Act 1, Prologue
Orpheus Descending is set in a dry-goods store in a small southern town. It begins with Dolly and Beulah laying out a buffet supper. As they talk they reveal that Jabe Torrance has had surgery in Memphis but he is dying. Beulah recalls how he had in effect bought his wife, Lady, when she was eighteen and had just had her heart broken by David Cutrere. Beulah also recalls that Lady's father was an Italian immigrant who during Prohibition acquired an orchard and made a wine garden of it. But he made the mistake of selling liquor to a black man, and the incensed locals burned down his orchard. He was killed in the blaze. Beulah wonders if Lady knows that her husband, whom she hates anyway, was the leader of the mob. Beulah also explains that Lady is planning to reopen a "confectionery'' (which will serve as a kind of nightclub) in another room in the store.
Act 1, Scene 1
Carol Cutrere makes a telephone call, while the Temple sisters gossip about her. Val Xavier enters, and shortly afterwards Vee Talbott arrives with one of her paintings. But it is Val, the stranger, who is the center of attention. Carol insists that she has met him before, in New Orleans, but Val denies it. Carol suggests they go out together, but Val, who is looking for a job, is not interested. Lady and Jabe enter. Jabe looks sick and goes upstairs to bed, but not before he and Lady reveal their mutual dislike. Carol continues to pester Val, and reveals to him some of her past. She used to be a civil rights campaigner, and once went on a protest walk wearing nothing but a potato sack. She was arrested for lewd vagrancy, and a vigilante group warned her to stay out of the county. Val picks up his guitar and leaves the store as the women continue to gossip.
Act 1, Scene 2
Two hours later, Val and Lady talk. Val complains about Carol's earlier attempt to seduce him. He shows Lady his guitar, which has been autographed by famous blues singers. Lady agrees to hire Val as a clerk, while insisting she has no wish to become sexually involved with him.