Although the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty is well known for her many short stories, novels, essays, and photographs, as well as for her fine ear for catching the speech patterns of the South, Bye-Bye, Brevoort is her only published play. A one-act farce, the play was first performed at a summer theater in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1949. More notably, Bye-Bye, Brevoort was included in the 1956 off-Broadway production, The Littlest Revue. The play was published for the first time by Palaemon Press for the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. This edition is no longer in print and difficult to obtain; however, in 1991, editor Daniel Halpern included Bye-Bye, Brevoort in his book, Plays in One Act, a readily available source.
Bye-Bye, Brevoort is the story of three elderly ladies who live in the Hotel Brevoort, an actual building in New York City that was torn down shortly after Welty wrote her play. The three women entertain a gentleman caller for tea, while wrecking balls and workers destroy the hundred-year-old Brevoort. The humor derives from the women's refusal to notice that their home is falling apart as they continue their outdated rituals. While hilarious, the play also suggests a more serious theme, the destruction of the old to make way for the new.
Eudora Alice Welty was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi, to Chestina Andrews Welty and Christian Webb Welty. Her mother was a former schoolteacher and her father was an insurance executive. Welty's mother encouraged her daughter in all creative pursuits. Her father, an amateur photographer, also was very influential in his daughter's life. Welty was the eldest child in the family and the only daughter. The family members were great readers and placed a high value on learning. As a child, she visited the Andrew Carnegie Library daily and was allowed to take out two books per day.
Welty spent her entire childhood in Jackson. She began her college education at the Mississippi State College for Women, and completed studies for her bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1929. From there she went to New York City, where she began studies in advertising at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in 1930. Welty's father died of leukemia in 1931 and she returned to Jackson. Between 1931 and 1934, she edited copy for the local radio station and also wrote for the Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper. During the Great Depression, she secured a job in the publicity department of the Works Progress Administration, where she wrote articles and advertising. The job also allowed her to travel throughout Mississippi, and she took a great many photographs during this time.
In 1936, after several years of submitting stories to magazines, Welty published her first short story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," in the magazine Manuscript. In the same year, an exhibition of her Depression pictures was mounted in New York.
It took two more years for Welty to receive national attention. The publication of "Why I Live at the P.O." and "The Worn Path" in the Atlantic Monthly assured her of her place in twentieth-century American literature. In 1941, Welty's first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, was published to great critical success. In the same year, she also released the collection The Wide Net and Other Stories, following this book with the novella The Robber Bridegroom in 1942. Welty published her first full-length novel, Delta Wedding, in 1946. After this publication, she immediately began work on another project; however, she was unsure whether she was writing a series of connected short stories or a novel. In spite of urging from her agent, publisher, and friends to finish the project, she chose to put it aside when she went to New York City in 1948 to work with the writer Hildegarde Dolson on a musical revue. When she returned to Jackson in the summer of 1948, she completed both the material for the revue, including Bye-Bye, Brevoort, and the final two stories for her project. Published as The Golden Apples, the collection of connected short stories received critical acclaim and popular success. The stories are still considered to be some of Welty's finest fiction.
During the 1940s, Welty divided her time between Jackson and New York, finally returning to Jackson for good in the 1950s when her mother and her brothers became ill. For fifteen years, she cared for her mother and her brothers and consequently had little time for her literary endeavors.
After the deaths of her family members, she published two novels, including Losing Battles (1970) and The Optimist's Daughter (1972), a work that garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Welty in 1973. Welty also contributed to the field of writing with the 1978 book of essays The Eye of the Story, and her autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings. This book, published in 1984, is one of her most popular works, and is used in college classrooms across the United States and the United Kingdom.
Over her lifetime, Welty received many honors for her writing. In addition to her 1973 Pulitzer Prize, she also received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, numerous O. Henry awards, and the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Welty a Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest award that the President can bestow on a civilian. The French government inducted her into the French Legion of Honor the same year. In 2000, Welty was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Welty died at ninety-two from complications of pneumonia on July 22, 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work continues to be widely anthologized, and critical interest in her writing has increased since her death.
Bye-Bye, Brevoort is a one-act farce, written as a sketch to be included in a longer musical revue. The setting of the play is the sitting room of Millicent Fortescue, an elderly resident of the Brevoort Hotel who does not seem to notice that the entire building is being demolished to make way for a new building. The time of the play is 1948, just a few years before the real Hotel Brevoort, a Manhattan landmark, was torn down.
As the play opens, Fortescue announces that it is time for four o'clock tea to her friends who live across the hall, Agatha Chrome and Violet Whichaway, both elderly women who, like Fortescue, wear hearing aids. All three women are dressed to the hilt: Fortescue is in lace, Chrome wears silk, and Whichaway is in tweeds. Fortescue calls for Evans, her maid, to set the tea table, then recalls that she has sent Evans out for petits fours, little frosted cakes suitable for high tea. Fortescue's oblivion to the world outside her door is made clear when she says she will have to send the Brevoort out to find Evans if she does not return soon. In truth, there is no one at the front desk, or anywhere else in the hotel, save for the wrecking crew making their way toward Fortescue's apartment.
At this moment, Evans arrives, riding a bike and dressed in an elaborate, old-fashioned maid's costume. She knows that the building is being torn down, but continues to humor the old women, although she makes wise cracks throughout the play. Fortescue is appalled that Evans has ridden her bicycle through the lobby and asks if anyone saw her. Evans replies that only men with dynamite and axes were there. Fortescue is relieved that no one with a lorgnette (a pair of handheld glasses favored by the upper class) has seen her maid. Evans begins setting the tea table, pulling out an elaborate tea service, china, glasses, vases, and a cake platter from behind a screen.
Fortescue announces that they will be joined for tea by Desmond Dupree, an elderly gentleman who regularly calls on the ladies. All three are in a flutter because he is coming. Dupree is clearly an aging ladies' man.
Dupree arrives. He says that he has had quite a bit of difficulty getting to the apartment due to low-class people in the hallways sawing on the walls. He does not seem to understand the significance of this, but rather deplores the caliber of people hanging about the corridors of the hotel.
Offstage, the sounds of the demolition are growing louder. Items in the apartment begin to vibrate and shake. The four elderly people complain about the traffic noise and their disgust with the numbers of lower-class people they are coming into contact with at the Brevoort.
Meanwhile, as Evans serves tea, she recites verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," the tale of a boat that meets its destruction. The building is shaking so much at this point that Dupree drops his teacup. Meanwhile, the voices of the wrecking crew can be heard just offstage as they draw closer to the apartment. Fortescue instructs Evans Page 44 | Top of Articleto telephone the Brevoort management, but of course, no one can get through.
At this moment, the wrecking crew breaks down the door. They enter, and try to persuade the group to leave the building. At this point, a carrier pigeon arrives with the message that the management is no longer at the Brevoort and advising the residents to do whatever the wrecking crew tells them to do. Fortescue attempts to resume the tea party while the Wreckers begin carrying furniture off the stage. Fortescue tells Evans to call for fresh tea to be sent up on the dumbwaiter, a device that carries items from floor to floor. When the dumbwaiter signals, Evans extracts a tea tray loaded with lighted dynamite sticks. Evans places the tray on the tea table, and the four residents place napkins in lap and prepare to eat. The Wreckers next begin carrying off the women in their chairs. Evans jumps on the back of one of the Wreckers and is carried off stage. Dupree is the final resident remaining on stage. The stage directions state that he "opens his collar and bares his throat, as one going to the guillotine." The Wreckers light his cigarette with a dynamite stick, and Dupree exits. Amidst the noise of the destruction, "The Marseillaise," the national song of France, associated with the French Revolution, begins to play. The last Wrecker leaves, carrying a portrait of the original inhabitant of the suite, Aunt Emmaline. Her fingers are in her ears. The walls collapse as the curtains close.
Agatha Chrome is an upper-class, elderly resident of the Hotel Brevoort. She wears a floral silk dress and a hat. Her apartment is across the hall from Millicent Fortescue's. Like Fortescue, she seems oblivious to the destruction of the hotel and continues to partake in the high tea ritual. Like the other characters of Bye-Bye, Brevoort, Chrome is a caricature of a particular type of old woman. Her name suggests Agatha Christie, a famous English mystery writer. Christie's novels depicted English upper-middle-class society, complete with the disregard for upsetting events and the insistence on maintaining a "stiff upper lip" in all circumstances.
