’s full of bones. Cora thinks their place is lovely; Stephen says it is a madhouse. She tells him the Conrads have accepted her invitation to join them for the weekend even though Stephen spent the last evening they were there jabbering with their baby. Stephen says he wouldn’t mind if he and Cora had a baby or two, but Cora doesn’t want to have children. She kisses him before she leaves and Stephen shakes the box as the light on him fades. In the darkness we hear crickets and see moonlight as Stephen approaches Marthe sitting on a bench. He tells her he has been thinking about her in his waking life. She says something unspeakably evil is close and tells Stephen, when he asks if the evil thing is after him, that he will find out soon enough.
The lights fade; we hear wind, then birds, as the lights come up on Conrad and Ford walking, as Ford tells Conrad that Cora was one of the first female war correspondents and that she once ran a brothel in Jacksonville, Florida, the Hotel de Dream, where she and Stephen first met. As we hear the sounds of screaming children, barking dogs, and clattering cans, Ford rushes off and Wells, riding a bicycle, almost runs into Conrad and disappears offstage to a loud squawk and a crash. Stephen and James join Conrad as Cora crosses the stage, reprimanding the offstage children. James wonders how Stephen can get any writing done in such chaos and, after the writers discuss ambiguity, truth, art, and futility, Wells crosses the stage again on his bicycle, followed by Cora who tells Stephen that he must write a play for the party they are going to have over the Christmas holidays. We hear the bicycle horn, a cow mooing, dogs barking, children screaming, and cans clattering as the lights fade. We then hear birds as the lights come up on Stephen writing in his notebook. Cora brings him a plate of toast and picks up the pen he has dropped. She wonders why he leaves her alone in bed at night and why he talks in his sleep. He says he was dreaming of the Black Forest and of a red fog. They speak of Ford and Conrad collaborating and the light fades on them and comes up on Ford, “on a previous afternoon,” talking with Stephen about Kipling’s notion of a daemon who tells him what to write. Stephen thinks this daemon a “kind of personal Ogre,” but Ford insists that writing is putting down what the mad voices inside say. Ford thinks that the damp house is affecting Stephen’s health (tuberculosis). Stephen crosses to Cora as the light fades on Ford. Stephen tells Cora of a local legend about an Ogre who ate the children of families who came to live in the house until the children got the Ogre drunk and sawed him in half. Cora says she has a better story about a beautiful, naked sorceress ravished by her slave. She kisses him erotically and beckons to him as she moves into the darkness. We hear Marthe screaming and Stephen lights a lamp as she runs to hide behind him, followed by Oxenbridge “a large formidable man in rather faded sixteenth century garments,” who demands to know why she is afraid of him. He apologizes for disturbing Stephen’s sleep and says that the girl who accuses him of being a monster was hanged for murder. She blames him for allowing the hanging to be carried out and wants Stephen to kill Oxenbridge, but Oxenbridge says his soul is eternally divided until she forgives him. He asks Stephen if he is playing his part well tonight and thinks Stephen is a person who has loved deeply. He tells Stephen to save himself by fleeing the house. The light fades on them as we hear crows in the darkness, ending the first act.
To the sounds of birds singing, the lights come up on Stephen and James playing chess. James asks about seeing a “large, morose looking man in moth eaten clothing and a rather pretty, pale young girl,” and, after asking James if he believes in ghosts, Stephen says that he is going to write a play about the house. James shares his negative experiences in theatre and as the men talk about writing a woman in gypsy attire, her face partly veiled in scarves, enters asking if they would like to have her read their fortune. Calling herself Madame Zipango, she pours champagne into James’ hat and puts it on his head. James stomps off and Cora takes off her scarves and black wig, giggling. She tells Stephen that when she looked out their bedroom window the previous night she saw him sitting on the terrace and she thought she saw somebody or something in the shadows behind him. She asks him what it was. When he replies that it was probably a crow, she says that he has been talking to some woman in his sleep about an oak tree. They talk about writing and she kisses him passionately as the lights fade. We hear crickets and see Marthe in the moonlight as Stephen asks her why she has been avoiding him. She tells him that she and the monster are very angry that he has been writing a play about them, betraying her trust. Oxenbridge offers to help with some amusing anecdotes and Marthe runs off sobbing. Stephen takes a drink from Oxenbridge’s flask and Oxenbridge tells him the “old story” of a young housemaid giving birth alone in the garden and burying the new-born infant in a box under an apple tree. Father John, the local priest, insisted that she be hanged for murder and refused to bury the body in consecrated ground, so Oxenbridge buried it again. Cora calls to Stephen and enters as Oxenbridge moves into the darkness. Stephen tells her that they cannot do the play because it offends the ghosts. Cora tells him there are no ghosts and asks if he still loves her. Stephen agrees to do the play and goes off to bed as Cora turns downstage, asking if anyone is there, telling them that she will not let them take Stephen away from her, that he is hers forever.
