Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Irish Barrister? Wilton Lackaye? Margaret Waters? Well-Known Young Clubman? Gustav Traub? Mike Romanoff? Samuel George Blythe? Arthur M. Binstead? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating conversationalist Oscar Wilde enjoyed modifying dusty platitudes to construct comical alternatives. For example, he permuted an old complaint about the working class to yield:
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
Oddly, I have not found a citation for this statement dated before the death of Wilde. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in November 1900. The earliest published instance of this quip located by QI occurred in the caption of a newspaper cartoon in 1902. The details are given further below.
Yet there is good evidence that Oscar Wilde did craft this statement. In 1916 the writer and outsized personality Frank Harris who was a friend of Wilde’s published a biography titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions”. Harris described a party he threw during which Wilde delivered the remark. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.
“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”
Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous.
The accuracy of the above ascription to Wilde depends on the veracity of Harris who was a direct witness. Harris explained the long delay before the appearance of his book in the introduction. Wilde was a controversial figure and Harris’s sympathetic work condemned the harshness of Wilde’s punishment. Harris waited more than ten years hoping that someone else would write a comparable book. He acted when he finally felt compelled to present his own viewpoint.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading