Into the anteroom of a circus in a large French city, where the manager, "Papa" Briquet, Zinida, his wife, musicians, clowns, and a visitor, Count Mancini, are discussing the affairs of the day, comes a strange gentleman. He is obviously a man of brains; he looks like a society man, but he acts so strangely that Briquet at first thinks that he is drunk. When asked his name, the stranger replies: "I don't quite know myself--yet." Briquet persists: "But what can I do for you?" The stranger answers: "I want to be a clown, if you will allow me." He admits that he has had no experience as a circus performer, yet he is quite sure that he can make good. He stands with a finger on his forehead thinking. Then he says: "Eureka! I shall be among you He Who Gets Slapped."
The time is morning. In the adjoining circus hall a rehearsal is going on, and preparations are under way for an evening performance. The cracking whip and the shouts of the riding master are heard from the ring. There is music, too. From time to time, members of the circus troupe join the group in the anteroom. Jackson, the chief clown, overhears part of the conversation and comments: "'He Who Gets Slapped'--that's not bad." The stranger responds: "I rather like it myself. It suits my talent. And, comrades, I have even found a name--you'll call me 'HE.'"
During the course of this conversation two other members of the troupe, in circus costume, have entered the room--Consuelo, "the equestrian tango queen," and Bezano, a bareback rider. Consuelo regards herself, and is regarded by her associates, as Count Mancini's daughter. The Count, it appears, not only takes a rake-off on Consuelo's earnings, but is trying to bargain her off as the bride of a fat, rich and sensual Baron Regnard, though Consuelo herself seems inclined to accept the attentions of Bezano, a youth who has been her instructor.
Consuelo, who was named after the heroine of one of George Sand's novels and who later turns out to be a girl from Corsica of unknown parentage, exerts a dominating influence by reason of her beauty and charm. Everybody loves her, and HE wants to protect her. Zinida, who is a lion tamer, asks Bezano whether he is in love with Consuelo. He gives a noncommittal answer: "Like my horses, I have no words. Who am I to love?" Bezano is overheard by HE, and, as the bareback rider departs, HE says: "I feel as dizzy as a young girl at her first ball. It is so nice here--slap me, I want to play my part. Perhaps it will waken love in my heart, too. Love, do you know--I feel it!"
Count Mancini and the Baron, to whom he is trying to sell his pretended daughter, are both consumed by erotic desires. They hate one another. In the anteroom in which HE realized his ambition to become a clown, the Baron confronts Consuelo. He is a tall, stout man in evening dress, with a rose in his buttonhole; he stands with feet well apart and gazes at her with convex, spider-like eyes. "Your father," he says, "is a swindler and a charlatan. He should be turned over to the police." He continues, "Consuelo, silly girl, I love you unbearably ... unbearably, you understand?" He falls on his knees before Consuelo, but she is only disgusted by his antics.
HE is determined to break up the match, and when he next meets Consuelo he uses his knowledge of palmistry to convey a warning. The lines in her hand, he says, predict that if she marries the Baron she will perish. HE tells her that the only one who can save her is himself. HE goes on to tell her about "an old god in disguise who came down to earth only to love you, foolish little Consuelo." Consuelo mocks him, and when he presses his suit ardently, she gives him a slap.
On the following morning, a gentleman comes into the anteroom. He is dressed in black and has an extremely well-bred appearance. His face is yellowish, like an invalid's. HE receives the gentleman with scant courtesy, and it soon becomes clear from the conversation between the two that this man is an "intellectual" who is now living with the woman who was formerly the wife of HE. The gentleman speaks of a "strange and insulting letter" that HE wrote to his wife before he left hom. HE exclaims: "To the devil with my wife!" The gentleman, startled, raises his eyebrows. HE laughs. Then the gentleman says: "Such language! I confess I find difficulty in expressing my thoughts in such an atmosphere, but if you are so ... indifferent to your wife, who, I shall allow myself to emphasize the fact, loved you and thought you a saint, then _what_ brought you to such a ... step? Or is it that you cannot forgive me my success? And when I, a more lucky rival ..."
HE interrupts the gentleman's words at this point with a burst of laughter and the comment: "Rival! You--a rival!" The gentleman mentions a book. HE looks at him with curiosity and mockery, and says: "You are talking to me about your book? To me?" Thereupon, the gentleman raises downcast eyes and declares: "I am a very unhappy man. You must forgive me. I am deeply, irreparably, and infinitely unhappy."
HE walks up and down. HE questions him: "But why? Explain it to me. You say yourself that your book is a tremendous success, you are famous, you have glory; there is not a yellow newspaper in which you and your thoughts are not mentioned. Who knows me? Who cares about my heavy abstractions, from which it was difficult for them to derive a single thought. You--you are the great vulgarizer. You have made my thought comprehensible even to horses. With the art of a great vulgarizer, a tailer of ideas, you dressed my Apollo in a barber's jacket, you handed my Venus a yellow ticket, and to my bright hero you gave the ears of an ass."
The gentleman grows more and more restive under this castigation, and says, "My wife still loves you; our favorite discussion is about your genius. She supposes you are a genius. We, I and she, love you even when we are in bed. Tss! It is I who must make faces. And when at night I go to my lonely thoughts, to my sleepless contemplations, even then I find your image in my head, in my unfortunate brain, your damned and hateful image!" The comment of HE on this is: "What a comedy! How marvelously everything is turned about in this world; the robbed proves to be a robber, and the robber is complaining of theft, and cursing!"
After this verbal duel between HE and the man who has taken his place "out there" in a world that cares very little about circuses, a second and even more tragic duel occurs between HE and Baron Regnard. The happiness--the very life--of Consuelo is at stake.
In the anteroom in which so many aspirations, hopes, heartbreaks, and disillusionments have unfolded, members of the circus troupe discuss the impending benefit performance in honor of Consuelo for which the Baron has provided a carload of roses "to cover the entire arena." Consuelo is to gallop on roses--"hymeneal roses"--and champagne is to flow like water.
The performance takes place: Consuelo enters the anteroom on the arm of the Baron; on the surface all is happiness. But no one has taken into account the somber motivation of He Who Gets Slapped. HE poisons a glass of wine which he offers to Consuelo. She innocently drinks half of it. HE drinks the other half. Both die. The Baron shoots himself.