The play opens on one room. Inside the room is an assortment of objects: an iron bed against the wall, paint buckets, boxes, vases, an electric fire and an electric toaster, newspapers, a bucket hanging from the ceiling, a gas stove, and a statue of Buddha on the stove.
Mick is in the room alone. He hears muffled voices and leaves the room before Aston and Davis come in. Aston is dressed in a tweed jacket and an old suit. Davis wears a worn jacket and sandals, no shoes.
Aston invites Davies to sit down, and he does so awkwardly. He begins to complain about how earlier on his break he could not find a seat because all the Greeks and Poles and Blacks were already there and were “doing me out of a seat” (6). Aston offers him a cigarette and Davies accepts some tobacco for his pipe.
Davies continues to talk, asking Aston if he heard him tell the guy who came at him. Aston assents. Davies complains about all the “toe-rags” (7) and how they are unclean and have no manners. He explains that he even left his wife because she was too filthy. He reflects on the fight with the man as well, recounting to Aston how the man came up to him and told him to take out the bucket, which was not his job. Besides, Davies scoffs, he and the man are the same level and he should not be giving him orders. Aston asks if the man was Greek, but Davies says he was Scotch. Davies adds that back in his day people were taught to be pleasant to each other but no one is anymore. He probably would have ended up in the hospital after fighting the Scot if Aston had not intervened, but he is worried now about his bag of possessions that is still in the back room of the restaurant. Aston says he can go down there and get it for him.
Davies looks around the room and asks Aston if it is his; Aston says it is. Davies says there is a good bit of stuff here. They talk quietly about draughts of cold air until Davies asks if this is Aston’s house. The latter replies, “I’m in charge” (9). Davies noticed curtains next door and asks Aston about that; Aston says it is a family of Indians. Davies asks about blacks, and Aston says he does not see them much.
Aston gives Davies a pair of shoes to try on. Shoes are to Davies “life and death” because he walks around so much. While Davies is trying them on, he asks more about Blacks nearby. He then launches into a long speech on shoes –one time he asked a monk for shoes and the man was rude to him, and he became indignant. Another time, he tells Aston, he got a meager meal at a place that made him mad because it was as if he was no better than a dog.
The shoes do not work out, and Davies talks about how much better leather is than suede. Aston asks what he is going to do now, and Davies replies that he has a few things in mind. Aston asks if he wants to stay here. Davies slowly says that he is not sure, and Aston says just until he gets on his feet. After a few more moments of hesitation, Davies says that he will stay until he gets things sorted out.
Davies looks around the place and asks about certain items. Nothing works very well, or at all. Aston says quietly at one point that he likes to work with his hands. Davies notices the Buddha and asks about it quizzically.
Aston starts to get Davies settled in. Davies asks if he shares the toilet with the Blacks and Aston says no, as they live next door. Relieved, Davies helps him make up the bed. Aston gives Davies a bit of money, and Davies thanks him and says, “I just happened to find myself a bit short” (14).
Davies curses the weather and says he hopes it will break so he can go down to Sidcup to get his papers. The papers prove who he is and he cannot move without them. It also turns out that he changed his name to Bernard Jenkins from Mac Davies. He cannot do anything with his unemployment card now or he would go into jail.
Talk winds down and Davies gets into bed, which he calls a “fair bed” and says “I think I’ll sleep in this” (16).
In the morning, Aston puts his pants on and straightens up the bed. Davies sits up abruptly and seems disconcerted until he remembers where he is. Aston asks if he was dreaming, and Davies indignantly says he has never had a dream in his life. He then asks why Aston asks, and Aston says he was jabbering in his sleep. Davies refuses to believe it, and suggests it was the Blacks.
Aston prepares to leave, and Davies is surprised when Aston says he can stay there while he is gone. Aston says he is going to go look for a jigsaw. He then relates a short anecdote about how he got to talking to a woman in a café and she asked if he wanted her to have a look at his body. He was surprised and felt it was odd. Davies says companionably that women have done that to him too.
Aston asks Davies if he is Welsh and then asks where he was born. Davies does not really answer this question, saying it is too hard to set your mind back that far. They talk about the stove for a bit and Aston gets ready to go. Davies asks if he can have some money, but Aston reminds him he gave him some earlier. Davies tells Aston he might try to go to a café in Wembley to find a job.
After Aston leaves, Davies inspects the room, picking up items and offering commentary on them. While he is doing that, Mick silently comes in. Mick watches Davies for a moment until Davies notices him, startled. Mick attacks him and forces him to the floor and they scuffle. Davies quiets after Mick holds up a finger. Mick releases him, goes to Davies's bed, and picks up the man’s trousers. He looks at the pants, then the Buddha. He puts the Buddha in a drawer. Mick finally sits down and asks Davies: “What’s your game?” (22).
