The play opens on an early summer morning in 1912 in the crowded back room of Harry Hope's saloon. The residents sleep slumped over their tables. Rocky, the night bartender, sneaks Larry Slade, a former Syndicalist- Anarchist, a drink of whiskey. Larry should make it fast; the boss has started that bull again about making the sleeping deadbeats pay up. Cynically Larry jests that he will happily pay tomorrow. After all, their group has a "touching credulity" concerning tomorrows. So what if their ships have long sunk: the "pipe dream" gives life to the "misbegotten lot."
On his part, Larry, the old "Foolosopher," claims to have buried his pipe dreams. Having left the Movement, he has retired to the "grandstand of philosophical detachment" to watch the carnage and await death. Amused with himself, he wakes Hugo, a one time Anarchist editor, to get his assent. The drunken foreigner abuses both men and drops back into his slumber. Rocky is a little sore about Hugo reference to his "slave-girls": though he may manage a few "tarts," he is certainly no pimp.
Glancing around the room, Rocky notes that only Hickey's imminent visit could keep the group up. Everyone is afraid of missing the booze and merriment. Rocky recalls one of Hickey's gags in which he came in crying over his wife's picture and announced that he had seen her in the sack with the Iceman.
Suddenly Willie blurts out from his dream: "It's a lie! Papa! Papa!" His father was arrested years ago for illegal dealings in the bucket industry. Joe Mott awakes. Thinking of how he might procure a free drink, he recalls the young man, Parritt, who rented a room in the saloon last night and flashed a bankroll. Parritt, a young Anarchist, has come to Larry for help upon the arrest of his cohorts for a bombing on the Coast. Years ago, Larry was his mother's lover.
Larry defensively dismisses his visit as insignificant. Joe admits to a preference for Socialists over Anarchists as the former always have to give him a cut. Parritt enters, and the others size him up. He defensively insists that he has no bankroll to offer them. Rocky and Joe settle into sleep.
Now alone with Larry, Parritt explains how he has come to hide out from the police. He recalls Larry from his childhood and always thought of him as a father. Larry is moved in spite of himself. Neither of them can believe a stool pigeon lurked in the Movement. Parritt found Larry through the letters his mother kept in their flat, a strange gesture for a woman so committed to her cause. He is convinced Larry left the Movement over their affair.