TEN years before the opening of the play, Magda, elder daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Schwartz, retired, left home rather than submit to her father's dictation and marry Pastor Heffterdingt. Thereafter the mention of her name is forbidden in the house and nothing is known of her subsequent life. At the opening of the play she is discovered to be the famous Wagnerian prima donna, Maddalene dall'Orto, guest star of the impending music festival in the town. Heffterdingt, who for ten years has blamed herself for the rift between Magda and her family, uses all his persuasiveness to bring about a reconciliation between Magda and her father. Finally, against her better judgment, Magda consents to spend the night under her father's roof.
Among the first callers the following morning is the ambitious Councillor von Keller. Magda recognizes him at once as the man she had loved those first few wretched months away from home . . . the man who had promptly faded from her life and left her to bear his child alone and uncared for. Now that she is famous, he is anxious to pick up the old acquaintance. Magda, however, is through with him . . . with all men. There are in her whole life but two things . . . her son and her music.
Von Keller's call and Magda's subsequent pallor and distraction arouse Schwartz's ever-ready suspicions, and he pries the truth from her. When he challenges von Keller to a duel, the latter counters with a proposal of marriage to Magda. Because of her love and pity for her father, Magda finally consents. When she finds, however, that von Keller's proposal does not include recognition of his son, she withdraws her consent. Her father, outraged by his daughter's viewpoint, locks her up in a room with him and announces that neither of them will leave it alive unless she promises him that she will marry Councillor von Keller and rehabilitate the family honor. Magda can see only one possibility of saving their lives and still retaining that personal freedom more precious to her than life itself.
"How can you be sure," she asks her father, "that he was the only man in my life?"
As the significance of Magda's question dawns on him he raises his gun to shoot her. But the shock has been too great for his enfeebled system, and a stroke of apoplexy stays his hand and ends his life.
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