Quotable Reviews

    • “I’ve knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls’ knees, and there God anticipated me.”

      – George Jean Nathan on a musical in the 1920s.

    • “It is longeth and it stinketh.”

      – Caroline Alice Lejeune on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, (1939).

    • “A bad play saved by a bad performance.”

      – George S. Kaufman regarding Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark, (1939).

Satire through the Centuries

Sarah_Siddons_as_Euphrasia_in_The_Grecian_Daughter_1782

Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter, 1782

Sarah Siddons was born in Wales in 1755. She became one of the most prominent actresses of the 18th century, famous in particular for playing Lady Macbeth. She remains notable and memorable even today. The Sarah Siddons Society in Chicago presents theatre scholarships in her name annually.

Siddons made her first appearance in Dublin in 1784. An Irish newspaper, apparently, felt that the hype surrounding her over in London was out of control.
What follows is their writeup, as documented a century later in English As She Is Wrote, which was itself published well over a hundred years ago, in 1883.

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella.

From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess!

The house was crowded with hundreds more than it could hold, with thousands of admiring spectators who went away without a sight.

This extraordinary phenomenon of tragic excellence! this star of Melpomene! this comet of the stage! this sun of the firmament of Muses! this moon of blank verse! this queen and princess of tears! this Donellan of the poisoned dagger! this empress of pistol and dagger! this chaos of Shakespeare! this world of weeping clouds! this Juno commanding aspects! this Terpsichore of the curtains and scenic! this Proserpine of fire and excitement! this Katterfelto of wonders! exceeded expectation, went beyond belief and soared above all the natural powers of description! She was nature itself! She was the most exquisite work of art!

She was the very daisy, primrose, tuberose, sweet brier, furze blossom, gilliflower wall flower, cauliflower, auricula, and rosemary! In short, she was the bouquet of Parnassus! When expectations were so high, it was thought she would be injured by her appearance, but it was the audience who were injured: several fainted before the curtain drew up!

When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat.

But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics.

The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Source:
English As She Is Wrote: Showing Curious Ways in Which the English Language May Be Made to Convey Ideas or Obscure Them. A Companion to “English As She Is Spoke.”. New York: D. Appleton & co., 1883
View source here.

Broadway Snark

Poster for Abie's Irish Rose

Poster for Abie's Irish Rose

Poster for Abie’s Irish Rose

Abie’s Irish Rose was a Broadway comedy by Anne Nichols.  It enjoyed a special combination of fame and notoriety that few shows manage to reach.  The show was about an Irish Catholic girl and a young Jewish man.   They get married over the objections of both of their families, with a lot of drama.

 It opened on May 23, 1922, and ran for 2327 performances, closing over five years later.     At the time, that was the longest run in Broadway history.

 

It must have been a great show.

But not according to the critics.

Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley

Abie’s Irish Rose  was loved by the general public and utterly hated by the critics (a similar place of honor might exist for the much more recent Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but that’s another story).

Robert Benchley was, at that time, the theatre critic for Life Magazine.    A part of that job was to create short, capsule reviews of the current shows, each week.

A selection of his capsule reviews for Abie’s Irish Rose:

  • “The comic spirit of 1876.”
  • “Just about as low as good clean fun can get.”
  • “All right if you never went beyond the fourth grade.”
  • “Something Awful.”
  • “Showing that the Jews and the Irish crack equally old jokes.”
  • “Will the Marines never come?”
  • “People laugh at this every night, which proves why a democracy can never be a success.”
  • “Where do people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in the daytime.”
  • “The management sent us some pencils for Christmas, so maybe it isn’t so bad after all.”
  • “We refuse to answer on advice of council.”
  • “Closing soon. (Only fooling!)”
  • “We may as well say it now as later. We don’t like this play.”
  • “Probably the funniest and most stimulating play ever written by an American. (Now, let’s see what that will do.)”
  • “There is no letter “W” in the French language.”
  • “In another two or three years, we’ll have this show driven out of town.”
  • “Four years old this week. Three ounces of drinking-iodine, please.”
  • “See Hebrews 13:8.” [a Biblical passage that read, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”]
  • “For the best comment to go in this space, we will give two tickets to the play. Contest for the best line closes at midnight on January 8. At present, Mr. Arthur Marx is leading with ‘No worse than a bad cold.'”