Desmond Dupree is an upper-class, elderly gentleman who makes a point of joining the ladies for high tea on Thursdays. He wears a chesterfield jacket and yellow gloves, and carries a furled umbrella. He has a reputation as a ladies' man, and despite his age, continues to flirt with the women. He, along with the women, is aghast at the lower-class people milling about in the Brevoort. In actuality, these are the Wreckers. At the end of the play, he is the last of the elderly people to exit, as if he is going to his own execution. The Dupree character would be a recognizable stereotype for Welty's audience; like his female counterparts in the play, he represents a bygone era, one that Welty seems unsympathetic to. What was considered suave, charming, and dashing in the nineteenth century, for example, is portrayed by Welty as seedy and ridiculous at the time of the writing of the play. One might imagine an elderly Peter O'Toole playing this role with a great deal of irony.
Evans is Fortescue's maid. She wears a very elaborate maid's uniform, more suitable to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth. She is very active, riding into the apartment on her bicycle and roller skating places. She is not of the same class as the elderly women, as is evident from her language. While she is kind to the guests, and not disrespectful, she is a wisecracker and makes many funny remarks, often depending on puns for her humor. She is the comic element in the play. Nothing seems to faze Evans; although she knows that the Brevoort Hotel is being torn down, she continues to carry out her tasks as instructed. While the elderly women in the play are a parody of upper-class, clueless women, Evans is not a parody of a servant. To have made her so, Welty would have had to exaggerate her servitude. Rather, Evans is a representative of a whole new class of servers, people who are sure of themselves, cocky, and not at all daunted or intimidated by wealth. Although she is clothed in an outmoded uniform, she rides a bicycle and roller skates through the hotel. Such actions suggest that she has little respect for the past, as represented by the building. At the same time, she is neither cruel nor confrontational with the elderly people in the play. Rather, Welty uses Evans in this skit in the conventional role of the Fool, a theater tradition that extends back as far as Shakespeare. While the Fool can function as Page 45 | Top of Articlecomic relief in a play, the Fool is, at the same time, the wisest character in a play, as well as the most honest. The Fool character typically cloaks his or her wise and honest remarks with jokes, puns, and humor. In this way, the character to whom he or she is speaking can take the Fool at his or her word while the audience can read the truth beneath the surface. In Bye-Bye, Brevoort, Evans serves this function through her comic asides and her general demeanor. She clearly knows the score as far as the building is concerned, but she continues to humor the elderly women by serving their tea. She is by far the funniest character in the play and is absolutely essential for its success. One might imagine a young Carol Burnett playing this role; Evans is a larger-than-life character whose over-the-top antics provide the comic backdrop to the destruction of a way of life.
The First Wrecker is the head of a three-man crew who are in the process of dismantling and demolishing the Brevoort. He is clearly lower-class, as is evident from his dialect. He is trying to get the elderly people to leave, and eventually he and his men carry the women offstage.
Millicent Fortescue is an upper-class, elderly resident of the Brevoort Hotel. She is dressed in lace, and also has a parasol with her. The action of the play takes place in the apartment she has lived in for many years after inheriting it from her Aunt Emmaline. The furnishings in Fortescue's apartment are heavy Victorian pieces and bric-a-brac. Her goal throughout the play is to continue to serve tea, a four o'clock ritual she has always upheld. She continues to behave throughout the play as if she is the one in charge of not only the tea party but the entire building. She appears oblivious to the wreckage around her and continues to order items such as hot water from the hotel when it is clear that the Brevoort is about to collapse. Like the other characters in the play, she is a caricature rather than a developed character. Because the action of the skit takes place in her dwelling, she can be considered the main character of the play, and the other characters take their lead from her. Welty has little sympathy for Fortescue; the character acts as if she is a member of the English peerage. In so creating Fortescue, Welty is satirizing Americans who emulate the English, as if it makes them more refined or of higher status.
Violet Whichaway is the third upper-class, elderly resident of the Brevoort. She, too, lives across the hall from Millicent Fortescue. She is dressed in tweeds with white shoes and stockings and a hat. She favors an ear trumpet to cope with her deafness. She, too, seems unaware of the noise and destruction just outside her door. Welty, in this character, satirizes the English landed gentry, a class of people who live on large estates in England. Like the others, her deafness suggests that she is unable to hear the new age as it arrives at her door. Indeed, it is unlikely that she hears anything at all that she does not want to hear. In addition, her name suggests that she does not know "whichaway" she is going.
The Wreckers have been tasked with tearing down the Hotel Brevoort. When the elderly people will not leave the premises at their request, they physically remove the women, carrying them offstage. The Wreckers are representative of a class of people the elderly characters regard as Philistines or barbarians. In the play, they represent the modern generation's complete disregard for the structures and traditions of the past. Their only concern is to tear down the building without any thought as to the lifestyles they are destroying. They work without sympathy and have disdain for the characters they are displacing. At the same time, because Welty's parody of the upper classes is so acute, her attitude toward the Wreckers is slightly ambiguous. On the one hand, she demonstrates that the values of the Victorian world are not appropriate for the time. On the other, The Wreckers, as symbols of the new age, seem to act without respect or regard for the past. They appear as ignorant as the elderly people. Welty seems to suggest that neither group is responding to changing times with either rationality or compassion.
Although Bye-Bye, Brevoort is a farce, meant to amuse the audience through its slapstick comedy and physical humor, the play nonetheless has several serious themes. One of these concerns the nature of change. At the time Welty was writing Bye-Bye, Brevoort, many nineteenth-century Page 46 | Top of Articlebuildings in New York City, such as the Brevoort Hotel, were being slated for destruction in order to make room for new buildings. It was a time of rapid change, when not only old buildings, but also old traditions were being destroyed. In this sketch, Welty demonstrates ambivalence toward the changes. On the one hand, the elderly people living in the last remaining apartment of the Brevoort are silly in their attempts to maintain their traditions as the hotel crumbles around them. Welty seems to be suggesting that the Brevoort and its residents are symbolic of the old order, crumbling away under the pressure from a new order brought about by modernism, World War II, and technology. However, she does not seem to wholeheartedly approve of destruction for destruction's sake. The members of the wrecking crew are not presented in a favorable fashion, either. They are crude, brutish men who exhibit no sympathy for or understanding of tradition. Evans, it seems, is the only character who appears to take in both worlds. The most interesting character in the play, and the funniest, she is perhaps a stand in for Welty herself, laughing at both the dinosaurs and the philistines.
A second serious concern of Bye-Bye, Brevoort is that of social class. This is made apparent throughout the play as the elderly people are all depicted as upper-class, while the members of the wrecking crew and Evans, the maid, are depicted as lower-class. Welty accomplishes this through her descriptions of their costumes, their accents, their possessions, and their expectations.
One apparent attribute of the upper class in this play is their unwavering expectation that they deserve to be served by others. This is evident in the way that Fortescue orders Evans around. Moreover, they are completely oblivious to anything but their own needs. Thus, in spite of the noise in the corridor and ongoing explosions, the elderly people in the play believe that the Brevoort Hotel will continue to fulfill their every whim, including providing them with hot, fresh tea. A second attribute is their sense of superiority. The three women, as well as Dupree, complain that unsavory characters are in the hall. Indeed, all are scandalized when Dupree reports that some of the skaters in the park have beards. Fortescue immediately believes that this is something that the Brevoort should eliminate.
While Welty portrays the upper class as empty-headed and selfish, she does not render the wrecking crew in any better light. These men speak English with accents associated with the uneducated, they are rude to the inhabitants of the apartment, and they demonstrate no sympathy or understanding to the elderly people being forced out of their homes. In short, Welty portrays them as brutes. Of all the characters, the only one described sympathetically is Evans. She is lively, and although her English is not always proper, she demonstrates a quick wit and fine
intelligence. As such, she symbolizes, perhaps, a future in which class distinction is eliminated.
