Vivian Bearing begins the play onstage in a hospital gown, pushing an IV pole. She is “fifty, tall and very thin, barefoot, and completely bald.” She has stage-four ovarian cancer and is a patient at the University hospital—the same university where she works as a professor in the English department. She greets the audience “in false familiarity,” with a “Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That’s just great.” This familiarity breaks, and she says, “This is not my standard greeting, I assure you. […] But it is the standard greeting around here.”
The opening of the play introduces its structure and shifting narrative perspective. Here Vivian is addressing the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall and acting as an omniscient narrator, while at the same time presenting herself as the main character of the play and dressed as a cancer patient, the role she plays throughout.
Vivian undertakes a brief grammatical analysis of possible responses to the question, adding that she is a professor of seventeenth-century poetry who specializes in John Donne’s sonnets. Though when doctors ask her how she’s feeling she generally responds that she feels “fine,” she’s actually dying from terminal cancer and she clearly feels horrible. She jokes that she wishes she had come upon “the question’s ironic significance” earlier, so she could have deployed it while handing out final exams to her students.
The motif of the detached, rather meaningless question “How are you feeling today?” will recur throughout the action to follow. This serves as an early example of empty language that is unable or unwilling to face the harsh realities of life, and of doctors practicing professional detachment (they’re supposed to have “bedside manner” and ask questions like this) rather than having real empathy and individual concern.
Vivian addresses the fact that she is narrating a play, saying that irony is a literary device she will deploy throughout. Though she’d prefer the play be about a “mythic-heroic-pastoral” hero, the fact is that it’s about a woman suffering from ovarian cancer. She also notes that she was surprised to realize that the play is sometimes funny.
Edson deploys irony in various ways, and in another meta-theatrical moment here she has Vivian state that fact directly. Throughout the play, Vivian switches back and forth between being a narrator (who knows how the play is going to end) and being a character (who is unaware of her fate). At this point, she is establishing that the play itself will contain moments of dramatic irony—emphasizing the separation between what character-Vivian knows and what narrator-Vivian knows.
Vivian says, “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die in the end,” and she explains that she has two hours left to live. She notes that to illustrate this she could potentially use the “threadbare metaphor” of sand slipping through an hour glass, but at the moment she isn’t poetically inclined. She quotes Shakespeare, and says that after the two hours are over, “Then: curtain.”
This is another humorous meta-dramatic moment, as Vivian references the length of the play itself—within the narrative, she actually has months to live, not just two hours. But as both a professor of literature and a narrator describing her life from beyond the grave, she is presented as someone often detached from day-to-day reality, a scholar who takes a critical and analytical distance from life.