Category Archives: Noel Coward

Know Your Lines and Don’t Bump Into the Furniture

Spencer Tracy? Noel Coward? Alfred Lunt? Lynn Fontanne? Anonymous?

stage10Dear Quote Investigator: Some actors engage in elaborate rituals when preparing to perform a role. But the funniest advice about acting that I have ever heard avoids all pretensions. Here are three versions:

1) Speak clearly, and don’t bump into the furniture.
2) Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.
3) Memorize your lines and try not to crash into the furniture

Statements of this type have been attributed to several noteworthy artists, e.g., Spencer Tracy, Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne. Would you please identify the humble promulgator?

Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match for this advice located by QI was spoken by the playwright and actor Noel Coward and published in August 1954 by the syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons. Coward used the phrase “without bumping into people” and not the more comical phrase “without bumping into the furniture”. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

The only advice I ever give actors is to learn to speak clearly, to project your voice without shouting—and to move about the stage gracefully, without bumping into people. After that, you have the playwright to fall back on—and that’s always a good idea.

The couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were major stars of the theatre for several decades. In January 1955 the columnist Lyons reported on an appearance of the pair at Columbia University in New York City. Fontanne delivered the memorably self-effacing statement about the dramatic arts with the phrase “without bumping into the furniture”: 2 3

Alfred Lunt, lecturing at Columbia, was asked to define the style of acting he and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, use, “Frankly, I’ll have to ask my wife,” said Lunt. Miss Fontanne supplied the answer “We read the lines so that people can hear and understand them; we move about the stage without bumping into the furniture or each other; and, well that’s it.”

The two passages above were the earliest evidence of matching expressions located by QI. Questions about the craft of acting were directed at Coward and Fontanne many times during their careers. QI believes that replies similar to those given above were employed more than once.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1954 August 16, Long Beach Independent, The Lyons Den: Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 7 and 8, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1955 January 24, Morning Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (Syndicated), Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1955 January 25, The New Mexican (Santa Fe New Mexican), Press Agent Writes Of Dorothy McGuire’s Reconciliation With Estranged Husband, (Continuation Title: Lyons) by Leonard Lyons, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)

Here are Two Tickets for the Opening of My Play. Bring a Friend—If You Have One

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.

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None of This Nonsense about Women and Children First

Noël Coward? Winston Churchill? W. Somerset Maugham? Joe Drum? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: After major news events people often start exchanging jokes related to the subject matter. The recent tragic cruise ship accident has caused two versions of a comical anecdote to enter circulation. The punch line has been attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill and to the playwright Noel Coward. Examples of this joke are visible now [on January 21, 2012]  when one searches for the phrase “women and children” on Twitter. Here is an example credited to Coward:

I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking, there’s none of that ‘women and children first’ nonsense!

Could you explore this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke found by QI appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1917. A travel writer, Henry J. Allen, described leaving a Paris railroad station and attempting to obtain transport in a taxicab; however, the number of taxicabs available was inadequate. The writer was reminded of a joke that he attributed to a “New York traveler” [KCNY]:

When we reached the outside our trouble began. There were some thirty or forty women from the train and as we watched the scramble for the very small number of taxicabs and 1-horse vehicles we were reminded of the reason a New York traveler once gave for traveling on a French liner: He said, “there is no foolishness about women and children first.”

Early instances of this barb were aimed at French vessels and crew and not Italian vessels. In March 1932 the name Joe Drum was attached to the tale by the syndicated gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre. But the fame of Joe Drum has faded with time, and today he is largely unknown [OOJD]:

Drum was sailing one day on a French ship. “I choose to cross with the gallant chevaliers of France,” he said, “where there is no hanky-panky about women and children first.”

In 1932 the saying was also credited to a more prominent individual, Noël Coward. Over the decades the attributions and embellishments have changed. By 1946 a more elaborate variant that mentioned food and drink was credited to an American Rear-Admiral. By 1985 the quip was ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, and by 1993 an ornate version was credited to Winston Churchill.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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