It would be easy to assume that Welty is simply satirizing the elderly in this play. She does not portray any of the elderly characters in a positive light. They are stereotypical of old people who do not understand their surroundings nor are considerate of those around them. However, it is also possible to consider aging in terms of the Hotel Brevoort. This building was an important landmark in the city of New York. Through its doors passed some of the most powerful people of the nineteenth century. At the same time, it stood for a class of people and an array of values rendered obsolete by World War II and technology. The essential thematic question concerning aging that Welty raises in this place is this: do aging buildings and aging people deserve to be destroyed? Or ought the modern age pay attention to their knowledge and historical significance? This is not to say that the old is inherently superior to the new, nor the elderly wiser than the young. It is to say, however, that the old might have something to offer the new, and that it is up to young people to distinguish what is valuable enough to be saved, and what must be discarded. This is a serious task. The fact that a building or a group of people are aging does not necessarily mean they must be discarded.
Most critics and biographers writing about Eudora Welty identify Bye-Bye, Brevoort as a farce. A farce is a short, funny play, often filled with slapstick and broad jokes, which finds its humor in the paradox of incongruous situations. That is, a farce will be funny to an audience because the situations it portrays do not fit together. For example, in Bye-Bye, Brevoort, Fortescue and her cronies insist on their afternoon tea ritual. This ritual is ridiculously pushed up against the demolition of the entire hotel. The humor is that the elderly people refuse to read the situation accurately, and their elaborate tea ritual is wildly out of place in a collapsing building.
In addition, Bye-Bye, Brevoort has its share of silly, broad jokes meant to elicit a laugh from the audience. For example, at the crucial moment in the tea ritual, Evans produces a tea tray loaded with lighted dynamite sticks. Thus, the one plot of the play, the destruction of the Brevoort, collides with the second, the afternoon tea at Fortescue's apartment. The scene is rendered even sillier with Evan's proclamation, "TNT is served, mum." Again, the juxtaposition of TNT and tea is both incongruous and funny.
Finally, farces often are highly satiric and parody, or imitate for the purpose of ridiculing, social institutions. In the case of Bye-Bye, Brevoort, Welty is poking fun at a whole class of people who do not see that the world they have grown up in is crumbling around them. Instead of seeing the world for what it is, this social class refuses to acknowledge change in the world. Likewise, she also parodies the brutish wrecking crew by painting them with a broad stroke as well. She suggests that those involved in wholesale destruction are just as culpable for the world's problems as are the self-delusional upper classes. Farce is the vehicle that allows Welty to compare these two very different worldviews in a funny and lighthearted manner.
Wordplay and Allusions
Throughout Bye-Bye, Brevoort, Welty relies on wordplay for much of the humor of the skit. Puns, considered by many to be the lowest form of humor, are important structural devices for the play, and demonstrate Welty's keen concern with the nuances of language. For example, Page 48 | Top of Articleshe plays on the similarity of sound between "tea" and "TNT" to set up the biggest joke of the skit, the juxtaposition of a very proper high tea party with the explosions associated with the destruction of the Brevoort. In addition, Welty utilizes allusion, or references to other works of literature, to create comedy. Evans's reciting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," for example, pokes fun at the nineteenth-century artistic sensibilities of the three elderly ladies while also connecting the wrecking of the famous ship with the wrecking of the Brevoort. In addition, Welty parodies the famous last scene from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, when Sidney Carton must face the guillotine. Carton's fate is tragic in the novel; associating the has-been ladies' man, Desmond Dupree with Carton is a humorous incongruity. Carton, after all, is about to lose his life. Dupree is just leaving a crumbling apartment. Welty's inclusion in the stage directions that the French national anthem, "The Marseillaise," should be playing amidst the noise of the destruction adds further irony to the scene.
The Hotel Brevoort
In order to understand much of the humor in Bye-Bye, Brevoort, it is important to understand something about the building Welty uses for her setting. The Brevoorts were a family of Dutch settlers who purchased farmland in 1714 in what is present day Greenwich Village in New York City. They held this farmland for many, many years, growing wealthier all the time. In Page 49 | Top of Article1824, Henry Brevoort built a large mansion on Fifth Avenue, and in 1854, the Brevoort family created a posh hotel out of three adjoining houses on Fifth Avenue. According to the Museum of the City of New York, the Brevoort Hotel was a favorite place for visiting European dignitaries to stay while in the United States during the 1860s. By all accounts, it was a luxurious and magnificent building.
In 1902, the Brevoort Hotel was purchased by a French restaurateur, Raymond Orteig. In his able hands, the Brevoort Cafeé became one of the most sophisticated and popular eateries in New York. Many of the most important writers of the early twentieth century chose the Cafeé as their favorite gathering place. In spite of this popularity, the milieu began to change shortly after World War I. Many of the old mansions in Greenwich Village were being replaced by high-rise buildings. In 1927, Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for the first person who would fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop. This feat was accomplished, of course, by Charles Lindbergh, who instantly became an international hero. When he returned to New York City, he was feted by a ticker tape parade, and received his prize money at a ceremony at the Brevoort Hotel.
Two important historical events impacted the future of the Brevoort Hotel: Prohibition and the Great Depression. In 1920, the United States passed a constitutional amendment that made it illegal to sell or purchase alcohol. Bars and restaurants across the nation went out of business as a result, particularly after the 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash, which resulted in the Great Depression. Orteig was forced to sell the Brevoort in 1932, although the hotel remained open, the home to an aging clientele who recalled the glory days of the great residence. After 1945, with economic recovery and the return of the veterans of World War II, change in Greenwich Village accelerated. The remaining old hotels, apartment buildings, and houses were demolished quickly and new, sleek high-rise apartments took their place. The Brevoort Hotel closed as a hotel in 1948, and ordered its permanent residents to vacate the premises at that time. The Museum of the City of New York states that the Hotel Brevoort and the other buildings on its block were all razed in 1954 to make way for the nineteen-story Brevoort
Apartments. Using the events of her own time, Welty satirized both the shabby elegance of the old hotel as well as the rush to destroy old buildings so prevalent in the post-war United States when she wrote Bye-Bye, Brevoort.
In 1981, the Brevoort Apartments were converted to cooperatives, flats that are owned outright rather than rented. The Brevoort Apartments continue to stand in the location of the old Hotel Brevoort, and the name is once again associated with very wealthy, upper-class residents.
Eudora Welty is one of the most highly regarded twentieth-century American writers. In an obituary appearing in the July 24, 2001, Washington Post, Bart Barnes links Welty with William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Allen Tate, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren as the Page 50 | Top of Article"key figures in the movement that created a Southern literary renaissance during the 1930s, '40s and '50s and made Southern writing a major force in 20th century American literature." Likewise, Albin Krebs, writing in the July 24, 2001, edition of the New York Times, writes that Welty's work is "notable for [its] imagery, sharp dialogue and fierce wit."
Nonetheless, Bye-Bye, Brevoort is a much different kind of literature than that which Welty is generally noted for. John Burt, writing in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, writes that "Eudora Welty is a practitioner of the arts of subtlety and indirection, opening out the inner lives of her characters with perfect judiciousness and impartiality into radiance, but always by means of restraint." While such a comment holds true for Welty's short stories and novels, Bye-Bye, Brevoort is not in the least restrained nor subtle. A broad farce poking fun at outmoded traditionalists, heavy-handed modernists, and the class consciousness of both, Bye-Bye, Brevoort allows the reader to see another side of the talented Mississippi writer.
There are very few contemporary critical responses to the play. As Ann Waldron reports in her book Eudora: A Writer's Life, the play was first performed as part of the revue Lo and Behold, staged by a summer repertory company in 1949. Waldron writes,
A review was damning: "Fair enough for a silo tryout, Lo and Behold doesn't have anywhere near the staying power to make a bid for the long stretch…. [The skit] by Eudora Welty lacks sock…. Furlow's songs are pleasant, but have no distinction."
A few years later, Brooks Atkinson wrote a short review for the New York Times of the 1956 off-Broadway production The Littlest Revue, which included Bye-Bye, Brevoort as one of its sketches. Atkinson described the show as a "bright, gay gambol," singling out Bye-Bye, Brevoort for special notice: "Eudora Welty's caricature of the old inhabitants of the old Brevoort is wry and enjoyable."
