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Eudora Welty’s Theatrical Sketches of 1948: Summer Diversion or Lost Potential?

From: Eudora Welty Review
Volume 4, Spring 2012
pp. 69-92 | 10.1353/ewr.2012.0020

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In the Welty Collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) is an unpublished manuscript entitled What Year Is This? coauthored by Welty and humor writer Hildegarde Dolson. Together, the two friends constructed the sketches, working in New York during the summer of 1948 and finishing in the fall after Welty had returned to her home in Jackson. The collaborative What Year Is This? includes the only produced sketch by Welty—“Bye-Bye Brevoort”—and provides a gateway to exploring Welty’s life-long interest in theater and her experience of New York City.

The context in which the revue was written, Welty’s collaboration with Dolson, and the sketches in the Welty Collection have received relatively little attention. Elizabeth Evans discusses What Year Is This? in the chapter “A Woman of Letters” in her 1981 monograph on Welty (14–15). Evans also includes not quite a full page on the play in the chapter “The Prism of Comedy” (46–47). Evans, saying that “Bye-Bye Brevoort” “bristles with comically absurd elements,” wisely includes the title alongside better-known works such as Losing Battles, The Ponder Heart, The Robber Bridegroom, and Delta Wedding (45). Suzanne Marrs, mentioning some of the revue pieces in One Writer’s Imagination, calls them “lively and amusing” (108). Pearl McHaney reprints the “Brevoort” script and a section of “Song of the Times,” part of the What Year Is This? manuscript, in Eudora Welty: Occasions: Selected Writings. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, in her insightful essay “Sex and Wreckage in the Parlor,” makes a strong case for “Brevoort” as a model that helped Welty establish themes and characters in the stories in The Golden Apples. Prenshaw’s essay is a critical interpretation of the play, and she concludes, as do I, that “Brevoort” deserves new stagings. Here, however, I offer a historical and archival account of how “Bye Bye Brevoort” came to be written.

Welty’s interest in the theater manifested itself during her childhood when she accompanied her father on business trips. They took in theater wherever they traveled, attending revues and plays of all kinds. In an interview with Walter Clemons in 1970, Welty states, “When I first went to New York, my father took me to the Palace, and I was a goner. I saw all the great acts” (“Meeting” 32). The Palace, Broadway’s grandest vaudeville house, was the most important venue for performers from its opening in 1913 until the 1930s when it added movies. All of the well-known stars of the day played the Palace: from Harry Houdini to Fanny Brice; from Sarah Bernhardt to Burns and Allen; from Beatrice Lillie to Al Jolson (“Welcome to the Palace Theatre”). So Welty’s early introduction to the Broadway stage was to vaudeville—the theatrical form that would eventually evolve in the 1940s and 1950s into the musical revue.

Back in Jackson, Welty’s mother was one of the founders of the Little Theatre. In an essay written in 1983, Welty remembers, “My first introduction to what they [the Little Theatre] were doing came when I followed my mother up the winding iron staircase of the Blind Institute’s outside fire escape helping her carry a tea table to the stage entrance at the top.… I became attached for life to the pursuit of putting on theater” (“A Note” 151). Welty was secretary of the Dramatic Club in high school and college and often acted in and wrote for the stage in both.

In reference to plays written when Welty attended the Mississippi State College for Women (MSCW), Marrs writes that “her skit ‘The Gnat,’ a take-off of the Broadway hit called The Bat, poked fun at the college faculty and staff” (Eudora Welty 17). Welty, calling herself “a wit and humorist of the parochial kind,” refers to this venture into playwriting in One Writer’s Beginnings: “I saw The Bat and wrote ‘The Gnat,’ laid in MSCW. The Gnat assumes the disguise of our gym uniform … and enters through the College Library after hours; our librarian starts screaming at his opening line, ‘Beulah Culbertson, I’ve come for those fines’” (923).

After two years at MSCW, Welty finished college...

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