The Royal Family unfolds in a series of hectic, dialogue-filled scenes with many characters running about the stage talking at cross purposes. Rather than having a well-defined plot, it presents several conflicts. The central one involves the opposition of two ways of life–secure, dull materialism and domesticity versus the erratic, egocentric, but fulfilling, life in the theatre.
The play is set in the familial home of the Cavendish family, its members representing three generations of actors. Fanny, the mother, is a legendary actress in her seventy-second year. Her two children are box office sensations: Julie is a Broadway star; and flamboyant, swashbuckling Tony has allowed Hollywood to lure him from the stage. In addition, Julie’s daughter, Gwen, is a promising Broadway ingenue. Fanny’s brother, Herbert Dean, and his wife, Kitty, are a squabbling pair of thespians who try to outdo each other with aggrandized memories of past Broadway roles.
As the play opens, Julie Cavendish is pondering giving up her stage career to marry ex-suitor, now millionaire industrialist, Gil Martin, and move with him to South America. Her daughter, Gwen, is struggling to accommodate her developing acting career to her love for society scion Perry Stewart.
It soon becomes evident that the differences between Philistine (Gil and Perry) and artist (Julie and Gwen) are irreconcilable. As Gil describes the joys of his life among his “very fine” friends the Zamacos, Julie’s resolve to get away from the madness of the acting profession weakens. However, Gwen does marry Perry and bear his son, but she is soon planning to go back on the stage herself—and start the baby (who is named Aubrey for his great-grandfather, the Shakespearean actor) on the same path. It is abundantly clear that Gil and Perry will always be outsiders in their women’s lives.
While the two husbands become one set of fools to be defeated by the wisecracks of Julie and her mother, Fanny, those theatre people who are not true artists serve as another set. Paramount among them are the conceited hams Herbert Dean and his wife, Kitty, who, lacking talent and having lost youth, must descend from the legitimate theatre to vaudeville melodrama. They contrast markedly with grande dame Fanny, who, despite her age, is prevented from making a triumphant comeback tour only by the illness that leads to her death at the final curtain.
Fanny’s black sheep son, Tony, also comes in for some of the same type of satire, while providing much of the play’s humor as well, as he exaggerates the events of his own life into a never-ending melodrama. Tony has the true Cavendish talent, but he has sold out to Hollywood; he spends most of his time, not acting, but either evading women he has seduced and abandoned or hiding out from the reporters his scandals attract.
At the end of the play, however, all the family members are returning to the stage, Tony playing Christ in an updated version of the Passion play. Fanny is sitting alone in the library—happily savoring her joy that the entire family will soon be appearing in American theatres and relishing the debut of the little Aubrey: “He’s a Cavendish, and he’s going to carry on. We always have and we always will. When one drops out, there’s always another one to take his place.” Then suddenly her drinking glass drops from her hand, her hand drops to her side, and she is dead.