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?
Dear 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 found by QI appeared in 1908 in the entertainment trade journal “The Billboard” within an extremely hostile and sarcastic review of a Broadway musical-drama called “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
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 have created the joke. 2 Alternatively, the remark may already have been in circulation.
The second instance in this family of sayings located by QI appeared in an anecdote recounted in “Nat Goodwin’s Book” by Nathaniel Carl Goodwin. 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 fellow actor named Wilton Lackaye was denouncing as salacious a new show located in the Hammerstein Theater in New York City, and Barrymore was humorously defending the performance of the lead actress while mentioning the poor acoustics of the capacious venue: 3
“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.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