The five characters in The Winkleigh Murders are Willy (the gardener’s bastard son), Imogen (the orphaned ward of Bronwyn’s late parents), Bronwyn (the young heiress of Winkleigh), Charles (a school friend of Bronwyn’s late brother Edward), and Cedric (also a friend of the late Edward). The set is “like a psychological collage of the Winkleigh estate” in Devon, overlooking Dartmoor. We can see part of a house with a parlor down right; farther up right and towards center a garden with a gazebo; cemter a tall hedgerow broken by a wooden gate and up left a ruined windmill with a wooden bench or two; further down left a stone bench and a broken sundial. Downstage of the hedgerow is a “rather primitive” automobile. When Charles and Cedric are out hunting they use the center and down center part of the stage, “in dappled greenwood shadows to give . . . the feeling of deep and ancient forest.” The time is early in the twentieth century. The five characters are on stage as the lights come up, Charles trying to take a photograph of Imogen and Cedric in the automobile, Willy sitting on the gate of the hedgerow, and Bronwyn observing from a bench in the gazebo. Willy speaks his thoughts which, he says, would get him bludgeoned to death if the other characters could hear him since he is expressing his lust for Imogen’s body and his wish that Cedric’s pickle be incinerated. Cedric express his thoughts about Imogen’s desire for him. Imogen, speaking her thoughts, says she misses Edward dreadfully and thinks Cedric lucky to be so stupid. Then Bronwyn and Charles speak their thoughts (mostly of sexual desire) in counterpoint with the others until Charles takes the picture. In the blackout we hear the sound of birds and the lights come up on Imogen and Bronwyn in the gazebo.
Imogen tells Bronwyn that she knows the boy (Willy) is watching her and that Charles is “desperately infatuated” with Bronwyn. Bronwyn decides to go and torment Charles and we hear the sound of crows as the lights fade on the gazebo while she strolls over to Charles reading on the bench by the sundial. She advises Charles against fancying her, saying that Imogen fancies him. Then she kisses him on the cheek and leaves as Cedric, carrying a hunting rifle, approaches Charles who prefers taking photographs to shooting things. Cedric thinks that a fellow is defined by what he is willing to kill. Seeing anger in Charles’ eyes, Cedric pats him on the back and leaves, saying that he knew Charles had it in him.
Willy is polishing boots on the steps of the gazebo and is puzzled when Bronwyn wants to talk with him. Bronwyn thinks he is mocking her and tells him that she knows he is in love with Imogen. Bronwyn wonders why he isn’t in love with her, since everyone else is. He says he sees something behind Imogen’s eyes and advises Bronwyn to get inside because a storm is coming. Lights fade on the gazebo and the sky darkens with the approaching storm. We hear thunder as the lights come up on the parlor and all five characters. Willy is trying to fix a cuckoo clock and Bronwyn wants Imogen to hypnotize him. Imogen swings Charles’ pocket watch in front of Willy, telling him to relax and fall into a deep sleep. Cedric pretends to be the one hypnotized, but Bronwyn says she once was somebody else and speaks of Zeppelins in the sky pouring down “terrible, corrosive rain,” and that she heard hunting horns and felt dogs devouring her and then her brother Edward took her in his arms to tell her something horrible. Charles insists that Imogen wake her up; Imogen snaps her fingers, we hear thunder, and the lights go to black.
We hear rain and thunder as a red light comes up on Charles in his developing room, far down right corner of the parlor area. His recollections of the dead Edward and the beauty of Bronwyn are interrupted by the sound of a door creaking open and a long rectangle of light falling on him. He asks if anyone is there and the lights go to black. After a last rumble of thunder we hear the sound of birds and the lights come up on Cedric, at the automobile, cleaning his gun as Bronwyn watches. Bronwyn says that she knows her dead brother Edward would have wanted his two best friends to come together and suggests that Cedric take Charles out hunting. She moves to Charles who is reading by the sundial down left and suggests that he stop reading and go hunting with Cedric. He agrees on condition that she let him photograph her. Bronwyn intimates that she might pose nude for him, and the scene shifts to Cedric and Charles in the woods with guns. Cedric says that he will gut Charles like a fish if he finds out that he has been intimate with Imogen. As Cedric raises his gun to shoot, Charles notices that the rabbit is pregnant and lunges towards him. We hear a loud bang, simultaneous with a blackout.
A cuckoo clock strikes four as the lights come up on Bronwyn and Imogen in the parlor. When Bronwyn refers to Edward’s death as an accident, Imogen reminds her that Edward put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Cedric stomps in, covered in mud, followed by Charles (not covered in mud). Cedric says he could kill Charles for pushing him down a ravine to save a rabbit, but Bronwyn tells Cedric to get cleaned up and Charles to apologize. After she leaves, Imogen asks Charles if he is hopelessly in love with Bronwyn, since everyone else is. Then she asks Charles if he would like to kiss her and, as their lips are about to meet, Bronwyn enters abruptly. Bronwyn wonders what happened to the book that Edward had been writing, and Charles admits that Edward did leave a letter, asking that the book be destroyed. After saying that their lives are a terrible waste, Imogen runs out and Bronwyn asks Charles if he will tell her what was in Edward’s letter if she lets him make love to her. She says she was inexplicably jealous when she saw that Charles and Imogen were about to kiss and thinks that violence is “in the end much more satisfying than love.” She calls Charles a fool and kisses him on the lips. Charles watches her leave as the lights fade.
