The Grand Dukeor, The Statutory Duel
As the curtain rises on the village square in Pfennig Halbpfennig, the members of Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical troupe are happily anticipating the wedding of Ludwig, principal comedian, and Lisa, lovely young soubrette. The hated Grand Duke Rudolph is busy planning his own wedding tomorrow to Baroness Krakenfeld. The members of the troupe are all conspirators in a plot to dethrone Rudolph and replace him with an elected Grand Duke. Ernest has promised his troupe that if they all vote for him, he will give each of them a position in his new government, according to his or her professional position within the troupe. The beautiful actress Julia Jellicoe would, as leading lady of the troupe, necessarily become the Grand Duke's wife, which would realize Ernest's fondest hopes. All hopes are dashed, however, when Ludwig inadvertently reveals the plot to overthrow Rudolph to Rudolph's own detective.
The Notary concocts a scheme to save the day: they shall stage a "statutory duel." This is a duel fought with cards; he who draws the highest is the winner, and assumes all rights and responsibilities of the loser. The loser becomes (in the eyes of the law if not in actual fact) dead. If Ludwig and Ernest fight such a duel, the winner can then go to Grand Duke Rudolph, expose the loser as the mastermind of the plot, accept Rudolph's grateful pardon, and thus avoid disaster. The loser must remain "dead" for only one day, since the act remains in effect for only 100 years, and expires tomorrow! He can then "come back to life," unconcerned about Rudolph's vengeance, since a man can only die once, and "death expunges crime." They draw cards and Ludwig wins.
When Ludwig approaches Rudolph to reveal the plot, he finds the Grand Duke distraught, having just received news of the plot from his detective. When Rudolph pleads for a cheap and painless way out of his misery, Ludwig clearly offers to stage a phony statutory duel, rigged so he will win and be "the victim of your subjects' fury." And, as the act expires in a day, Rudolph can come back to life tomorrow and again be Grand Duke. Rudolph agrees, and a crowd gathers to witness the contrived hostilities. As planned, Ludwig wins and Rudolph "dies," but Ludwig's first act as Grand Duke is to renew the act for another hundred years. As Julia must now marry Ludwig instead of Ernest, Lisa sorrowfully leaves the scene. Ludwig plans to model his new government on ancient Athens (a choice suggested, perhaps, by the Troilus and Cressida costumes on hand), and all is merry as the curtain falls.
As Act II opens, the troupe enters in classical procession, bearing Julia, their new Grand Duchess, and Ludwig sings the praises of ancient Greece. An angry Baroness appears, expecting to marry Rudolph, but as his responsibilities have been assumed by Ludwig, she readily agrees to marry him instead. Enraged, Julia leaves; the crowd happily goes off to attend another wedding.
Ernest and Rudolph both reappear. Upon learning of Ludwig's treachery in renewing the act, they retain the Notary to find some way out of their statutory tangle. Meanwhile, the Baroness and Ludwig's wedding celebration is interrupted by a herald announcing the arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo and his beautiful daughter, eager to fulfill the conditions of her betrothal in infancy to the Grand Duke. Before Ludwig can acquire his fourth wife in twenty-four hours, Rudolph, Ernest, and the Notary enter and reveal that Ludwig has never really been Grand Duke after all!