Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Groucho Marx? Walter Winchell? George S. Kaufman? George Jean Nathan?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a friend asked me my opinion of a terrible play that I saw recently I answered:

I did not like it, but perhaps this judgment is unfair. I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.

Eventually she coaxed me into admitting that this joke is from Groucho Marx. However, my memory is imperfect so I decided to check with a Google search, and I found that a playwright named George S. Kaufman is also listed as the originator. Could you determine if this is a real Groucho quote or a fake one? Also, can you ascertain which show was being ridiculed?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Groucho did utter a version of this quote in 1931 to Walter Winchell who promptly reported it in his widely-read and highly-influential newspaper column. The confusion about the attribution arises because Groucho gave credit to the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman for the quip when he told it to Winchell. In fact, the initial newspaper report in 1931 mentions only Kaufman’s name.

The target of the jest was a show called “Vanities” by the major Broadway producer Earl Carroll, and he was not happy to hear the mocking comment. His anger was primarily directed at Winchell, but there were repercussions over a period of years including: strained relationships, publicly traded insults, and a theater attendance ban.

The first instance of the saying located by QI occurs in October of 1931 in the “On Broadway” column of Walter Winchell. The column features Winchell’s specialized vocabulary, e.g., “collabed” for collaborated, and “niftied” for making a nifty or clever remark [WSW]:

Funny crack that one…I mean when somebody asked George S. Kaufman (who collabed on “Band Wagon”) how he liked the “Vanities” show…”I saw it under bad conditions,” he niftied, “the curtain was up.”

In 1932 the Washington Post attributes the jest to Groucho Marx instead of Kaufman [WPC]:

Groucho Marx … never has written dramatic criticism, but when asked about a recent Broadway show, he declared, “I saw it under unfavorable circumstances. The curtain was up!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. In 1933 the city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, Stanley Walker, writes about the joke in his book “The Night Club Era”. Walker claims that it was Groucho Marx who originally told the joke to George S. Kaufman.

The man whose theatrical production was criticized, Earl Carroll, saw the remark in Winchell’s column and viewed it as yet another attack from the powerful commentator. Carroll then confronted Winchell at a large party [NCE]:

Winchell, however, had been roasting Carroll’s shows for many years. Only a few days before the scene at the Casino he had printed in his column a quip credited to George S. Kaufman and Groucho Marx. Kaufman said to Marx: “What do you think of Earl Carroll’s ‘Vanities’?” and Marx replied: “I had rather not say. I saw it under bad conditions–the curtain was up.”

And so, on this great night at the Casino, Carroll arose and, looking at Winchell, said: “Walter, I wonder if you can take it? We’ve been taking it from you for a long time.” Winchell nodded and said: “Go ahead. It’s O.K.” Carroll went on: “I want to tell you that you are not fit to associate with decent people.  You don’t belong!”

It was all very embarrassing. There was a hush of at least five minutes. Carroll bowed himself out of the Casino.

In 1934 the jest is disseminated through the Reader’s Digest which acknowledges the Saturday Evening Post. In this version of the barb no specific attribution is given; instead, a generic critic delivers the remark [RDC]:

There was also the reply of the critic who was asked his opinion of a certain play. “I wouldn’t like to comment,” he said. “I saw it under bad conditions. The curtain was up.”

In 1943 Winchell revisits the topic and slaps Bennett Cerf for submitting the joke to Reader’s Digest. He also discusses one of the negative repercussions: an attendance ban. Oddly, in this retelling Winchell says that he gave Groucho Marx credit for the witticism, but in the original column only George S. Kaufman’s name is mentioned [SHC]:

A colleague reports that Bennett Cerf, the publisher-columnist, received $20 from Reader’s Digest for a quip … It was the one about the man who was asked what he thought of a show and said: “I hate to say, I saw it under bad conditions, the curtain was up!”… It was the gag that got us barred out of one producer’s theater about 10 years ago, when we credited it to Groucho Marx. Groucho told it during the intermission in the Globe theater lobby… Shucks, our memory is getting as good as Milton Berle’s.

In 1944 the quotation appears as part of a question in a newspaper section titled “Dr Quizzler’s Mind Teasers”. The quiz taker is given several hints and is supposed to identify the originator of the quip. Groucho is the answer given.  [TPC]:

One of the wittiest comicos on God’s green earth was asked by George Kaufman what he thought of Earl Carroll’s “Vanities.” “I would rather not say. I saw it under bad conditions– the curtain was up.” The grandson of a German topnose magician, he sparks the quartet which has made stage and screen history. One of his brothers, while a bellhop, use to get two bits from Cissie Loftus for squiring her poodle in the park.

