Obscene and Not Heard

Groucho Marx? Ethel Barrymore? Maurice Barrymore? Paul M. Potter? Gertrude Battles Lane? John Lennon? Joe E. Lewis? Robert Heinlein? Marilyn Manson? Augustus John? Oscar Wilde?

barrymore12Dear Quote Investigator: There is well-known and often repeated admonition directed at young people who are making too much noise:

Children should be seen and not heard.

Wordplay has produced multiple quips which transform the phrase “seen and not heard” into other similar sounding statements:

Back in our day sex was obscene and not heard.
The writing was obscene but not absurd.
Graffiti should be obscene and not heard.
Women should be obscene but not heard.

Instances of these statements have been attributed to Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Ethel Barrymore, Robert Heinlein, and Oscar Wilde. Attitudes have changed over the years and some statements in this family grate on many modern ears. Would you please examine this family of adages?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an anecdote published in a New York newspaper in 1892. The quip was spoken by Maurice Barrymore who was the patriarch of the famous theater family that included his children John, Lionel, and Ethel. A large show had recently closed, and Barrymore discussed the production with a fellow actor. He defended the risqué performances of the lead actress while mentioning the poor acoustics of the capacious venue. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Here is the latest scintillation of Barrymore’s wit. Barrymore and Wilton Lackaye were discussing Mrs. Bernard-Beere’s unfortunate engagement at the Manhattan Opera-House. Lackaye having said something about the English actress’s failure, Barrymore replied: “My dear boy, you must remember that the size of the theatre was entirely against her; it is so large that it entirely destroyed the delicacy of her art. The stage of that theatre is intended only for broad effects.”

“Well,” said Lackaye, “judging from what I have heard, the broad effects in some of her plays were marked, especially certain scenes in ‘Ariane.'”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” declared Barrymore. “On that big stage anybody can be obscene and not heard.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1908 the entertainment trade journal “The Billboard” printed an extremely hostile and sarcastic review of a Broadway musical-drama called “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge”: 2

Another septic musical comedy has been ulcerated on Broadway, this time it’s the Circle that needs disinfection—the play being none other than The Moulin Rouge…

Richard F. Carroll, a man of many changes which are humorously called disguises —mentions benignly that “little girls should be obscene and not heard.” And straightaway a laughter pandemonium shrieks itself to hoarseness; of course, it’s funny and Broadway is so quick to see wit. Then Hattie Forsythe, while doing an excruciating wriggle, gasps—”I’m crazy about this,” hurrahs again, long, loud and merry.

The book of the Broadway show mentioned above was written by Paul M. Potter; hence, he may be responsible for recycling the joke from Maurice Barrymore. 3

In 1914 a different version of the tale with Barrymore and Lackaye was included in a compendium of theater stories titled “Nat Goodwin’s Book” by Nathaniel Carl Goodwin. The two names “Manhattan Opera House” and “Hammerstein Theater” referred to the same venue: 4

“You call that art,” asked Lackaye, “a wanton, expounding her amorous successes? What edification can that give? I tell you, Barrymore, you may be all right in your argument but the performance was simply nauseating, nasty and suggestive. The whole thing reeked with filth!”

“I know,” said Barrymore, quickly but quietly, “but you fail to realize, my dear Lackaye, that Hammerstein’s is a theatre where one may be obscene and not heard.”

In 1915 the journalist and critic James Huneker employed an instance of the wordplay in a letter he sent to H. L. Mencken about a book undergoing evaluation: 5

Now, if you people will publish “The Super-Dream Sin” just as it stands, without one erasure, you can have it for the printing thereof, and 2 (two) copies complimentary, to the author. The reason is—I want it for a book of obscene (and not heard) Tales. No one but you are discerning enough to recognize its absolute harmlessness. . .

In 1920 James Huneker published a book called “Steeplejack”, and he retold a version of the anecdote featuring Maurice Barrymore’s quip: 6

Did I ever tell you the witticism of Maurice Barrymore concerning a fiasco made by a foreign-born actress of a certain reputation at the Manhattan Opera House? Barry supported the lady, whose voice was not powerful enough for the big auditorium. I asked him how she succeeded—I was at another theatre. “Obscene but not heard,” he answered.

In 1927 a newspaper in Portsmouth, England printed an advertisement for a furniture store that presented a monologue by a rustic woman using dialectical spelling. An instance of wordplay with “obscene” and “absurd” was included: 7

An the kids h’up to their blooming tricks again, putting string fer me ter trip over, h’everywhere I turn. Now, wot I sez is, little boys should be obscene and not absurd; an’ obstinate, my h’experience h’is that you can lead a boy to the water but you can’t make ‘im wash ‘is neck!

In 1930 “Collier’s: The National Weekly” printed an instance that referred to sex: 8

“You’ve also got to remember that conversation has undergone a great change. Back in our day sex was obscene an’ not heard, an’ only the vicious doubted that doctors brought babies in their little black bags.

