A voice heard over a loudspeaker sets the scene and presents the characters.
Scene 1 Harlequin describes his sorry life without laughter or love. Death joins him and together they lament how slowly time passes in their grim environment. Death belittles Harlequin's wish to die and explains how much more dire his own situation is than that of Harlequin. He lacks respect now that the "old-fashioned craft of dying" has been replaced by "motorized chariots of war" that work him to exhaustion with little satisfaction.
The Drummer announces the latest decree of the Emperor: Everyone will be armed and everyone will fight until there are no survivors. Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role: "To take men's souls is my job, not his!" He declares that he is on strike and breaks his saber.
In his palace, the Emperor gives battle orders and monitors the progress of the universal war. He learns of a man who continues to live eighty minutes after being hanged and shot. The Loudspeaker reports that thousands of soldiers are "wrestling with life...doing their best to die" without success. Fearful that his power will not endure without death, the Emperor announces that he has decided to reward his subjects with the gift of eternal life. More honestly, he asks: "Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory, Hell?"
A Soldier and a Maiden (the Bobbed-Hair Girl) confront one another as enemies. Unable to kill each other, their thoughts turn to love. They dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside "meadows filled with color and fragrance." The Drummer attempts to lure them back to battle with the sensual attraction of the call. The Maiden responds: "Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!" She and the Soldier sing: "Only love can unite us, unite us all together."
The Emperor continues to oversee his failing realm, where his subjects angrily protest their suspension in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him, reminding him of his innocent childhood. The Drummer urges the Emperor to maintain his resolve, but the Emperor's memories turn his thoughts from his plans for the annihilation of all. Instead he gazes into a covered mirror and asks: "What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?"
He pulls away the mirror's cloth and faces the reflection of Death. "Who are you?" he demands. Death describes his role modestly, like that of a gardener "who roots up wilting weeds, life's worn-out fellows." He regrets the pain his strike is causing. When the Emperor asks him to resume his duties, Death proposes a resolution to the crisis: "I'm prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?" After some resistance, the Emperor agrees and the suffering people find release in death once more. The Emperor sings his farewell. In a closing chorus, Death is praised and asked to "teach us to keep your holiest law: Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!"