George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Randolph Churchill? Noel Coward? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest example of repartee that I have ever heard about was a famous exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill about a pair of tickets to a play.
Shaw: I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one.
Churchill: Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one.
I hope this jousting really happened. Could you examine this story?
Quote Investigator: The earliest printed evidence that QI has located appeared in 1946 in the influential syndicated column of Walter Winchell, but the participants were not Shaw and Winston Churchill. Instead, Churchill’s son and the popular playwright Noel Coward enacted a partial version of the anecdote. In the following passage UP refers to the United Press news service [WWRC]:
Randolph Churchill and Noel Coward haven’t always agreed on politics. A gag (from a UP pal in London) says that Churchill’s boy wrote Noel asking for two tickets to his new show. He received one ducat and this note: “Let me know if you really have a friend and I’ll send you the other ticket.”
The second cite was printed in the 1947 book “More and More of Memories” by Arthur Porritt. It contained a tale similar to the one above, but the wording given for Coward’s remark was closer to modern phrasing [APRC]:
When Mr. Randolph Churchill asked Mr. Noel Coward for a ticket for a new play he had written, Mr. Coward is said to have replied: “My dear Randolph. Here are tickets for my new show: one for yourself, and one for a friend—if you have a friend.”
The first evidence QI has found for the prevalent modern version is in a newspaper article with a dateline of January 1948 in New York City from the International News Service [EMJG] [EMOW]:
George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill a couple of seats for the opening night of one of his plays, some time ago. Commissioner Ed Mulrooney was reminiscing the other day at the unveiling of the portrait of the late Jimmy Walker at city hall.
Shaw enclosed a little note with the tickets. It read, “Here are two tickets for the opening of my new play. Keep one for yourself and bring along a friend—if you can find one.”
Churchill returned the tickets with a nice little note, too.
“I’m sorry that a previous engagement precludes my attending your opening night.” he said. “I shall be happy to come the second night—if there is one.”
This anecdote was retold many times during the succeeding decades, but the phrasing used to describe Shaw’s message and Churchill’s rejoinder varied considerably. The name of the play was not given in the initial citations, but later versions mentioned at least four different dramas by Shaw: “Man and Superman,” “Pygmalion,” “Back to Methuselah,” and “Saint Joan.” By the 1960s a variant was being propagated that featured Winston Churchill and the playwright Noel Coward instead of Shaw.
The most interesting citation QI has located was published in “Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium” in 1962. The book presented the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon named L. W. Plewes who treated Shaw in 1950 when the playwright was 94 years old. Plewes said that Shaw himself provided the following version of the anecdote [LPSV]:
While G.B.S. was in hospital under treatment, some peaches arrived from Winston Churchill, who was in Florida at the time. Hearing from Mr. Churchill reminded G.B.S. of some correspondence he had had with him before Pygmalion was first staged. It went as follows: G.B.S. to Winston Churchill: “I enclose two tickets for the first night of my new play, one for yourself and one for your friend, if you have one.”Winston Churchill to G.B.S.: “I am sorry I cannot attend for the first night, but I should be glad to come on the second night, if there is one”!
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The earliest citations given above were printed in 1946, 1947, and January 1948. In April 1948 the Los Angeles Times published a version of the tale in an article that grouped together unrelated humorous vignettes titled “Sidelines” in a section called “This Week Magazine”. The Shaw/Churchill anecdote had been obtained from a “foreign correspondent” and was new to the author [BSLA]:
The bearded playwright had sent Winston Churchill a pair of tickets to his latest play, enclosing a typical caustic message: “Here are opening night seats for you and a friend — if you have one.”
Churchill replied promptly, returning the tickets. “Sorry I’m unable to use these tickets for the opening night of your play,” he wrote. “But I’d appreciate tickets for the second night — if there is one.”
In October 1948 the anecdote was retold by a speaker at a conference of the “Association of Governing Boards of State Universities and Allied Institutions” in the United States. In this version the messages exchanged were longer [BSRS]:
He wrote a letter to Winston. “My dear Winston, the opening night of one of my performances is going to occur in London very soon, and I’m sending you two tickets for the very first night because I thought it might be pleasant for you to come and bring a friend—if you have one.” Mr. Churchill replied: “My dear Bernard, I regret very much that I’m unable to attend the opening night; I have an engagement, but I wonder if it might be possible to obtain tickets to the second performance—if there is one.”