We hear music, children’s laughter, and guests jabbering as the lights come up on the party in late December, 1899. While Wells and, later, Ford gallop on broomsticks upstage, Stephen, Cora, and James downstage talk of the writing of Wells and Conrad. Cora insists that James doesn’t like her, but James suggests that what she may be sensing is his envy of someone who has lived her life when he has not lived his. Wells offers to introduce James to some pretty women and Stephen tells Cora that James is a genuine artist while he is “a moderately interesting but temporary irrelevance.” When Cora asks who they are Stephen says that they are “the inevitable result of an enigmatic congruence of absurd causes.” Cora thinks fate brought them together and suggest the performance should begin. As the lights dim we hear upbeat music introducing the play and the lights then come up on Wells in a pith helmet playing Dr. Moreau and Conrad playing Kurtz. They speak of investigating supernatural manifestations at Brede Place and step back as Stephen and Cora enter, playing Quint and Miss Jessel. Stephen/Quint tells Cora/Miss Jessel that there are much darker spirits lurking and we hear Oxenbridge howling offstage, then entering, mouth dripping with blood, bemoaning the hunger he cannot quench with the blood of a thousand innocents. When he says he must devour Miss Jessel, Wells/Moreau invites her to his island, where humans and beasts live in harmony, but Conrad/Kurtz invites her to the depths of the jungle. Oxenbridge says the true monster is the woman and the lights go out on them to the sound of applause. When the lights come back up, Wells, Conrad, Stephen, and Cora acknowledge the applause and Ford raves about the performance of James as the Ogre. Cora tells Stephen that he is the best living writer in the English language, but when she leaves Ford tells Stephen that she is a killer and that he should get away from her before it’s too late. Stephen says that if he ever speaks of Cora that way again he will beat the living shit out of him. Ford drinks from his flask and wobbles off to urinate. Cora comes back and tells Stephen that he is her life. When he offers to show Cora the truth, a “great burst of bright red blood” pours out of his mouth. Cora calls for help as the lights fade on them.
In the next scene, Ford tells Conrad that Cora is taking Stephen to the Black Forest for his health and we then hear gulls and a ship’s horn as lights come up on Wells seeing Stephen and Cora off. Cora again insists that Stephen is a better writer than anyone, and Wells says that “the great thing is to do your work and everything else be damned.” The lights fade and come back up on Cora speaking a letter she is writing to James describing Stephen’s health. Stephen, shivering in a blanket, speaks as in a delirium, asking Cora where she got the money for their trip to Germany. He wonders how kind she was to their landlord, Moreton, in persuading him to give the money. She says she is not going to let Stephen die, that she will do absolutely anything. She sobs, he comforts her, and says, “What a terrible thing it is to be loved.”
Wells, James, Conrad, and Ford sit, having had supper, talking again about art and life. Ford, who has been reading the paper, tells them that Stephen is dead. The light fades on them and it is night with the sound of owls. Stephen and Oxenbridge talk and Marthe joins them, recognizing Stephen as one of the dead. Cora, in mourning, followed by Ford, walks on, not seeing the others. She rails against James for refusing to see her and tells Ford that she loved Stephen and he loved her. Stephen tells Oxenbridge that Cora didn’t kill him, and Cora leaves with Ford, saying she will never come back to this evil place. Stephen asks Marthe to forgive him, but she says there is no forgiveness and no touching in this place. They are sitting on the bench and Oxenbridge watches as Stephen lifts his hand and lets it hover just above Marthe’s. They look at each other and we hear crows as the lights fade and go out.