Moon and Birdboot exchange soliloquies once again. Birdboot fantasizes about arranging a discreet rendezvous with the actress who plays Cynthia. He wants to take her to a hotel. Meanwhile, Moon wonders whether the third-string theater critic Puckeridge holds the same grudge against Moon that Moon holds against Higgs. Does Puckeridge dream of killing Moon too?
Onstage, the phone rings. Its incessant ringing irritates Moon, who, on an impulse, clambers onto the stage to answer it. The caller turns out to be Myrtle, Birdboot’s wife. Birdboot takes the phone as Moon takes his seat. Infuriated, Birdboot reminds Myrtle that she is never to call him at work. This request is comical because, in this case, calling “at work” means using the telephone that is a prop for the play he is reviewing. Nevertheless, Myrtle presses on, accusing Birdboot of philandering, and Birdboot replies that his evenings with female actresses are simply his way of staying connected to the theater community.
When Birdboot hangs up the phone, a tennis ball bounces in through the French doors. Felicity follows in her tennis outfit. “You!” she says at the sight of Birdboot. This scene is exactly the same as before, except that Birdboot stands at the telephone instead of Simon Gascoyne. According to the stage directions, even the lighting is the same. Although Felicity’s dialogue is unchanged, Birdboot responds to her lines as himself, not as the character Simon (recall that he went out with the actress who plays Felicity the evening prior). For example, when Felicity says, “You must have been desperate to see me--I mean, I’m flattered, but couldn’t it wait till I got back?” Birdboot responds, “...about last night--perhaps I gave you the wrong impression--got carried away a bit, perhaps--.” Felicity is just reciting lines, but Birdboot interprets the conversation concerns their relationship offstage.
Felicity marches off in tears, and just as before, Mrs. Drudge enters to set up the card table. Hilariously, Birdboot says he doesn’t have time to stay for a game of cards, still interfacing with the other characters onstage as himself, not as a character in the play. Mrs. Drudge says that Mrs. Muldoon (Cynthia) will be disappointed if he doesn’t stay, and Birdboot — who is still infatuated with the actress playing Cynthia — interprets Mrs. Drudge’s dialogue to mean the actress reciprocates his feelings. So he agrees to stay for a game of cards.
Moon urges Birdboot off stage, but he stays. Cynthia enters the drawing room and recites the same line as before: “Don’t say anything for a moment — just hold me.” Birdboot yields to the request, flattered. The two kiss. But then Cynthia professes her love for Albert. Birdboot tries to tell her that Albert is dead, which makes it unclear whether Birdboot is speaking as Birdboot or as Simon Gascoyne — surely, he knows that Albert is a fictional character, but he is also talking about Albert’s death in order to lure the actress playing Cynthia to go out with him offstage. There is a tangled conflation of reality and fiction. Is Birdboot simply so wrapped up in the play that he forgets to draw a line between fiction and real life, or is he beginning to play along with the fictive world? At this point, we do not know. Moon, realizing the absurdity of it all, interjects from his seat, “Have you taken leave of your tiny mind?”
Comprehending that Birdboot has become a stand-in for Simon’s character, Moon subtly forecasts that he will end up shot to death, just as Simon was. He says, “If only it were Higgs.” In other words, he wishes that Higgs was partaking in the play so that Higgs would die and Moon would ascend to first-string critic. Meanwhile, Magnus rolls down the stairs in his wheelchair — just as before — and knocks over Birdboot/Simon.
In this section, the play takes an unexpected turn. Birdboot gets drawn into the play, lured in part by his lust for the actress playing Cynthia. Onstage, his real life becomes conflated with Simon’s fictive one, removing the distance that typically separates reader from character, reality from play. As Marvin Carlson argues, Birdboot is “trapped by the conflation of his own desires and the dynamics of the fiction he has entered to fulfill them.” There is a confusion between fiction and reality. As the opening scene repeats itself, with Birdboot standing in for Simon, the characters recite their lines exactly as before. Birdboot, however, responds as Birdboot, not as Simon.
In fiction, the typical role of a reader is to empathize with the characters. That is, a reader tries to inhabit the fictive world and feel what the characters feel. Stoppard, though, pushes those boundaries by actually inserting the critics into the fictive world of the play-within-a-play. Up to this point, we have observed many parallels between the lives of the characters in the play-within-a-play and the critics offstage. For example, both the fictive character Simon and the critic Birdboot feel lust towards Felicity and Cynthia. By inserting Birdboot and Moon into the play, they not only empathize with the characters, but actually begin to conflate their own desires with those of the characters.
The result is an unusual mixture of fiction and reality. The literal involvement of the critics in the parlor mystery usurps the structure of traditional detective fiction. In traditional detective fiction, an orderly world is disturbed by a crime and then restored to order by a detective. Here, however, the narrative makes little progress towards restoration of order. Instead, scenes repeat and chaos abounds. This chaos is one reason why Stoppard’s play belongs to the Theater of the Absurd.
Still, even with the involvement of the critics in the play-within-a-play, the traditional structure of parlor mysteries isn’t really disrupted. The characters stick to their original lines. The setting is still a common one for parlor mysteries. There is still a red herring - Felicity. So what Stoppard creates is an unusual internal clash between the traditional and the absurd. Even as the critics become entangled in the play, the play still maintains its form. It suggests we can find the absurd in the ordinary, and that the universe may be more chaotic than it appears.
Zooming out, this conflation of critic and character, reality and fiction, challenges standard fictive discourses. When Stoppard published The Real Inspector Hound, there was a standard set of elements in detective fiction: the red herring, the twist, the detective who solves the mystery and restores order. It was so methodical that it became generic. By disrupting that structure to such an absurd degree, Stoppard is challenging these generic forms and pushing for new, inventive forms.
It is notable that the original scene repeats itself, and that Birdboot’s reality neatly fits into the fictive universe. Consistent with the Theater of the Absurd, it may suggest that one person’s narrative isn’t so different from another’s, that we all go through the same set of feelings through our lives — lust, rejection, jealousy, etc. In other words, the fact that Birdboot’s life so easily matches the narrative he is watching seems to trivialize his own feelings.