The most comprehensive critique of the play is by noted Welty scholar Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Her article "Sex and Wreckage in the Parlor: Welty's Bye-Bye, Brevoort" appeared in the January 1995 issue of the Southern Quarterly. Prenshaw makes the case that although Welty never wrote "for the stage in any sustained way," she was, however, "deeply attracted to and influenced by drama." Prenshaw details the circumstances surrounding the writing of Bye-Bye, Brevoort and traces both the performance and publication history of the play. She argues that the writing of Bye-Bye, Brevoort is closely connected to the writing of The Golden Apples, Welty's acclaimed collection of short stories, as Welty was working on both at the same time. Further, according to Prenshaw, "The farcical skit she wrote at the time she was conceptualizing the organizational whole of The Golden Apples helped her discover her main pattern."
While Bye-Bye, Brevoort has been largely overlooked critically and is not well-known among her readers, Welty's growing stature means that all of her work is undergoing increasing critical scrutiny. In this context, Bye-Bye, Brevoort may begin to receive more attention.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English who writes widely on literary topics. In the following essay, she examines the issues of social class, colonialism, and revolution that are satirized in the farce Bye-Bye, Brevoort.
Bye-Bye, Brevoort is a very short and very funny play. Using the devices of farce, the sketch mocks both the old and the new in its tale of the elderly residents of the Hotel Brevoort who insist on afternoon tea while the hotel is demolished around them. There is a darker side to the farce, however, one that Welty craftily hides within the broad slapstick comedy. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, in a perceptive 1995 article from The Southern Quarterly, argues that the theme of Bye-Bye, Brevoort "is doubtless the most familiar and venerated one in dramatic and fictional literature—the mutability of human life, the inevitable, unavoidable passage of time and its consequence for human beings." She further notes, "The ladies' response—flat-out denial—might as easily have been rendered tragically or heroically, but in Bye-Bye Brevoort, Welty pulls them through comically by the skin of their teeth." While Prenshaw has tapped a central theme of the play, it is possible to generate yet another serious reading. Bye-Bye, Brevoort is not only about the passage of time in human life, it is also about the colonialism and class structures prevalent throughout the nineteenth Page 51 | Top of Articlecentury, which were passing away in the twentieth. In this play, Welty provides a cautionary tale for the upper classes: failure to attend to the disparity between their lifestyles and those of the lower classes can lead to revolution and destruction.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many European countries and, to a lesser degree, the United States, established colonies in various countries around the world, most notably in India and Africa. Under the guise of spreading Christianity to these places, Europeans exploited the natural and human resources of other continents. By the mid-twentieth century, many of the colonies had asserted themselves as independent nations, sometimes through violent revolution. India, for example, became a sovereign nation in 1947, after a number of years of turmoil. The loss of empire was difficult for the British and other Europeans, particularly for those upper-class people who had made their homes in places like India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. These people had enjoyed a very luxurious lifestyle at a very low cost, made possible by the work of the indigenous people of the colonies, who earned little money for their efforts. Indeed, the disparity in the lifestyles between the colonizers and the colonized led to discontent and, ultimately, uprisings.
While India, Africa, and Indo-China might seem far afield from the Brevoort Hotel in New York City, there are many clues scattered throughout Bye-Bye, Brevoort to suggest that Welty was considering the outcome of class disparity and colonial discontent. The fact that Welty wrote the play as a farce does not mean that she was unaware of some of the most important historical and political situations of her day. To begin with, the clothing that she assigns to the three elderly women in the Brevoort mimics British colonial clothing. Silks, tweeds, and lace were all common accoutrements of upper-crust British society. Fortescue's lace parasol is another clue: not only were parasols stylish during the nineteenth century, they were a necessity for colonial women who found themselves in much sunnier climes than England. In addition, Welty suggests that she is mocking not only the British but also Anglophile Americans who put on a show of being British by her use of dialect for the women and Dupree. For example, Welty's spelling of the word can't when it comes Page 52 | Top of Articlefrom Fortescue: "I cawn't think why they don't make vehicles go around the island!" Likewise, the word terribly becomes "teddibly" in Dupree's line: "Teddibly good of you."
In contrast to this parody of upper-class British accents, the wrecking crew demonstrates their own dialect. When the First Wrecker encounters the tea party in Fortescue's flat, he says, "Annuder nest of 'em. You can't smoke 'em out…. Foist we'll see if dey won't come out nice." Because language is one of the most common markers of social class, it is clear that Welty wants the audience to see these workers as from a very different socioeconomic and educational level than the tea party group. At the same time, however, she is parodying the differences in language use between the colonizers and the colonized, using the workmen as stand-ins for their African or Indian counterparts. It is as if the native New York working class is a completely different species, at least from the perspective of Fortescue and her crew.
There is another striking passage in the stage directions which suggests that Welty was considering colonial class structure when she wrote the play: the workers pick up the settee that Fortescue is sitting on and carry her offstage. Welty writes, "She takes up her lace parasol and opens it over her head. Rides out with it over her, as in a howdah." A howdah (also spelled houdah) is a fancy carriage affixed to the top of an elephant, used to carry very wealthy people, particularly in India. The visual image would be recognizable to any member of the original Bye-Bye, Brevoort audience as a reference to colonialism.
There is other less obvious and more symbolic evidence that the subject of Bye-Bye, Brevoort is class conflict, colonialism, and revolution. All three of the elderly women wear hearing aids, and apparently have difficulty hearing. They are not disturbed by the explosions and yelling coming from just outside their walls. Likewise, European colonials were "deaf" to the plight of the indigenous people of their colonies. They failed to hear the warnings that the discontent among these people was rising to a fever pitch. Chrome says at one point, "Riff-raff. Best not to notice them." Ultimately, it is the refusal of the upper-class colonizers (and for that matter, the upper classes in any number of twentieth-century countries, such as Russia and China) to hear the wails of the downtrodden masses that led to their overthrow. When Which-away says broodingly, "There are moments when I seem to notice something over and beyond the noise of traffic and falling portraits," it is possible to read Welty's undercurrent. The "something" Whichaway hears is the crumbling of an entire way of life, soon to be taken away by the death and destruction of revolution.
That death is on her mind is only referred to obliquely. When Dupree enters the apartment, Fortescue tells him, "Dear Desmond. You're looking frightfully crepey." "Crepey" refers to facial and neck wrinkles and comes from the word crepe, meaning a piece of densely wrinkled fabric or paper. One of the most common uses of crepe is for denoting mourning. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people wore crepe bands around their arms at funerals and often homes where a death occurred were signified by crepe decorations. The members of the tea party at Fortescue's are nearing their own deaths due to age. In addition, whether they realize it or not, they will soon be mourning the complete passage of their way of life.
Finally, several important revolutionary images are embedded in Bye-Bye, Brevoort. One of the darkest is just after the group discovers that they cannot reach anyone by phone as the noise outside their door grows louder. Fortescue says, "Often I console myself by pretending the traffic noises are simply pistol shots—the riffraff murdering one another." While this comment is meant to be funny, it is impossible to hear it without considering the literal meaning. Fortescue, as a member of the upper class, is hopeful that the lower classes will kill themselves off with guns. This comment demonstrates a basic lack of human compassion and the complete disconnect between the upper class and the lower class. In addition, it also suggests that the violence Fortescue would like to see among the lower classes will soon be turned on her and members of her class. Her "pretending" is like that of the colonial master and the upper-class tyrant, and is reminiscent of the line famously (if erroneously) attributed to Marie Antoinette when she was told that the people of Paris could not buy bread: "let them eat cake."
While the funniest moment in the play may be as Dupree is led off the stage to the strains of "The Marseillaise," it is also a grim reminder of the death and destruction that France endured at the end of the eighteenth century. During the French Revolution, many aristocrats and upper-class people were led from their homes to the guillotine, where they literally lost their heads. Page 53 | Top of ArticleWhile this scene has been romanticized by writers such as Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, the truth is that the streets of Paris ran red with blood. When the disparity between the haves and the have-nots grows so extreme that the common people have absolutely nothing left to lose, revolution becomes an option.
In reading or watching Bye-Bye, Brevoort, one should not forget that the writer was also a photographer who traveled through rural Mississippi in the depths of the Great Depression, recording images of the poor. She knew firsthand the distance from glittery New York City restaurants and apartments to the destitute sharecropper's cottage, and she knew the history of the French and Russian revolutions, when the masses rose up against the rich. She also had the recent evidence of uprisings in India and Africa, when the colonized took back their countries. Welty's warning, therefore, to her audience is that they should pay attention, not be deaf, watch the culture carefully, and work for social justice, equality, and the dignity of all people.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Bye-Bye, Brevoort, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Peggy Whitman Prenshaw
In the following excerpt, Prenshaw traces the publication and production history of Bye-Bye, Brevoort.