In 1949 an Indiana newspaper presented a version of the tale that followed the established outline [BSNT]:
The story is told that George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill two tickets with a note reading: “I am sending up two tickets for the opening performance of my new show. Hope, you .can come and bring a friend, if you have one.” To which Churchill replied; “I regret I shall be unable to attend the opening performance of your new show but I shall be delighted to attend the second performance, if there is one.”
Skipping forward to 1962, the evidence given by Shaw’s surgeon, L. W. Plewes, was printed in a biographical work that was discussed previously in this article.
In 1964 a variant of the story was published in a Missouri newspaper. An actor named Martyn Green told this tale featuring Noel Coward and Winston Churchill during a party, but the skeptical newspaper labeled his humorous version apocryphal [WCNC]:
At a recent dinner party at which two of the guests were Noel Coward, the well-known actor-producer-playwright, and Martyn Green, the popular Gilbert-and-Sullivan actor, Mr. Green told the following apocryphal story.
In the 1930s Mr. Coward sent the following letter to Mr. Winston Churchill: “Dear Mr. Churchill, I am sending you two tickets for the opening night of my new play for yourself and a friend—if you have one!”
Back came the terse reply: “Dear Mr. Coward, I am sorry that previous engagement will prevent my attendance at your opening night, but I would be happy to accept two tickets for your second night—if you have one!”
In 1966 the important reference work “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit” by Kay Halle was published, and it contained a version of the anecdote. Halle knew Churchill well, and she was an important compiler of his quotations. She assigned the year 1931 to the story and used the designation EAR-WITNESS which meant that she heard the story through a mutual friend [WCKH]:
George Bernard Shaw is said to have told W.S.C.:
Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.
W.S.C. to G.B.S.:
Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second—if there is one.
In 2008 another key reference work was published: “Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations” by Richard Langworth. The anecdote was included, but the author indicated that he thought the proper date was 1922, and the tickets were for the play “Saint Joan” [WCRL].
In conclusion, QI thinks there are two main possibilities.
Possibility One: Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill did engage in this clever banter. The exact wording of the exchange is uncertain because there are many versions, and none of them has primacy. The name of the play is also not clear, but the leading candidates are “Pygmalion” and “Saint Joan”. The Shaw plays mentioned by name in the various citations opened in the 1910s and 1920s, so it is surprising that the earliest known instances of the anecdote were printed in the 1940s.
Possibility Two: An apocryphal joke about Randolph Churchill and Noel Coward was constructed in the 1940s. The tale evolved over time, and the exchange become more elaborate. Randolph was replaced by his more prominent father Winston, and Coward was replaced by the more famous dramatist Shaw.
Perhaps new evidence will be discovered in the future to help resolve this uncertainty.
[WWRC] 1946 September 19, Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell: Man About Town, Page 6, Column 6, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
[APRC] 1947, More and More of Memories by Arthur Porritt, Page 93, G. Allen & Unwin, London. (Many thanks to the librarians of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida library branch for verifying this cite on paper)
[EMJG] 1948 January 12, St. Joseph Gazette, Wisecracks of Churchill, Byrnes and Shaw Recalled by Bob Considine, Page 9, Column 2, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Google News Archive)
[EMOW] 1948 January 14, Omaha World Herald, Churchill Matches Wit with Shaw by Bob Considine, Page 9, Column 3 and 4, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
[LPSV] 1962, Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium, Assembled and Narrated by Allan Chappelow, Page 300, Macmillan, New York. (Questia)
[BSLA] 1948 April 18, Los Angeles Times, This Week Magazine, Sidelines, Page G2, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
[BSRS] 1948, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting and Annual Records of the Association of Governing Boards of State Universities and Allied Institutions, [Address delivered on October 5, 1948, “Morality and Religion in American Universities and Colleges” by Robert L. Stearns], Start Page 82, Quote Page 82, Published by Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Washington, D.C. (Many thanks to the librarians of Louisiana State University for verifying this citation on paper) (Note: The Google Books database assigns some copies of this work a date of 1945, but the correct date for the text is 1948.)
[BSNT] 1949 September 15, National Road Traveler, Page 8, Column 6, Cambridge City, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
[WCNC] 1964 February 1, St. Joseph News-Press, Bitter Sweet, Page 4, Column 6, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Google News Archive)
[WCKH] 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit by Kay Halle, Year of Quotation: 1931, Page 116, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. (Verified on paper)
[WCRL] 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations edited by Richard Langworth, Page 547-548, PublicAffairs, New York. (Verified on paper)