In 1936 “Time” magazine published a profile of Gertrude Battles Lane who was the editor-in-chief of “Woman’s Home Companion”, a magazine whose circulation grew dramatically under her successful stewardship: 9

Quiet, feminine, essentially non-spectacular, Editor Lane cultivates no office mannerisms, permits herself an occasional mild pun. Once Miss Lane told a male colleague who complained that Crowell’s female executives were invading a hitherto masculine restaurant that he evidently wished to be “obscene and not heard.”

In 1942 the top newspaper columnist Walter Winchell printed an instance in the wordplay family that was similar to the 1927 citation: 10

V. Shepard’s crack: “Children should be obscene, not absurd.”

In 1943 the industrious collector Evan Esar placed a variant statement in his reference “Esar’s Comic Dictionary”: 11

obscene. Children should be seen and not obscene.

In 1946 the popular columnist Earl Wilson relayed some jokes that were delivered by the well-known comedian Joe E. Lewis: 12

Joe’d have you believe that he has hotel troubles, and all he wants is a room “where I can be obscene and not heard.”

In 1948 the anecdote compiler Bennett Cerf retold a version of the Maurice Barrymore tale, but he altered it significantly by reassigning Maurice’s role to his daughter Ethel Barrymore: 13

An actress noted for her risqué lines opened in a new theatre. “They’ll never hear her in that barn,” said a critic. “The acoustics are terrible.” “How nice,” commented Ethel Barrymore. “Now she can be obscene but not heard.”

In 1949 the scholarly journal “Western Folklore” published “Wordplay: The Epigram and Perverted Proverbs” which included two more variants: 14

Children should be seen and not heard.

1. Most linguists should be heard and not seen.
2. Humorists should be seen and not obscene.

In 1952 the prominent Welsh painter Augustus John published “Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography” which included a section about socializing with Oscar Wilde in Paris after the playwright had been released from prison. Thus, the time frame was between 1897 and 1900, and the book appeared in print more than fifty years afterwards. In the following passage “the Master” referred to Wilde. John employed an adage, but he did not directly credit the remark to anyone. Some readers may have assumed that John was crediting Wilde: 15

We assembled first at the Café de la Regence. Warmed up with a succession of Maraschinos, the Master began to coruscate genially. I could only listen in respectful silence, for did I not know that ‘little boys should be obscene and not heard’? In any case I could think of nothing whatever to say. Even my laughter sounded hollow.

In 1961 the famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein included an instance in his novel “Stranger in a Strange Land”. The words were spoken by a character named Miriam who ascribed the remark to another character named Dr. Mahmoud whose nickname was “Stinky”: 16 17

“Stinky says women should be obscene but not heard.”

In 1964 “The Saturday Evening Post” published an article about a remarkable new rock-n-roll band that was drawing enthusiastic throngs of teenagers, The Beatles. An instance of the sexist saying was ascribed to John Lennon, but it was possible that he was being facetious: 18

When the Lennons have business visitors, Cynthia serves tea and recedes into the background. “Women,” says John, “should be obscene and not heard.”

In 1964 “Time” magazine also attributed the remark to Lennon. “Time” mentioned Lennon’s forthcoming book “In His Own Write”, but QI does not know if the saying was in the book: 19

“Women should be obscene and not heard.” That’s the sort of word play that Beatle John Lennon, 23, dotes on, and since he writes it down, Simon and Schuster decided to publish it. Come April 20, In His Own Write will go on sale for $2.50.

In 1972 “The Journal of American Folklore” published an article titled “Social Analysis of Graffiti” that reported on a corpus of graffiti that had been collected at three university campuses in 1970 and 1971. An instance appeared in one of the scrawls: 20

Play-on-Words: Women should be obscene not heard.

In 1984 “Comedy Techniques for Writers and Performers” was released, and during a discussion of puns the author credited a quip to Groucho Marx. This attribution did not provide strong evidence because it appeared several years after the death of Marx in 1977: 21

. . . Groucho Marx is best remembered for his homonym humor, which was combined with his reputation for caustic sarcasm.

In my opinion, women should be obscene and not heard.
. . .
CHICO: “The lady in 304 wants ice water.”
GROUCHO: “Send her up an onion. That’ll make her eyes water.”

In 2009 shock rocker Marilyn Manson released the song “mOBSCENE” which included the following chorus: 22

Be obscene, be be obscene
Be obscene, baby, and not heard.

Manson asserted that he had been inspired by a saying that he ascribed to Oscar Wilde. The interview text below used the spelling “Wylde”: 23

MANSON: “It was a quote from Oscar Wylde that inspired the whole song. It was about how women should be obscene and not heard or something like that. And it’s strange coming from a gay guy that you know, he had this odd opinion about women that I found very humorous. And it was taking that and digesting the films that I’ve been watching at the time, Fellini and some other strange stuff like that. And I woke up and I decided that I wanted to write a song that had a chorus line of girls like a Busby Berkeley movie.