Eudora Welty's place in twentieth-century American letters owes to her achievement in fiction and nonfiction prose. Since the publication of her first short story in 1936, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," her work has steadily drawn increasing readership and critical praise. Although her celebrated ear for the nuances of spoken language have won many admirers for the dialogue she creates in her fiction, she has never undertaken to write for the stage in any sustained way or to redirect her fictional career in the direction of the theater. She has nonetheless been deeply attracted to and influenced by drama, both American and European, the consequence of which one quickly discovers in reading her fictional, autobiographical and critical works.
In the opening section of One Writer's Beginnings, entitled "Listening," Welty locates in her childhood love of oral storytelling the dramatic impulse that she credits for shaping her career as a writer. "Long before I wrote stories," she notes, "I listened for stories." She depicts herself as an intense audience, willingly giving herself over to suspenseful absorption in the dramatic conversation surrounding her. "Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse in a hole" (14). In this account of her early apprehension of stories and how they are made, she repeatedly invokes theatrical images and tropes: "It took me a long time to realize that these very same everyday lies, and the stratagems and jokes and tricks and dares that went with them, were in fact the basis of the scenes I so well loved to hear about and hoped for and treasured in the conversation of adults" (15).
Welty is an intensely "scenic" writer, one whose prose richly communicates visual and aural detail. Even in the stories that are most devoted to the interior life and rendered in a lyrical, poetic style, the action is grounded, realized, staged in a habitation that waits upon the reader to part the curtain and see the drama unfold. The "dramatic instinct" that she refers to in One Writer's Beginnings is even more apparent, however, in the fiction dominated by dialogue, in such works as "Petrified Man" or, most notably, in the novel, Losing Battles. There are also the special, one might even say radical, examples of dramaturgic technique employed in the service of fiction in the narrated monologues: "Why I Live at the P.O.," "Shower of Gold" and The Ponder Heart, brilliant transpositions of the spoken tale to the written story. Still, as Welty herself acknowledges on many occasions, writing dramatic fiction differs essentially from writing plays. In a 1980 interview, Joanna Maclay asked whether she had "ever thought of writing for the theatre." Welty responded: "It would be my dream. I realize now how much I would have to learn. In fact, I found out by trying it for myself. I thought, ‘I love dialogue and I've worked hard on it in my stories, and I think I've gotten to a certain degree of competence in that.’ But I found that that did not apply when it Page 54 | Top of Articlecomes to writing for the theatre. Of course, any person who has ever performed knows how little that really applies" (Prenshaw 270).
Welty's dream of writing for the theater has to date been realized only once, in a one-act farce entitled "Bye-Bye, Brevoort." Although she has been an interested on-looker in the stage productions of The Ponder Heart (1956) and various stage and film adaptations of her fiction, she has not participated directly in the scripting or staging of these. In her description of the Welty collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Suzanne Marrs describes a small group of typescripts of unpublished, unproduced dramas by Welty, including "The Waiting Room," circa 1935, which Welty designated "a farce for a Little Theatre," seven other short sketches written, along with "Bye-Bye, Brevoort," for a revue entitled, What Year Is This? and a number of scenes from a screenplay adaptation of The Robber Bridegroom, written in collaboration with John Robinson (73f.). Of this group of manuscripts, the only one that has seen production or publication is "Bye-Bye, Brevoort," the "skit" or "sketch" that to date constitutes Welty's theatrical canon. This short play, published by Palaemon Press in 1980 for New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi, and limited to a run of 476 signed copies, has been reprinted in Plays in One Act (1991), edited by Daniel Halpern.
"Bye-Bye, Brevoort" was first staged in 1949 at a summer repertory theater, the Red Barn Theatre, in Westboro, Massachusetts, as part of the musical revue, Lo and Behold. The director was Paul Lammers, and music and lyrics were composed by Brown Furlow, a Mississippian with a degree in music from Louisiana State University who, according to the playbill for Lo and Behold, was also "working on the music for the Eudora Welty-Hildegarde Dolson revue, What Year Is This? from which the sketch ‘Bye-Bye, Brevoort’ was borrowed."
The sketch was most notably produced, however, as part of the Off-Broadway production, The Littlest Revue, which opened at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City, 22 May 1956. According to cast information carried in the New York Times on 23 May, Ben Bagley "conceived, cast and assembled" the revue, and Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke wrote most of the lyrics and music. Sketches were written by "Nat Hiken, Billy Friedberg, Eudora Welty, Mike Stewart, George Baxt, Bud McCreery, Allan Manings and Bob Van Scoyk." Brooks Atkinson reviewed the production, noting that "time for the annual May dance having turned up, the Phoenix is celebrating with a bright gay gambol … for friends and subscribers," one that offers "a uniformly high standard of intelligence and humor." Among the cast principals were Charlotte Rae, Larry Storch, Tammy Grimes and Joel Grey, whom Atkinson described as "a versatile young man with a professional voice and manner … who can sing, dance and perform with the greatest of ease and affability." Of "Bye-Bye Brevoort," Atkinson writes that "Eudora Welty's caricature of the old inhabitants of the old Brevoort is wry and enjoyable." He goes on to praise Ben Bagley for holding "polite interludes of sentiment and romance" to a minimum, noting that Bagley "is more interested in topical humor." Atkinson concludes by declaring the revue "uniformly light, skillful and knowing." He applauds Paul Lammers, who "has attended to the staging with imagination and gusto," Laus Holm's settings, which are "both inventive and attractive," and Alvin Colt's "pleasant" costumes.
Welty wrote the sketch in 1948, collaborating with Hildegarde Dolson in a plan that called for the two of them each to write a variety of short pieces for the projected revue, What Year Is This? In 1977 Welty told her friend Jane Reid Petty, an actress and director in Jackson, Mississippi, that she had written "a lot of musical sketches that were done at the Phoenix Theatre in New York." She continues, "Then Hildegarde Dolson, a delicious writer, teamed with me to write a musical. We worked all one summer in New York but Lehman Engel, another Jacksonian, read it and said, ‘You'll never get anywhere because there's not a blackout in it.’ And you know, he was right. We never did get anywhere. But it was a wonderful excuse to see all the shows on Broadway that season" (Prenshaw 207).
According to correspondence quoted by Michael Kreyling in Author and Agent, Welty went to New York in the early summer of 1948 to work on the revue with Dolson, interrupting her progress on The Golden Apples collection. The timing was particularly significant in Welty's career. For the two years following the 1946 publication of her first full-length novel, Delta Wedding, she had been at work on the new collection—"a kind of a novel (or something)," she had said early in its composition (Kreyling 117). Page 55 | Top of ArticleIn March 1948, however, she wrote her agent, Diarmuid Russell, that she was still undecided about the shape of the book, that, despite all the encouragement to produce another novel, there was nothing "novelish about the book." Further, in the face of mounting pressure to complete the collection that spring, she declared her intention to wait upon a shaping conception for the whole: "I intend to go on as fancy takes me and maybe the nucleus of the stories still to come … what I've done so far doesn't define it" (Kreyling 142). It was in the gestational interim that followed, an interim bounded by the writing of the two stories that would complete The Golden Apples, "Sir Rabbit" and "The Wanderers" (initially titled "The Hummingbirds"), that she composed "Bye-Bye, Brevoort." In fact, Kreyling reports that after Welty returned to Jackson in mid summer, "revue and stories alternately claimed the writer's time. The revue was allocated strictly limited blocks of time, ‘3 weeks only … and be done with it,’ while the stories ‘started coming in my head so fast’ that they made a shambles of all agendas" (143). While the farcical sketch rightly warrants attention for its wit and spirited broad humor, its composition at a crucial moment in the writing of what many critics regard as Welty's richest and most complex literary achievement, The Golden Apples, perhaps even more compellingly claims notice for "Bye-Bye, Brevoort."
