As Mrs. Drudge dusts off the red telephone, it begins to ring. The caller asks to speak with a certain individual whose name we do not learn, and Mrs. Drudge responds that no such person resides at Muldoon Manor. From her side of the conversation, we learn a lot about the setting and backstory of the play-within-a-play. Outside the Manor, bad weather is brewing, and because there are no roads that go in to or out from the Manor, its residents may be temporarily stranded.
We learn that one of the Manor’s residents, Magnus, is the half-brother of Lord Albert Muldoon, Lady Muldoon’s husband who went for a walk on the cliffs ten years earlier and was never seen again. The half-brother Magnus is confined to a wheelchair.
After the phone call, Mrs. Drudge catches sight of the suspicious character from earlier. He introduces himself as Simon Gascoyne and claims to know Cynthia Muldoon through their mutual friend, Felicity Cunningham. When Mrs. Drudge informs Simon that Felicity is at the Manor playing tennis with Cynthia Muldoon, he tries to leave, but Mrs. Drudge implores him to stay for a game of cards. The telephone rings again. This time Simon answers it, but again, the caller asks after somebody who does not reside at the Manor.
Meanwhile, the theater critic Moon continues to dwell on his relationship to Higgs, the first string critic for whom he is just a stand-in. Moon admits, “I think I must be waiting for Higgs to die...Half afraid that I will vanish when he does” (7). It occurs to Moon that Puckeridge, the third-string (and Moon’s own stand-in), must hold a similar grudge against Moon. In the course of Moon’s revelation, Birdboot declares his predictions about the murder mystery: “Simon Gascoyne. It’s not him, of course,” and in a comical moment, Birdboot’s interjections sync up with Moon’s soliloquy as if they are conversing.
Back in the play-within-a-play, another radio announcement airs. The madman is at-large, and the man at the helm of the country police, Inspector Hound, is unavailable for comment. A rumor is circling that Hound has a “master plan” to reign in the madman, and in response to this news, Simon looks very nervous.
Moon, transitioning from self-critic to theater critic, clears his throat and, with his “public voice,” analyzes the play. In the spirit of absurdism, he says that the disruptions of an outsider will “strip these comfortable people [...] of their shells and leave them exposed as the trembling raw meat which, at heart, is all of us” (9). Birdboot, unamused or simply inattentive, cuts Moon off midway through his verbose critique and simply says “I agree—keep your eye on Magnus.”
After a tennis ball bounces into the drawing-room through the windows, Felicity Cunningham enters. Seeing Simon, she interprets his arrival at the Manor as a show of affection towards her. They seem to have had a brief romance the previous night. But Simon admits to being in love with someone else, and Felicity, teary-eyed, threatens, “I’ll kill you for this, Simon Gascoyne.”
Simon’s love interest, it turns out, is their mutual friend and host Lady Muldoon. Back in the critic seats, Moon realizes that the actress playing Felicity Cunningham is the woman who was with Birdboot the previous night.
In this section, Moon elaborates on his identity crisis. In a tone of surrender, he says, “I think I must be waiting for Higgs to die ...Half afraid that I will vanish when he does.” These words reveal the severity of his crisis. Moon’s fears are not just professional, but existential. That is, somewhere deep down in his consciousness, Moon fears not just that his professional career depends on Higgs, but that his entire existence depends on Higgs, and thus that when Higgs dies, he too will vanish. “It is merely...not enough,” Moon says, “to be held in reserve, to be on hand, on call, to step in or not at all, the substitute.” Moon attempts to secure the reality of his own existence with a reassuring declaration: “I am Moon, continuous Moon, in my own shoes, Moon in June, April, September and no member of the human race keeps warm my bit of space...” This declaration is an attempt to resolve his existential dread, to reassure himself that his identity is irreplaceable, and exists independent of Higgs.
This scene draws a new parallel between the play and the play-within-a-play. Birdboot the critic and Simon Gascoyne, the outsider who arrives at Muldoon Manor, have much in common. First, there is a serendipitous moment in which both characters, engaged in separate conversations, ask “Who?” together in unison. Though brief, this moment ties the two together, telling the reader to pay close attention to their common bond. Second, just as Moon insinuates that Birdboot is a philanderer, Felicity Cunningham accuses Simon of being a “philandering coward.” Third, and most strikingly, just as Simon and Felicity had a rendezvous the previous night, Birdboot and the actress playing Felicity had a rendezvous the previous night. If the first two parallels only hinted at the bond between Birdboot and Simon, the third confirms it.
Satire and parody fill the pages of this play. It is first and foremost a parody of the traditional parlor mystery, such as Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. When Moon classifies the play as “derivative,” he has in mind parlor mysteries like Christie’s. The satirical elements emerge throughout. For example, the Muldoon Manor — “cut off from the world” and isolated by bad weather — is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Moreover, when Mrs. Drudge speaks with the unknown caller on the telephone, she says, “this is all very mysterious and I’m sure it’s leading up to something...” The overly expository nature of this phone call satirizes the drama that typifies the genre.
The play also pokes fun at theater critics. Preoccupied with their own grievances, Moon and Birdboot pay little attention to the play, but nevertheless draw elaborate conclusions about it. According to Stoppard’s stage directions, both men have a “‘public voice,’ a critic’s voice which they turn on for sustained pronouncements of opinion.” Stoppard’s directions highlight the artificiality of a critic’s voice, the pretension and insincerity involved. And Moon confirms this negative portrayal with a verbose and banal analysis of the play. He says, “Already in the opening stages we note the classic impact of the catalytic figure — the outsider — plunging through to the center of an ordered world...”
Though the play-within-a-play is a satire, there is still a compelling mystery waiting to be solved. Questions abound. Who is the dead man on the floor? Who is Simon and why has he come to Muldoon Manor? Why is Inspector Hound unavailable for comment? Who is the mysterious caller and what does he want? These questions will come to the fore in subsequent sections, dovetailing with the critics' drama offstage.