In conclusion, this family of sayings began by 1892, and many variants have been constructed over the decades. Based on current evidence Maurice Barrymore was the originator. Playwright Paul M. Potter also employed an early instance, but it was already circulating in the theater community. The attribution to Maurice’s daughter Ethel was not well supported. Robert Heinlein wrote a novel that included an instance. There was substantive evidence that John Lennon employed quip. The linkage to Groucho Marx was weak.

Image Notes: Marx and Lennon stamp from Abkhazia. Portrait of actress Ethel Barrymore circa 1896 from the University of Pennsylvania, Philip H. Ward Collection of Theatrical Images.

(Special thanks to top-researcher Bill Mullins who found the 1892 citation.)

Update History: On March 16, 2017 the 1892 citation was added. The article was partially rewritten, and the conclusion was updated.

Notes:

  1. 1892 December 12, The Evening World, Stage News and Notes, Quote Page 5, Column 3, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1908 December 19, The Billboard, Volume 20, Greater New York News by Our New York Correspondent, (Review of the musical-drama “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge”), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by Billboard Publications. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. Website: IBDB Internet Broadway Database, Entry Title: The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, Show Opening Date: Dec 07, 1908, Show Closing Date: Apr 24, 1909, Total Performances: 160, Website Description: Database of Broadway show information provided by The Broadway League in association with Theatre Development Fund and New York State. (Accessed ibdb.com on January 14, 2016) link
  4. 1914, Nat Goodwin’s Book by Nat C. Goodwin, (Nathaniel Carl Goodwin), Chapter 6: “Barry” and Jefferson, Quote Page 43, Published by Richard G. Badger: The Gorham Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust) link
  5. 1922, Letters of James Gibbons Huneker, Collected and edited by Josephine Huneker, (Letter from James Huneker to Henry L. Mencken dated July 5, 1915), Quote Page 187, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1920, Steeplejack by James Gibbons Huneker, Volume 2, Chapter 17: Dramatic Critics, Start Page 144, Quote Page 157, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1927 April 6, The Evening News (Portsmouth Evening News), Mrs ‘Awkins has a word to say: No. 2, (Advertisement for Alfred A. Jacobs furniture store), Quote Page 11, Column 5, Hampshire, England. (britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
  8. 1930 January 25, Collier’s: The National Weekly, Say It With Blushes by Uncle Henry, Start Page 42, Quote Page 42, Column 4, P. F. Collier & Son, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz)
  9. 1936 July 27, Time, Volume 28, Issue 4, Companion’s Climb, Quote Page 49, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier)
  10. 1942 April 4, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Walter Winchell: On Broadway, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 195, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1946, Pikes Peek or Bust by Earl Wilson, Chapter: Copacabana Joe E., Quote Page 65, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1950 (Reprint of 1948 Simon & Schuster edition, Copyright 1948), Shake Well Before Using by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 36, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1949 October, Western Folklore, Volume 8, Number 4, Traditional American Wordplay: The Epigram and Perverted Proverbs by C. Grant Loomis, Start Page 348, Quote Page 354, Published by Western States Folklore Society. (JSTOR) link
  15. 1952, Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography by Augustus John, Quote Page 53, Published by Pellegrini & Cudahy, New York. (Verified with scans)
  16. 1961, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Chapter 35, Quote Page 369, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1961 Copyright, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Chapter 35, Quote Page 374, Avon Book Division: The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans)
  18. 1964 March 21, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 237, Issue 11, YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!: Music’s Gold Bugs: The Beatles by Alfred G. Aronowitz, Start Page 30, Quote Page 33, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premiere EBSCO)
  19. 1964 March 27, Time, Volume 83, Issue 13, Untitled, Quote Page 47, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier)
  20. 1972 October-December, The Journal of American Folklore, Volume 85, Number 338, Article: Social Analysis of Graffiti, Authors: Terrance L. Stocker, Linda W. Dutcher, Stephen M. Hargrove and Edwin A. Cook, Section: Appendix, Quote Page 366, Published by American Folklore Society. (JSTOR) link
  21. 1984, Comedy Techniques for Writers and Performers: The Hearts Theory of Humor Writing by Melvin Helitzer, Quote Page 89, Lawhead Press, Athens, Ohio. (Verified on paper)
  22. YouTube video, Title: Marilyn Manson – mOBSCENE, Uploaded on Oct 6, 2009, Uploaded by: MarilynMansonVEVO, Description: Music video by Marilyn Manson performing mOBSCENE. (Accessed on youtube.com on January 15, 2016) link
  23. Website: Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Snapshot: Rock 102.3 (The webpage was later removed from the Wayback Machine), Article title: Marilyn Manson, Date on website: June 9, 2003, Website description: Website of radio station Rock 102.3. (Accessed web.archive.org on January 18, 2014; rock1023.com was inactive on January 15, 2015)