Oscar Wilde? William Collier? Daniel Frohman? George Bernard Shaw? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have been involved in several theatrical productions and sometimes the response of an audience to a show is mystifying. A colleague told me that Oscar Wilde watched an early performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the reception was unenthusiastic. Later when he was asked about that night’s presentation he said:
The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.
I can easily envision Wilde uttering this response. When I used Google I found another version of the line:
The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster
Do you think this anecdote is true, and do you think either of these lines is accurate?
Quote Investigator: This is an entertaining quip that appeals to people who depend on the fickle reactions of audiences. However, there is little evidence that Wilde ever spoke this quotation. Lady Windermere’s Fan was a highly-successful and lucrative comedy for Wilde. The earliest attribution to Wilde that QI has located appeared in the 1937 book “Encore” by the theatrical impresario Daniel Frohman who does not identify a specific play [OWDF]:
Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first production of a play that was a complete failure.
A friend said, “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?”
“Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success but the audience was a failure.”
In fact, the core of this joke was employed by another legendary Irish wit, George Bernard Shaw, in a review he wrote in 1892. Shaw’s commentary was published in “The World”, and recorded his unhappiness with his fellow viewers who reacted negatively to a dancer whose performance was deemed too provocative and suggestive [GBSD] [BSTD]:
Take notice, oh Senorita C. de Otero, Spanish dancer and singer, that I wash my hands of the national crime of failing to appreciate you. You were a perfect success: the audience was a dismal failure. I really cannot conceive a man being such a dull dog as to hold out against that dance.
Lady Windermere’s Fan premiered in 1892 and Oscar Wilde did directly address the audience from the stage after the initial performance. However, the production was a success and not a failure, and his words were precisely the opposite of those listed above.
Here is the version given by Richard Ellmann in his important modern biography of Wilde [OWRE]:
Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.
Wilde’s actions were decried by some reviewers because he spoke while carrying a lit cigarette, and this deed flouted a taboo of that era. The humor magazine Punch printed a satirical illustration [OWPM]:
Here are some additional citations in chronological order. In March of 1940 the Reader’s Digest reprinted the anecdote in Daniel Frohman’s book that attributed the remark critical of the audience to Wilde [OWRD]. Since the Reader’s Digest had a large circulation in the 1940s the quip was widely disseminated.
In October of 1940 a version of the joke appeared in a Toledo, Ohio newspaper. In this telling of the tale an anonymous Broadway producer was credited with the jape [HPTB]:
It happened after a recent Broadway opening, Someone asked the producer how the show went over. “Oh great,” came the reply, “the play was a great success-but the audience was a failure!”
In 1944 the industrious quotation and anecdote collector Bennett Cerf credited the joke to William Collier [TSWC]:
When William Collier died, his old friend, Joe Laurie, Jr., jotted down a few reminiscences. It was Collier who originated a now-familiar theatrical jibe when, asked how he had liked a newly opened show, he replied, “The play was a success but the audience was a failure.”
In 1945 a book of musical quizzes, “The Victor Book of Musical Fun”, attributed the remark to an anonymous pianist [VBMP]:
A pianist appeared at a party the other day after an important concert and his friends asked him whether the concert had been a success. The pianist had a caustic answer: “Yes, it was a success. But the audience was a total failure.”
In 1948 the New York Times included the following one sentence excerpt in a section called “Quotation Marks” [NYWC]:
Willie Collier on a 1912 fiasco, from “What Grandpa Laughed At,” by Homer Croy: “The play was a success, but the audience was a failure.”
In 1987 Peter Hay published a compilation titled “Theatrical Anecdotes”, and it included a version of the tale that referred to Wilde and Lady Windermere’s Fan [OWPH]:
Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan. “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?” asked a friend. “Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.
In conclusion, QI believes that the primary credit for this quip should go to George Bernard Shaw and not Oscar Wilde. The evidence that Wilde used this jest is weak. In fact, there is solid evidence that the remark Wilde made to the audience of Lady Windermere’s Fan was the reverse this quip. Thank you for your question. QI has a magnificent and discerning internet audience that asks sharp questions and is worthy of plaudits.
[OWDF] 1937, Encore by Daniel Frohman, Page 167, Lee Furman, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
[GBSD] 1981, Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism in Three Volumes, Volume 2: 1890 to 1893, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, [Review: Visiting The Halls by George Bernard Shaw, The World, 1892 October 19], Page 714, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified using scans with special thanks to the librarian at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Music Library)
[BSTD] 1986, Bernard Shaw: The Diaries: 1885-1897, Edited & Annotated by Stanley Weintraub, Page 861, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Verified on paper)
[OWRE] 1988, Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, Page 366, Vintage Books: Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with Amazon look inside)
[OWPM] 1892 March 5, Punch, A Wilde ‘Tag’ to Tame a Play, Page 113, Punch Publications Ltd., London. (Google Books full view) link
[OWRD] 1940 March, Reader’s Digest, [Freestanding quotation], Page 22, Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
[HPTB] 1940 October 22, Toledo Blade, Mitch Woodbury Reports On The Theater, Page 29, Toledo, Ohio. (Google News archive)
[TSWC] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 16, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
[VBMP] 1945, The Victor Book of Musical Fun by Ted Cott, Cause and Defect, Page 50, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in Fourth Printing)
[NYWC] 1948 December 4, New York Times, Books of the Times by Charles Poore, Quotation Marks, Page 11, New York. (ProQuest)
[OWPH] 1987, Theatrical Anecdotes by Peter Hay, Page 81, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)