The play is set in contemporaneous New York City (circa 1948) in a residential hotel, the Brevoort, which during the course of the play's action is wholly demolished. The cast of characters includes three old ladies (Millicent Fortescue, Violet Whichaway and Agatha Chrome) who refuse to acknowledge the destruction of their home and way of life, blithely insisting upon their teatime ritual and the entertainment of a gentleman caller, Desmond Dupree, "an old sport in a chesterfield, with a furled umbrella … and yellow gloves" (483). The farce consists chiefly in the situational absurdity of their high Victorian manner in the face of mass wreckage and their rigid refusal to respond in any way to the mounting noise of the demolition crew. But Welty also develops comic humor through word play, prop gags, burlesque routines, incongruous literary allusions, costuming and a host of other familiar devices of stage farce.
Word play, for example, opens and closes the one-act. Miss Fortescue, in whose room the action takes place, speaks the first line, "Tea time! Tea time!" and never wavers from her insistence that the tea service go forward. In the concluding moments, Evans, the maid and the interlocutor between the zany world of the ladies and the actual, if riffraff, world of the house wreckers, delivers a tray with lighted sticks of dynamite: "TNT is served, mum." Many other such jokes abound, including one particularly funny and revealing one that plays upon the word "slipping." The ladies quiz Evans about wearing bicycle clips through the hotel lobby, wondering aloud whether standards might be slipping. "Millicent—is Evans slipping—or the Brevoort?" Chrome asks, just as a loud crash issues from off stage, Evans's retort. "We'll go down together," is typical of her hard-edged, no nonsense manner, but it also catches the hint of pathos that underlies the farcical humor.
It is Evans who contributes the main action to the skit—she is in constant motion from beginning to end, fetching cheese straws and tea, entering the set "in cape, parcel in both hands and purse swinging from teeth … riding a bicycle." She distributes tea napkins to the ladies and to Dupree as in a game of "drop-the-handkerchief": in fact, she occupies the center of most of the farcical stage business. There is a "large dark oil painting of a lady ancestor in an ornate frame" that falls on cue, which is recovered, remarked upon and rehung by Evans. At the moment the wreckers break down the door and enter, it is Evans who "steps to the door as it falls." In the harum-scarum final action of the play, the wreckers remove the seated ladies, chairs, settee and all, and Evans, never one to stand by passively, leaps on the back of one of the crew, riding "piggyback, showing her bicycle clips attached to her long drawers."
Welty sustains a playful satire throughout the skit, exposing three old "relics" who are oblivious to a changing world outside their walls, relics who are worthy of being "museum pieces." In fact, they refer to a letter from the Metropolitan Museum that insists they take care of themselves! The theme of the farce is doubtless the most familiar and venerated one in dramatic and fictional literature—the mutability of human life, the inevitable, unavoidable passage of time and its consequence for human beings. The ladies' response—flat-out denial—might as easily have been rendered tragically or heroically, but in "Bye-Bye, Brevoort," Welty pulls them through comically by the skin of their teeth….
Source: Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, "Sex and Wreckage in the Parlor: Welty's Bye-Bye Brevoort," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2, 3, January 1995, pp. 107-16.
In the following interview, Welty uses sewing as a metaphor for her writing process.
"Yes, I have heard that this happened, … " Eudora Welty replied, as we talked about events that took place in Mississippi during the Civil War. I was inquiring about an incident at the beginning of her story "The Burning" in which a mounted Union soldier rides his horse into the foyer of a plantation house. Her spoken response, similar to her literary one, draws on a deep sense of Southern heritage, folklore, and history. In her story, Welty initially focuses on hearth and furnishings, stressing thereby the intrusion, disruption, and calamity, as well as the lasting scars of soldierly conflict, on domestic order and setting.
Welty: … In Natchez [Mississippi], in one of the old homes, they say you can see a long mark on the cabinet in the hall where the spurs from the soldier's boot scratched the wood as he rode into the house.
It was common for the soldiers to go through the house and take things, and burn down the houses, even the schoolhouse. Sherman put everything to the torch. I've seen photographs that were made of Jackson. It looked like Vietnam. Jackson was burned three times. We were on the way between east and west, and Sherman burned every time he came through. Jackson was called Chimneyville because all that was left standing were the chimneys. He was thorough.
Wolff: A good number of your characters drown, or you describe their deaths in drowning terms. Judge McKelva's face, for instance, in The Optimist's Daughter, appears "quenched," as if "he had laid it under the surface of dark pouring water and held it there." Has anyone in your family drowned?
Welty: No, no one close to me has drowned. There's a lot of water in Mississippi, though. Mark Twain said, laughing at himself, that he didn't know how to dispose of characters, so he drowned all of them. They would go out in the yard to hang out the clothes and fall in a bucket of water or drown in the well.
Wolff: That is how Clytie drowns.
Welty: I hadn't realized the similarity; yes, she falls into the rain barrel. I didn't know what to do with her, either.
My mother was scared of drowning. Mother was terrified of drowning. She was afraid of her children drowning. She was scared for us to go swimming, and though she was a fearless woman in other circumstances, she didn't want me on a boat to go to Europe.
In West Virginia, people had no way to get anywhere except by water. The mountains went down to the rivers. Folks had to go by boat on water. My mother went that way when she took her father to Baltimore. She took him first on a raft, which was even scarier. She was pretty fearless.
People's lives did end in the water there. Those are treacherous rivers. They are icy and rapid, and if you tried to walk on stones, the water would just sweep you down. It had a power to it, but it was exciting. The roads were almost non-existent then. West Virginia was a pretty young state when she was there.
My father had us all have swimming lessons, and we swam here in Livingston Lake. It was just like warm milk.
Wolff: Where did your mother go to school?
Welty: My parents had to work hard to get the money for school. My mother taught school every year to get enough money to go to summer school. She eventually graduated from a teaching college in West Virginia down the river from Charleston [West Virginia]—one of the state colleges.
She showed me the careful notes she had taken in school. She showed me the maps she kept of Dante's Inferno. Her father had brought books back from Virginia in a barrel, "up river."
The course of the interview shifts. What is the significance, for her, of a rural setting in stories such as "A Piece of News," "The Wide Net," and Page 57 | Top of Article"Death of a Travelling Salesman," which are essentially about love?
Welty: I learned a great deal about Mississippi when I worked for the W.P.A. and traveled around the state. For the first time I saw that Mississippi was a rural world—l found it much easier to write about than a town. It's a simpler society to describe. It was a different world if you went outside the city. I got to know it pretty well with my journalistic jobs and the W.P.A.
Wolff: What did you see?
Welty: What I discovered was the people in the rural setting. Their lives didn't change with the times. They were poor. Their conditions didn't change and were really terrible. It was all so much worse than I could have imagined. They had no radios, no TV's. They were living in small shacks and cabins and were cut off from things.
These people were the opposite of what they easily might be—pinched and bitter. A friend of mine also had to go into rural areas to buy land for the roads, and, oh! the tales he told me of poverty he saw.
I discovered still more by visiting all the county seats. It was an education that I had again when I attended the M.S.C.W. It was the first state college for women in the country. At the time, everybody could go to school there, and it was cheap to go there. Some students were ill-educated. The teachers were the best educated people around. The school had a cross-section of girls from the rest of the state and many from poor homes. But their families were happy. Their mothers sent them baskets of fried chicken from home. They were good country people. It was a poor, poor time in history, when I look back.
Wolff: How did this understanding affect your writing?
Welty: These stories are all part of the same rural setting. You have to set the stage for a story. You have to have something to identify it. I used to take all the county newspapers and read them all. That's what got me interested in what went on in the State of Mississippi. Just the naked news.
The newspapers back then would have letters from little towns in the paper, by the family of the reporter or the correspondent. What Ruby Fisher reads in the newspaper was the kind of thing that would be in these newspapers: "So and So became shot," or "The Sunday visitors in town were…. " That gave me a picture of what life was like, much as I think it did for Faulkner. I did know people like that. They are the material of Southern gothic. Jackson was not typical of Mississippi at the time because of its size. It's the only place of its size in Mississippi.
Wolff: You have written a great deal about love.
Welty: I suppose I have. What other kind of story is there? It's the basis for any kind of structure of the story—narrative and plot—the drive, the spirit, what makes the human. It's the center of all the stories. Human relationships are all that matter. What other human relationship would be as complex, as true, as dramatic an emotion?
Wolff: The marriage of Becky and the Judge seems to possess qualities which make it one of the best.
