Prologue

Captain Vere, an old man, is haunted by a moment in his life when he was tested and found wanting.

ACT I
Scene 1 On board HMS Indomitable, a British man-of-war, during the French wars of 1797

Parties of seamen are at work. A novice seaman collides accidentally with the Bosun and later slips on the deck; the Bosun orders him to be flogged.

A boarding party returns from a passing merchant ship, the Rights o' Man, with three men impressed for naval service. Master-at-Arms John Claggart interviews the men. Only the last, Billy Budd, pleases the officers: he is a strong and enthusiastic sailor whose one defect is an occasional stammer. He bids a joyful welcome to his new life and an impassioned farewell to the Rights o' Man. Misunderstanding his farewell for a revolutionary declaration, the officers are alarmed and order to clear the deck.

Claggart, who is responsible for discipline, is instructed to keep an eye on Billy. He sets his corporal, Squeak, to watch and harass him.

The Novice returns from the flogging. The new recruits, appalled by the sight, are assured by Donald and Dansker that no one can escape his share of punishment. They warn against Claggart while showing their devotion to Captain Vere. Billy is attracted to the goodness of Vere and, along with the other men, swears to die for him if necessary.

Scene 2 Captain Vere's cabin, a week later
Vere is reading alone at night. He sends for two officers to share a drink with him. They discuss the recent naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. Vere discounts their fears about Billy's influence on the men, who are heard singing below decks. Another officer arrives to announce that enemy land has been sighted.

Scene 3 Below decks, the same evening
The men are off-duty and singing sea shanties. Billy discovers Squeak meddling with his kit-bag and they fight until Squeak is disarmed. Claggart arrives, has Squeak arrested and congratulates Billy. The men turn in for the night.

Claggart reveals his determination to destroy Billy. He forces the Novice to try and bribe Billy into leading a mutiny.

Billy wakes from a dream of drowning to hear the Novice's proposal. In his fury at the idea of mutiny he can only stammer; the Novice runs away. Dansker realizes that Claggart is behind it all, but Billy refuses to believe him, dreaming instead of promotion.

ACT II

Scene 1 Some days later
Mist surrounds the ship. Claggart begins telling Vere that there is a dangerous seaman aboard, when a French ship is sighted. The crew are called to action stations; a shot is fired, but the wind fails, the mist returns and the chase is abandoned.

Claggart returns to Vere; he accuses Billy of planning a mutiny. Vere, disbelieving him, orders both men to his cabin.

Scene 2 Captain's Vere's cabin, a few minutes later
Billy arrives expecting promotion, only to be confronted by Claggart's false accusation of inciting mutiny. Finding himself unable to speak in his defence, Billy hits out and Claggart falls dead. Vere is horrified. Sending Billy into an adjoining room, he summons his officers to an immediate trial, knowing that the penalty for striking a superior officer is death. Billy is brought before the drumhead court martial. Aware of the injustice of the death sentence in this instance, the officers appeal to Vere for guidance; he refuses to advise them and they reluctantly resolve that Billy should be hanged at dawn. Vere knows that he could have saved Billy. He goes to tell him the verdict.

Scene 3 The next morning, shortly before dawn
Billy awaits his execution; Dansker brings him food and drink.

Scene 4 On deck, four o'clock the same morning
The crew assemble to witness the hanging. Billy's final words are 'Starry Vere, God bless you!', a shout which is echoed by the crew. But after the hanging they turn on the officers in anger and resentment. Ordered below, their rebellion subsides into sullen obedience.

Epilogue

Vere, an old man, knows he has failed Billy and himself: he could have saved him. He receives Billy's last words as a kind of benediction, redeeming him at the last.