When the self-described "family" of the World of Mirth carnival hits a streak of bad weather and bad luck, their response is fearfully un-family-like. The play begins three days after Kaspar Kelly, the carnival owner, has forcibly retired Oscar the Frog Boy, a twenty-year veteran of the freak tent. At the time, Sweeney, the dunk-cage clown and Oscar's best friend, begged his fellow carnies to kick in a few dollars to help keep Oscar on the midway; but pleading poverty, they refused. That night Oscar committed suicide, a fact Sweeney will not let them forget. Empowered by his own indifference, an indifference born of booze, grief and a nagging doubt, Sweeney has turned the taunts and insults he normally reserves for "marks" against the carnies themselves. But what begins as gleeful ridicule turns to wanton vindictiveness when one of his more reckless antics leaves him bloodied and betrayed. With savage spite he sets out to punish and destroy the entire carnival by exposing its every lie and self-delusion. At one point his embittered cynicism prompts him to deny even the existence of love itself. But ultimately it is love blind, passionate, desperate love, that destroys him.