Subways are for Sleeping

"7 out of 7 are ecstatically unanimous about Subways are for Sleeping." Howard Taubman: "One of the few great musical comedies of the last thirty years, one of the best of our time. It lends lustre to this or any other Broadway season." Walter Kerr: "What a show! What a hit! What a solid hit! If you want to be overjoyed, spend an evening with 'Subways are for Sleeping.' A triumph." John chapman "No doubt about it. 'Subways are for Sleeping' is the best musical of the century. Consider yourself lucky if you can buy or steal a ticket for 'Subways are for Sleeping' over the next few years." John McClain: "A fabulous musical. I love it. Sooner or later, everyone will have to see 'Subways are for Sleeping'." Richard Watts: "A knockout, from start to finish. The musical you've been waiting for. It deserves to run for a decade." Norman Nadel: "A whopping hit. Run, don't walk to the St. James Theatre. It's in that rare class of great musicals. Quite simply, it has everything." Robert Coleman: "A great musical All the ingredients are there. As fine a piece of work as our stage can be asked to give us."

"7 out of 7 are ecstatically unanimous about Subways are for   Sleeping."  Howard Taubman: "One of the few great musical comedies of the   last thirty years, one of the best of our time.   It lends lustre   to this or any other Broadway season."  Walter Kerr:   "What a show!  What a hit!  What a solid hit!  If   you want to be overjoyed, spend an evening with 'Subways are for   Sleeping.'  A triumph."  John chapman "No doubt about it.  'Subways are for Sleeping' is   the best musical of the century.  Consider yourself lucky if you   can buy or steal a ticket for 'Subways are for Sleeping' over the   next few years."  John McClain: "A fabulous musical.  I love it.  Sooner or later,   everyone will have to see 'Subways are for Sleeping'."  Richard Watts:  "A knockout, from start to finish.  The musical   you've been waiting for.  It deserves to run for a decade."  Norman Nadel:  "A whopping hit.  Run, don't walk to the St. James   Theatre.  It's in that rare class of great musicals.  Quite   simply, it has everything."  Robert Coleman: "A great musical  All the ingredients are there.    As fine a piece of work as our stage can be asked to give us."

It was January of 1962.   The Broadway production of Subways are for Sleeping at the St. James Theatre was getting weak reviews.   Ticket revenues were low, and in need of some magic.

Producer David Merrick had a trick up his sleeve that he had been saving for several years.    He spent some time making some interesting arrangements, and then prepared the following advertisement for every major New York newspaper.  It included the names of the most prominent theatre critics of the time, followed by over-the-top enthusiastic reviews:

 

“7 out of 7 are ecstatically unanimous about Subways are for Sleeping.”

Howard Taubman: “One of the few great musical comedies of the last thirty years, one of the best of our time. It lends lustre to this or any other Broadway season.”

Walter Kerr: “What a show! What a hit! What a solid hit! If you want to be overjoyed, spend an evening with ‘Subways are for Sleeping.’ A triumph.”

John Chapman “No doubt about it. ‘Subways are for Sleeping’ is the best musical of the century. Consider yourself lucky if you can buy or steal a ticket for ‘Subways are for Sleeping’ over the next few years.”

John McClain: “A fabulous musical. I love it. Sooner or later, everyone will have to see ‘Subways are for Sleeping’.”

Richard Watts: “A knockout, from start to finish. The musical you’ve been waiting for. It deserves to run for a decade.”

Norman Nadel: “A whopping hit. Run, don’t walk to the St. James Theatre. It’s in that rare class of great musicals. Quite simply, it has everything.”

Robert Coleman: “A great musical All the ingredients are there. As fine a piece of work as our stage can be asked to give us.”

 

Merrick’s ingenious trick:  He rounded up seven men who were not reviewers of theatre, but happened to have the exact same names as the ideal set of critics to be quoted.

He treated them all to a free showing of the production with other perks, and coaxed the published quotes out of each.  Nowhere in the ad does it say that these individuals are affiliated with any newspaper or have any other credentials.    It is, in fact, a completely truthful piece of information, though a deliberately misleading one.

David Merrick

David Merrick

By ABC Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Phyllis Newman

Merrick might have used this trick earlier in his career, but he had been unable to find anyone with the same name as Brooks Atkinson.  Atikinson retired in 1961, opening the way for Merrick’s inventiveness.

Only the Herald-Tribune ran the ad.  One of the other papers examined the photographs, and realized that the pictured individuals were not, in fact, the reviewers being implied by the piece.   The word spread among the rest of the papers that had not yet gone to press.

That one newspaper, however, provided much-needed publicity for the show.  It went on for over 200 more performances, and even earned a Tony Award:  Best Featured Actress in a Musical, for Phyllis Newman.