The Borough, a small fishing village on the East Coast of England.
A boy apprenticed to the fisherman Peter Grimes has died at sea. An inquest is being held to determine the cause of death. After hearing Grimes’s testimony, the coroner, Mr Swallow, finds that the boy died in ‘accidental circumstances’. He warns Grimes not to get another apprentice. Grimes demands a full trial and the right to employ another boy. His pleas are ignored and the court is cleared. Ellen Orford, the local schoolteacher, assures Peter that with her help the future will be better.
Scene 1: Morning
The Borough goes about its business. Grimes returns from fishing; only Captain Balstrode, a retired naval officer, and Ned Keene, the local apothecary, are willing to help bring in his boat. Keene tells Grimes he has arranged for a new apprentice from the workhouse. The carter, Hobson, at first refuses to fetch the boy, but consents when Ellen offers to look after the child on the journey. As a storm brews, Balstrode tries to dissuade Grimes from a course he fears will result in another tragedy, but Grimes is determined to get rich, marry Ellen and thus silence the Borough gossips.
Scene 2: The Boar
Late that night, the storm has reached hurricane force. To the annoyance of Auntie, the landlady, Mrs Sedley arrives to wait for Ned Keene. He has promised to meet her there with a new supply of laudanum. Auntie’s ‘nieces’ enter The Boar and fail to escape the advances of Balstrode and Bob Boles, the Methodist preacher. At the height of the storm, Ned Keene enters with news that the cliff by Grimes’s hut has been washed away. He is followed by Grimes himself: it is as if the eye of the storm has entered the room. Ellen and the new apprentice arrive, soaked and exhausted from their journey; before the boy can rest, Grimes insists on taking him straight home. He drags him off into the night.
Scene 1: Sunday morning
Ellen is sitting on the beach with John, the new apprentice, while the church service begins. She encourages the boy to talk about himself, but he says nothing. Only then does she notice the bruising on his neck and immediately fears the worst. Grimes comes to take the boy off fishing. Ellen pleads for the boy’s right for a day of rest. When Peter refuses, she tells him that their attempt to make a new start has failed. Peter, in a frenzy, hits out at her and rushes off with the boy. This scene has been witnessed, and when the congregation comes out of church there is a call for action against Grimes. The men set out for his hut. Auntie, Ellen and the ‘nieces’ are left alone to reflect on the hopelessness of loving men.
Scene 2: Grimes’s hut
Grimes orders the boy to get ready for fishing. Haunted by the death of the last apprentice, he feels his dream of marrying Ellen slipping away. When he hears the men from the Borough approaching, he immediately assumes the boy has betrayed him. As he is hurrying the boy down the cliff to the sea, the Borough knocks at the door. He panics. The boy screams as he slips and falls. Grimes climbs down after him. The men enter to find the hut deserted.
Scene 1: Outside the Moot Hall, a few days later
In the Moot Hall a dance is in full swing. Outside, Auntie’s ‘nieces’ manage to escape the attentions of the lecherous Mr Swallow, who retires defeated into the Boar. Mrs Sedley tells Ned Keene she has conclusive proof that Grimes has murdered his apprentice. Keene leaves her to her midnight ravings. Ellen and Balstrode appear, discussing Grimes’s disappearance. Mrs Sedley overhears that Ellen has found the boy’s sweater down by the shore. Ellen and Balstrode decide to try to find Grimes and help him. When they are gone, Mrs Sedley whips up the community against Grimes and a man-hunt begins.
Scene 2: Some hours later
Grimes is alone, tortured by the distant sound of the hunt, longing for escape and peace. Ellen and Balstrode find him, and Balstrode helps him push his boat out to sea for the last time. Day breaks and the Borough goes about its business. Far out at sea a boat is sinking.