The first act of Pinter's most famous play sets out a number of themes, motifs, and concerns that will permeate the entire work: racism, identity, and isolation. The three main (and only) characters are introduced right away, although the audience only comes to know more about Aston and Davies. There is only one set –the room –and all of the action will take place there. The closeness of the room and its cluttered state helps to reinforce the sense of isolation that will become more palpable as the play continues. There is a tension between the safety and womblike environment of the room and the arguments and miscommunications between the brothers and Davies. The room acts as shelter and as a claustrophobic space where contentiousness and conflict are exacerbated.
The first act of the play is generally considered the most humorous of the play, which is owing to the voluble, brash, and opinionated character of Davies. Davies is a masterful Pinter creation: low-class, immensely flawed, and short-sighted, but full of self-importance. He has an anecdote and an opinion about everything, from the type of shoe material that is best to his views on other races to cleanliness (which is ironic, given the fact that he is told by Aston and Mick at the end of the play that he stinks) to the lack of manners of people nowadays. It is amusing that he does not even have a kind word to say about the typically gentle and benevolent monks who tried to help him. Despite Davies's boisterous posturing, what is clear is that his identity is actually somewhat problematic. He explains to Aston that he will have to go down to Sidcup to get his papers because the papers prove who he really is. He goes under an assumed name –Bernard Jenkins –and wants to get his hands on them because if he had them, "I could prove everything!" (16). Strangely, though, Davies admits that the man at Sidcup has had the papers for fifteen years, which alerts the reader to something rather off about Davies's protestations that he needs and plans to get the papers. The second and third acts bear out the fact that Sidcup (an invented name that Pinter liked because it sounded dull and bureaucratic) for Davies is always out of reach, and, thus, a real sense of identity is out of reach as well.
Aston is a much more enigmatic character than Davies; interestingly, he later gives the most extended monologue about his past. Aston is a relatively young man but seems afflicted by something: he talks slowly, pausing between phrases (a term was even coined for this mainstay of the dialogue in Pinter's plays: the "Pinter pause") and remaining rather reticent while Davies discourses on his topics. What is clear about Aston right away, though, is his compassionate nature. He helped Davies out in a scuffle at the bar, invited him back to his room, gave him money and what clothes he could, and ultimately asks him to stay as long as he needs to in order to get back on his feet. This is profoundly kind, especially as he does not know Davies and Davies is manifestly unpleasant. The reasons for Aston's withdrawn nature are revealed in later scenes, but as of the first act, the audience can already discern that he is worthy of their sympathy and interest. Tellingly, the Buddha, a symbol of peace and compassion, is associated with him.
While the events in this first act are relatively straightforward, there are still certain ambiguities and peculiar structural elements. First, Pinter begins his play with no background and introduces characters with little-to-no exposition. It takes time before the audience has any idea what exactly happened to bring the two men together. The character of Mick is strange as well: he very pointedly is on stage when the play begins, but leaves when Aston and Davies come into the room and does not reappear until he silently stalks Davies and attacks him when Aston is gone.
Characters have a tendency to not answer direct questions, or to answer them in unsatisfying ways. The true owner of the room is a cause of confusion for much of the play. When Davies asks Aston, "This is your house then, is it?" (9), Aston replies, "I'm in charge" (9). Davies tries to clarify, "You the landlord, are you?" (9) and Aston simply responds, "What?" (9). The conversation then moves on to curtains and the family of "Blacks" next door, without ever truly answering the question of what Aston's place in the room is. Faulty communication is a major theme of the play, introduced here and borne out later.
Critics have designated the play as a tragicomedy and possessing elements of the Theatre of the Absurd as well as naturalistic and realistic elements. Indeed, as mentioned, this first act is the most amusing and the most realistic. Davies provides a great deal of comedic relief through his colorful language, appearance, and even physical comedy, as when he is caught with his trousers down by Mick at the end of this act. He is rendered even more amusing by his grandiose self-regard and his shortsighted belief that he is better than people of other races. By Act II, however, Davies becomes less amusing as he begins to complain more and grow obnoxious toward Aston. The play's second and third acts reveal how it functions as a tragedy, as all three characters, particularly Aston, are, as scholar Bill Naismith identifies, "deeply affected by factors beyond their control. In their different ways they are all surviving with a degree of courage in the face of circumstances which are, in the main, oppressive." All are lonely and isolated. This also reveals how Pinter's play is part of the Theatre of the Absurd genre (see Additional Content for further information) –the universe the characters navigate is uncaring, capricious, unconcerned, and absurd. Of course, on the other hand, as scholar Bernard Dukore notes, "[the characters] seem to be 'real' people, for their speech, their concerns, their behavioral patterns, and their rhythms of daily living have the ring of truth to them." The critical success and popularity of this play no doubt stems from Pinter's masterly amalgamation of these various themes and styles.