We hear the sound of owls and the lights come up on Imogen crying at the windmill. Willy steps out of the shadows to tell her that she shouldn’t be out so late. She accuses him of following her about but he says he worries about her and tells her that Cedric is not only stupid but dangerous. Imogen tells him to stay away from her and runs off. Willy sits with his head in his hands as Bronwyn comes on, saying that he looks like her brother. She says that he loves Imogen who loves Charles who loves Bronwyn. She kisses him, rather erotically, and offers to show him her breasts. She orders him to put his hands on her breasts and when he does she tells him to kiss her. Willy pulls away, but Bronwyn says she wants him to make love to her. When he kisses her she tells him to stop. Then she kisses him and he pushes her onto her back. He takes out a razor, saying that he had come out to the windmill to kill himself. She insists that he make love to her, but he slaps her face, telling her to stop, that she is playing with him like a cat with a mouse. Willy says that he is the bastard son of Bronwyn’s father, Edward’s half-brother, and Bronwyn’s half-brother. He lifts Bronwyn’s dress as Imogen enters, tells him to stop, then hits him on the head with a shovel. Realizing that Willy is dead, Bronwyn starts screaming as Cedric enters, pulls Willy off Bronwyn who is helped up by Imogen and the three look down at Willy as we hear the owls and see the light fade out to end the act.
Act Two begins with the sounds of rain and a ticking clock. As the lights come up on the parlor, Charles is quoting Tennyson whom Bronwyn, according to Imogen, “cannot abide.” When Charles wonders where Willy is, Cedric suggests that he ran off. When Bronwyn starts speaking of Wooster sausages, Imogen says that it must be a recurrence of her malaria and takes her off stage. But Bronwyn rushes back, followed by Imogen who accuses her of pushing her into a closet. Bronwyn takes Charles out for a walk in the rain and, when Imogen says that Bronwyn is losing her mind, Cedric insists that they will be safer if nothing is said about Willy’s fate. He will say nothing if Imogen lets him copulate with her whenever he wants. She is also to persuade Bronwyn to marry him. The scene switches to Charles and Bronwyn, wet from the rain, in the gazebo. Bronwyn kisses him and they start removing each other’s clothing. Imogen enters, Bronwyn runs off, and Charles asks Imogen why Bronwyn is losing her mind. Imogen says that Bronwyn is going to marry Cedric and takes Charles to find her. At the windmill, Bronwyn babbles of her mother hanging herself there and Willy, dead, comes up behind her. Imogen enters but cannot see or hear Willy. Bronwyn accuses her of fornicating with Bronwyn’s father and Imogen admits it. Charles enters, also unable to see or hear Willy. Imogen says that she told Edward about his father and Charles says the Bronwyn could marry him rather than Cedric. Imogen explains that Cedric is blackmailing Bronwyn into marriage and forcing Imogen to be his mistress. If they do not agree Cedric will tell the authorities that Imogen killed Willy. Charles leaves to talk with Cedric, Imogen cries, and Bronwyn and Willy look at her as the lights fade.
We hear the sound of birds and see Cedric and Charles in the woods, with guns, talking of Edward at college. Cedric says that Edward loved teen-aged whores, got one of them pregnant, and might have killed his own father. Charles tells him he can’t marry Bronwyn because she is not in her right mind. Then Charles raises his gun and tells Cedric to say “cheese.” We hear the sound of a gunshot simultaneous with a blackout.
We hear birdsong and the lights come up on Imogen, Bronwyn, and Charles in the parlor, talking of Cedric’s accidental death. Bronwyn thinks she hears children laughing and says she has been dreaming of unspeakable things. After she leaves, Charles says that he thinks Bronwyn should marry him. He asks Imogen to return the watch he gave her when she was hypnotizing Bronwyn. She takes it from her bosom and stomps on it. Bronwyn returns and says she hears a whirring noise. She points to the sky and says she sees a Zeppelin. Imogen says something is falling, and the light goes out as we hear an air raid siren, a bomb falling, and a huge explosion, then more, accompanied by troops marching, garbled speeches, machine guns, airplanes crashing, people screaming, animals shrieking, all building to a cacophony of “patriotic butchery and frenzied madness.” We hear owls and the lights come up on a shadowy set. Bronwyn, bedraggled, says that she has escaped from Bedlam and Cedric, groaning, enters, a bloodstained flour sack over his head. Unable to see, he walks like the Frankenstein monster. After he runs into the rusted automobile and falls to the ground, Willy appears from behind the gazebo and turns Cedric offstage. Willy says he can smell someone coming and Bronwyn hides behind the gazebo as Imogen, in black, leads on Charles in a military uniform and dark glasses. One arm is gone and he walks with a cane. Imogen says the estate is in ruins, that she lives in the potting shed. She tells Charles that his sight and hearing may improve over time and that she will take care of him. Willy says that Imogen is the beautiful one and loves Charles, but he is in love with the lunatic. Charles tells Imogen that Edward’s suicide note said to burn everything, including his book. Charles says that Edward took him to a whorehouse where an old whore recognized Edward as the squire’s son and said she was the mother of Imogen. After they exit, Bronwyn tells Willy that she shot her father in the crotch and threw a dead fox on him so the dogs would eat him alive. She climbs into the car and starts singing “Rule, Brittania” as Cedric stumbles on, moaning, and running into the gazebo. He falls, and Bronwyn says that “you” may now take her photograph. We hear a click and see a blink of lights. Then the lights go out and we hear owls in the darkness.