The Earl of Chesterfield is being carted to his grave when he's jolted back into the land of the living by startling news: his private letters to his illegitimate son have been published for the curious mob. He bribes the astonished pallbearers and assorted lookers-on into helping him reconstruct those years. What son? What letters? It's all a blur. The skeptical crowd agrees to give him two hours, no more, to get clear on what happened. They'll even help him. Then his carcass goes to St. Paul's as planned.
Thus begins the whirlwind tour through Chesterfield's misguided efforts to raise that son (yes, there was one) to become exactly what the father wants: a refined gentleman and scholar, a diplomat, eventually secretary of state. But his plans skip over completely the boy's need for happiness and the overwhelming power of love.
When the boy Stanhope meets Eugenia, his one true love, he realizes that she would never get his father's approval. She realizes the same thing, so she rejects Stanhope coldly, breaking her own heart in the process. But Stanhope won't give up. Misunderstandings and separations abound till finally the couple embarks on a secret marriage, practically under the father's eye. Two children, debts, and quarrels follow. Then Stanhope gets a diplomatic post in Germany, putting the family well outside Chesterfield's reach.
But calamity strikes hard: Stanhope dies, leaving Eugenia to reveal the truth. Chesterfield closes his heart till Eugenia storms his mansion with all the letters he sent to his dear boy--chiding, coaxing, demanding, pandering, threatening. Finally he sees his own failings and what he stands to gain by welcoming Eugenia and the children. The bell at St. Paul's begins to toll the hour as Chesterfield resumes his place on the bier, a father finally at rest.
To span 45 years (1728-1773) across many locations, Dear Boy adopts a completely theatrical style. If someone holds up a sign reading "London," that's where we are. The setting remains the same, with Chesterfield anchored at his writing table while the life he seeks to control swirls about him. A lapse of years shows in a child's growth, with a larger puppet replacing a smaller one. To play a king, a beggar puts on a crown. Three principals--Chesterfield, Stanhope, and Eugenia--occupy the heart of the show, supported by puppets (Lady Chesterfield and all children) and a flexible ensemble of 4 to 6 (or more) to manipulate the puppets and play all other characters, from the cagey Mrs. Gimlet trying to help the lovers' cause, to the pallbearers, maids and footmen who hurry Chesterfield through his story and prod him to see the consequences of his actions.