Paperback OperaAct I. A troupe of strolling players has just arrived in the little village. It is a fête day and the people are celebrating the feast of the Assumption. Of the players are Canio, his wife Nedda, Tonio a hunchback, and Beppe. Canio is dressed as Pagliaccio, Nedda as Colombine wife of Pagliaccio, Tonio is the clown Taddeo, whilst Beppe is Harlequin. They enter the village to the acclamations of the crowd. Tonio, hideous though he is, is in love with Nedda, but she will have nothing to do with him, and when he becomes amorous she cuts him across the face with a whip. Canio has been suspicious of her of late and not without cause, though it is not Tonio whom she loves but a young farmer named Silvio, who has followed the path of the players for some time in secret. Silvio appears and begs that Nedda fly with him. There is a brief but passionate colloquy. Tonio overhears them and runs unperceived to fetch Canio. Canio arrives in time to hear Nedda saying “to-night, then, after the performance” and to see Silvio disappearing in the distance. Canio is a jealous husband. His discovery, together with the insidious suggestions of Tonio, has caused his rage to mount high. He turns upon Nedda to kill her. But Tonio and Beppe restrain him. The hunchback advises him to await the performance, Nedda’s lover is sure to be in the audience. It is time for the performance to begin. With a heavy heart Canio prepares for it.
Act II. We have a stage within a stage. We see both the players and their audience. Silvio is in the audience. The play is the old story of Harlequin and Colombine. Colombine is Pagliaccio’s wife and her husband is away. Harlequin comes and they make love. Taddeo enters and also makes exaggerated love to Colombine who will have none of him but prefers Harlequin. Harlequin gives Colombine a sleepy draught for Pagliaccio that she may put in her husband’s wine and escape the house. Pagliaccio enters just as Colombine waves a last farewell to the retreating Harlequin. “To-night, then, love!” she calls. Poor Canio on the rack of intense jealousy can bear the shame no longer – it is so close a replica of what has happened in his own case. He demands “His name? His name?” Nedda makes a pathetic attempt at keeping up the pretence of being Colombine. She tries to keep to the play-acting, but her affected simpering only enrages Canio the more. He picks up a knife: “His name?” “No!” The audience begins to be a little nervous at such marvellous realism – a little too realistic they think. “Take that and that, then, “ screams Canio. He stabs Nedda. Silvio leaps to his feet and pushes his way through the panicking audience. He leaps to the sage. Nedda’s lover has revealed himself, the knife flashes once more. He lies beside her. The little theatre is in a tumult. Canio’s madness has gone, leaving him pallid and limp. He steps forward and in a tired voice announces: “The comedy is ended.”