Welty: Well, it lasted the longest.
Wolff: In the earlier versions of your novel The Optimist's Daughter, up through its publication in the New Yorker, Philip Hand, the husband of the protagonist, Laurel Hand, does not appear. Why did you decide to omit the scenes you had first written about their courtship?
Welty: There wasn't time for any of it. I played Laurel down from the beginning—she's the eyes. But when I started developing the novel more, I decided to concentrate on Phil's death rather than on the earlier material. I wanted to imply more than I said about Phil.
It wasn't that more material didn't exist. World War II was still fresh in my mind. So many details come to mind that fit. My use of him changed. He remained the same. That was his function in the novel. I wanted to convey his reality. Everything had to be in its proportions, since he was in a short novel.
Writing makes its own contribution. I see things when I go back and re-read that I'd forgotten were in the novel. But they do exist in it.
Wolff: Is it correct that you decided to add Philip Hand during the year after the publication of the New Yorker story, since the next set of revisions contain the first references to him?
Welty: The reason I did not publish it in novel form for one year was to give it time. Lots of things came to me during that year. I was able to make right use of what I had. I didn't want anything to cloud over the last section. I Page 58 | Top of Articlereally love that part when Laurel thinks of him going around the house. I just sat down at the typewriter—that's the way I revise—just sit down with the manuscripts.
Wolff: Did you base your characterization of Phil on your friend John Robinson?
Welty: Everybody is asking about John Robinson these days. No, I did not. He did not have Phil's character. My brother made a bread-board and had double-jointed thumbs and goes with the character. My brother saw action in the war. Walter went through the battle at Okinawa. But I felt I had too much about Chicago, so I kept things out that were not contributing to what I was trying to do. Also, I didn't know where a young married couple would live in Chicago. I knew a number of painters who went to the Art Institute and the first art gallery I went to, and that has meant the most to me.
Some of the language was Walter's as I think I've said. I use names, too. I keep a list of Mississippi towns. There was a Banner. I remember the exact ways things were said. Some of the remarks for Losing Battles came right out of the mouths of people helping me when my mother was ill.
Wolff: Phil was killed six weeks after Laurel married him, his body was never found, and he was eaten by birds he would have known and loved. What is the source in your imagination for the violence of this death?
Welty: I knew so much of that. My brother died of rheumatoid arthritis before he was forty. It was his life—he wanted it.
Wolff: When Phil cries for the life he wanted, isn't that also Laurel's wanting it, and yours?
Welty: It is a communication between them—that's what she felt, too. She's the one who could hear it. It was a reality to her. That was the meaning it had for her: she got the meaning. It was not lost on her.
Wolff: The image of Phil with his mouth open like a funnel is similar to a description you wrote of George Fairchild in an early version of Delta Wedding. You describe him as "a figure strangely dark, alone as the boogie man, back of them all, and seemed waiting with his mouth set open like a drunkard's or as if he were hungry."
Welty: It's almost like a trance or a dream. I've seen people like that before. Nothing physical can be invented. If you think about French and Italian art of the thirteenth-century period, it had people with grimaces like that.
Wolff: Is his open-mouthed image more suggestive of horror, fear, or longing?
Welty: Longing. That would be more like it, I think.
Wolff: Your other portrayals of marriage have happier endings.
Welty: Yes. I like Jack and Gloria. She has this idea that "We're gonna get off to ourselves." She thinks it'll work. She is naive in thinking she can do it—get away from the family.
Wolff: Your metaphorical writing often involves sewing, threading, or referring to cloth or parts of dresses: in The Optimist's Daughter, for example "It seems to Laurel that the voice could have torn cloth." Why do you often think in sewing terms?
Welty: People had to sew back in my mother's day. Babies had a regular trousseaux of hand-made and embroidered clothes, all done in the home. They sewed tea napkins—you know, small linen napkins with scalloped edges. People embroidered all day long—underclothes even. There was not much money to buy clothes, so people did sew a lot and provide for their own. We had a sewing woman who came and spent the day at our house. People knew sewing women.
Once my mother had just embroidered a beautiful dress for me, with pretty wreaths and hoops in the pattern. I was at a friend's house for a party. We were playing outside, and I was hiding near the woodpile. Another girl spotted me hiding and brought a whole pile of kindling down all over me. My dress was dirty and torn. When I got home, I saw Mother outside, and I prayed and prayed to Jesus to mend my dress before Mother came in from milking the cow. She had worked so hard on the dress.
Wolff: You have said that when you are revising your work, you cut pages apart and pin them together in some other configuration. Is revising a story or a novel like pinning a dress pattern?
Welty: Yes, in a sense. I had never thought of it in that way, but laying a pattern allows you to experiment. Does it work better here, or here? I probably did get that from sewing. It gives you more maneuverability. I did so much revision as it was.
I got some of that from working in newspapers, where you worked with long rolls of paper on your typewriter and where you were really able to patch something together.
Wolff: Do you plan stories by certain patterns? For instance, the weather often figures in your stories about love. In "A Piece of News" the storm accompanies the marital crisis, as it does in The Optimist's Daughter during Laurel's crisis.
Welty: I plan a story by its dramatic sense, not by a particular pattern. That's the dramatic end of writing. But the weather is an important part of a story. The weather depends on the crisis; the crisis is coming out of the weather. The crisis is the cause of the weather.
Wolff: Do you sew?
Welty: No. But my mother did. She tried to teach me to embroider. My mother had to leave the room when I threaded the needle—she couldn't stand to watch. I wasn't good at all.
Collecting stories, and stitching them, together with tradition and memory, into a whole cloth, is the essence of Eudora Welty's fiction. In her discussion of sewing, with implication for the literal and the figurative, Welty's memory reaches back to childhood and pins the floating images into patterns, establishing a chronology, as do her books of fiction and photographs. She says she was not "good" at sewing, although her mother tried to teach her. But perhaps without knowing, her mother bequeathed her the tools; her daughter would find her own art of embroidery.
Source: Sally Wolff, "The Domestic Thread of Revelation: An Interview with Eudora Welty," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 27,No. 1, Fall 1994, pp. 18-24.
In the following interview with Maclay, Welty discusses the similarities between a short story writer and a dramatist.
… MACLAY: Throughout your career, you've entertained many audiences with readings from your own works. Do you have any favorite stories that you enjoy reading aloud publicly?
WELTY: Well, purely for reasons that help me, I want to read something with lots of conversation and plenty of action, which eliminates many of my stories to begin with. When I read for an audience, I wouldn't choose those very quiet stories that are interior or are more meditative, more contemplative. So I take stories that have something in them that I think would keep an audience interested.
JM: Do you find that you read stories that have more comedy in them, then?
EW: Yes, and I think that's because I usually use the form of dialogue when I want to write a comic story. So it works out that way. Also, it's nice to hear the laughter of people. I must say, that goes to my head and makes me feel very fine. You feel that your audience is really listening to you. And that kind of experience encouraged me, because I hadn't ever thought of myself as a "reader" of my stories out loud, until I was just sort of talked into it once. Then I found I enjoyed it so much. I like the give and take of audiences. But I still don't think of my stories as being spoken when I'm writing them. I think of them as on the page, because as a reader I think in terms of the word and working with the word as I see it written. On the other hand, I never wrote a word that I didn't hear as I read.
JM: Do you mean you sound out a story when you write it?
EW: I just hear it when I'm writing it. It comes to me that way. In everything I read, I hear the voice of I know not who. Not my voice. I hear everything being read to me as I read it off the page. I used to think all people read that way; but I gather this is not so. But I have learned one important thing from reading aloud: it's a marvelous acid test for right or wrong. You hear every flaw come back to you. You learn things about where to cut, where you've said something more than once. Something may not look unnecessary or redundant on paper; but when you speak it, you know.
JM: Is it this kind of experience with reading out loud that leads you, for example, to cut out parts of "Petrified Man" when you read it aloud?
EW: Yes, I do cut out some of that story when I read it. That was a very early story and I Page 60 | Top of Articledidn't know then the benefits of close revision and cutting. I wasn't in the habit of going back and checking about things like repetitions. I hadn't learned then how really strict a form dialogue is. As you know, and as I am proving with every word I say, we don't make very strict sense in conversation, because so much is done with gesture and with mutual understanding between the two people talking. Put on a page, that's gone. And I hadn't learned that sort of thing.
JM: Have you ever had any occasion to encourage novice writers to read their stories aloud?
EW: Well once, after I had begun reading my own work aloud and had found what I had learned from that, I did a writing workshop here in Jackson at Millsaps College. That year was my first experience with such. I knew nothing about it and we had to make up our own rules. I said that I did not believe you could teach writing, but I thought that in the workshop we could find out things for ourselves by writing and bringing our stories to the class and reading them aloud. We would work with specific pieces, not with generalities about writing. So we did that, and I made each writer read his own work. They would say, "I wanted to let so-and-so read mine," or "You read it"; and I said, "No, part of the responsibility goes away if you don't read your own. You're the one who wrote this and you're answerable to yourself. You're the one who teaches yourself. When you hear your own voice saying it, you learn."
JM: Do you now ever read a story of yours aloud while you're in the process of writing it?
EW: I would be too self-conscious to do that, because while I'm writing a story it's all so interior to me, regardless of whether or not it's in conversation, that I'm still too deep in it. I think you would have to have finished writing it and have a complete story, and then you could try reading it out loud.
JM: I gather then that you never write a story with an eye to its being performed, as the playwright does?
EW: No, I don't. I have a completely different end in view.
JM: Well, have you ever thought of writing for the theatre?
EW: Oohh! It would be my dream. I realize now how much I would have to learn. In fact, I found out by trying it out for myself. I thought, "I love dialogue and I've worked hard on it in stories, and I think I've gotten to a certain degree of competence in that." But I found that that did not apply when it comes to writing for the theatre. Of course, any person who has ever performed knows how little that really applies.
JM: I asked that question because many of your stories are, for lack of a better phrase, highly theatrical.
EW: Well you proved that in your own performance of "Why I Live at the P.O." and "Petrified Man." But then you had the talent of performing and your physical and personal presence to give it. You also had other people, all the theatrical elements. You concealed my weaknesses with that performance. And you also did it as a reading of that story. You weren't trying it out as something written as a play for a play-going audience. And the difference between writing a story and writing a play would require a different procedure, a different end in view, different everything. But I love the challenge of writing drama, and I would adore to because I love the theatre.
JM: There are obviously certain similarities you as a narrative writer have to a playwright. For example, you both must be concerned vitally with dialogue.
JM: Yet as a story writer, and particularly as a novelist, you don't have time constraints the playwright has.
EW: And also, things that a performance can give by acting have to be conveyed in a novel in many other ways. The short cut which a play can do and convey in silence or by an action still has to be conveyed in a novel. But the novel must use other means. Also, you don't employ the feeling of urgency in writing a scene in a novel that you would when writing a drama. The urgency should be there in a novel, but it is an urgency of its own kind, not something that should happen, be made overt, in a certain number of minutes. When the point has to be conveyed in a drama, not a word can be wasted, and I think it would be a marvelous discipline for a novelist. When I wrote Losing Battles, I was also trying to challenge myself to see if I could try to express everything in dialogue and action and not enter inside anybody's mind. And I never did go inside anybody's mind until the last chapter, when I went inside the little boy's mind—I Page 61 | Top of Articlecouldn't resist that. I wanted everything to be brought to the outside and presented openly, in action. That impulse determined the setting, the kind of people who would be in the story, the sort of occasion it would be. I wanted to see if I could meet this sort of challenge, and it captivated me to try it. I think that's why I wrote so much that I never put in the finished novel, because I just couldn't stop. It just proliferated into scene after scene, in which I would try to do something five or six different ways and then pick the one I wanted. It was so much fun. But that didn't teach me to write a play. It just taught me to write a novel in dialogue. Of course, it's true that we're all (novelists and playwrights) dealing with human relationships and the dramas that arise from that; but I don't think you could write the first line alike in a novel and in a play. From the start, from the very beginning, they start out on two different roads. And that's something I had to learn.
JM: Would you ever consider rewriting any of your stories as plays?
EW: From the writing point of view, I wouldn't be interested in rewriting anything I've written as a story into a play. I'd want to start from scratch. I would have to. Once I've done something as a story, to me those people who make the story are enclosed in that world and you can't take them out.
JM: You've said that you believe that writing short stories comes out of a lyric impulse.
EW: I feel that, yes.
JM: Is this different in some way from the story-telling impulse?
EW: It may not be. I love the told story, and I can see how certain stories and novels are descended from it. But that is, in a way, lyrical. The tale certainly appeals to the emotions that everyone feels—a sort of community of emotions—through the senses, through the ears and the voice. And I think a short story does the same thing. Often, also, the old tales dealt with a single strand of experience, just as a short story does. In the same way as lyric poetry does, it follows its own path through a certain space and time, and is a whole in itself.
JM: Do you think that's somehow different from the dramatic impulse?
EW: I don't think so; I think it's connected up with it.
JM: Then do you think there is something within a particular artist that propels him or her to move in one direction primarily as his or her natural medium, for whom there is a natural impulse toward the lyric or the dramatic?
EW: I can only answer for myself. Of course we all know of people who can write in any medium. But I know my own limitations. I think I'm a short story writer naturally. I know I could never write a poem, and I never intended to write a novel. Every single one of my novels came about accidentally. That is, I thought I was writing a long story. When the scope was revealed to me and the story revealed itself as something that needed developing as I went along, then I had to discard that and go back and begin over with the long length and scope in my mind. Every time I wrote anything long, I never dreamed it was going to be a novel. That includes the longest one, Losing Battles. And most of my novels are pretty short, like The Optimist's Daughter. I consider those as long stories, because they almost never relax the tension I tried to start—which is the way a story goes….
Source: Joanna Maclay, "A Conversation with Eudora Welty," in Literature in Performance, Vol. 1, No. 2, April 1981, pp. 68-82.
Atkinson, Brooks, Review of The Littlest Revue, in the New York Times, May 23, 1956, p. 37.
Barnes, Bart, "Writer Eudora Welty Dies; Voice of American South," in the Washington Post, July 24, 2001, p. B07.
"Brevoort Hotel with Mark Twain House," Web site of the Museum of the City of New York, http://www.mcny.org/collections/abbott/a029.htm (accessed July 15, 2008).
"Brevoort to Close as Hotel," in the New York Times, July 17, 1948, p. 17.
Burt, John, "Eudora Welty," in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, edited by Blanche H. Gelfant, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 569.
"Farce," in The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, et. al., Longman, 1997, p. 195.
Krebs, Albin, "Eudora Welty, A Lyrical Master of the Short Story, Is Dead at 92," in the New York Times, July 24, 2001, p. A1.
Kreyling, Michael, "Eudora Welty," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 102, American Short-Story Writers, 910-1945, Second Series, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 335-50.
Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, "Sex and Wreckage in the Parlor: Welty's Bye-Bye Brevoort," in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. 33, Nos. 2-3, January 1995, pp. 107-16.
Vande Kieft, Ruth, "Eudora Welty," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2, American Novelists Since World War Two, edited by Jeffrey Helterman, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 524-37.
Waldron, Ann, Eudora: A Writer's Life, Doubleday, 1998, p. 187.
Welty, Eudora, Bye-Bye, Brevoort, in Plays in One Act, edited by Daniel Halpern, Harper Perennial, 1991, pp. 459-66.
"Wreckers Attack the Old Brevort," in the New York Times, January 28, 1954, p. 29.
Folpe, Emily Kies, It Happened on Washington Square, JHU Press, 2002.
This book offers a description and history of the area around Washington Square, the heart of Greenwich Village, and the location of the Hotel Brevoort, which is mentioned in the book. It also contains many historic images.
Kreyling, Michael, Understanding Eudora Welty, University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
This book offers an overview of Welty's professional life and close readings of some of her fiction, as well as an analysis of One Writer's Beginnings.
Marrs, Suzanne, Eudora Welty: A Biography, Harcourt, 2005.
An excellent recent biography of Eudora Welty, written shortly after the writer's death and containing a detailed account of the period surrounding the writing of Bye-Bye, Brevoort.
Welty, Eudora, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album, University of Mississippi Press, 1996.
This book is a remarkable collection of Welty's photographs taken during the years she worked for the Work Projects Administration. It offers readers the chance to see another side of Welty's artistic talents.