In 1944 the quote appears another time, but the roles of Groucho Marx and George Kaufman are reversed. In this version of the anecdote from Bennett Cerf the joke is attributed to Kaufman instead of Marx [BCC]:

Somebody met George Kaufman after a particularly gruesome opening. “What did you think of it?” ventured the stranger. “It’s not quite fair for me to say,” Kaufman assured him. “I saw it under peculiarly unfortunate circumstances. The curtain was up.”

In 1948 Winchell tells the story again in his syndicated column. Groucho gets the nod as creator and the theater attendance ban is lengthened [SHA]:

Between The Acts: N.Y. Times Sunday editor Lester Markel amused a Boston audience with the gag about the critic who softened a scathing criticism with: “In all fairness I must point out that I saw this play under very inauspicious circumstances. The curtain was up!”

That quip (first told by Groucho Marx) got us barred from Earl Carroll’s shows for nearly 20 years.

In 1949 Winchell complains that a newly released collection of funny sayings, “Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” by Evan Esar, is providing an incorrect attribution for the curtain joke. The excerpt below also reveals the general antagonism between Esar and Winchell concerning the proper apportionment of recognition for witticisms [RSDQ]:

Ho Hum: Evan Esar’s Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (referred to above) forewords: “I have also excluded many apochryphal quotations customarily attached to wits like Wilson Mizner and columnists like Walter Winchell, who give wide currency to comedy lines” … Then he credits Alec Woollcott with Bob Benchley’s famous crack: “I must get out of these clothes and into my dry martini!”

He also credits Woollcott with a capsule criticism which Groucho Marx told me and which got me barred from Earl Carroll’s shows for the next 15 years, to wit: “I saw it under bad conditions—the curtain was up!

Winchell’s grievance is not fully justified. The theatrical review attributed to Woollcott in Esar’s book is thematically similar to the curtain quip, but it is different enough to qualify as a separate quotation [DQW]:

The scenery in the play was beautiful, but the actors got in front of it.

In 1958 the tale is recounted under the title “Famous Fables” in the Los Angeles Times. This version assigns credit to George S. Kaufman and depicts him boldly delivering the line directly to the show’s producer [LAC]:

One night on Broadway, Playwright George S. Kaufman attended the opening of a new play. Later, in a restaurant, he met the producer, who asked:

“Did you like the show?”

“No,” said Kaufman, “but, of course, I saw it under unfavorable conditions. The curtain was up.”

When the quip is given an attribution it usually goes to Marx or Kaufman. But QI did locate an article in 1968 that credits the drama critic George Jean Nathan [LTC]:

The latest variation on George Jean Nathan’s line about Tallulah Bankhead play, “I saw it under unfortunate conditions. The curtain was up”: “I saw ‘The Green Berets’ under terrible difficulties. The projection machine was on”.

An interesting description of this tale is given in the 1989 book “Broadway Anecdotes” by Peter Hay. This version claims that the relationship between George S. Kaufman and the producer Earl Carroll was ruptured for five years. It also suggests that the jest was really the handiwork of Groucho despite his assigning credit to Kaufman [BAC]:

Take a well-known witticism which has been attributed to both Groucho Marx and to George S. Kaufman. After a Broadway opening (as columnist Earl Wilson tells it in his 1949 book Let ’em Eat Cheesecake), Walter Winchell asked Groucho Marx what he thought of the show.

“You heard what George Kaufman said about this play, didn’t you?” asked Groucho. Winchell shook his head. “Well, Kaufman told me,” Marx quoted, “‘I didn’t like it, but then I saw it under adverse conditions—the curtain was up'”

Winchell printed the clever but wounding one-liner with Marx’s attribution, with the result that the producer didn’t speak to Kaufman for five years, when Groucho finally owned up to the wisecrack himself.

In conclusion, in 1931 Groucho Marx told the joke to Walter Winchell who then communicated it to his vast audience of followers. Groucho probably credited George S. Kaufman with originating the quip when he spoke to Winchell, but it is not clear whether this information is accurate.  It is possible that Marx crafted the witticism but wished to deflect responsibility. In any case, Marx or Kaufmann probably created the jest.

Thanks for your question. QI apologizes for producing such a long response, but the answer was somewhat complicated.

[WSW] 1931 October 21, Wisconsin State Journal, “On Broadway” by Walter Winchell, Page 3, Column 6, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)

[WPC] 1932 December 12, Washington Post, Radio Dial Flashes by Robert D. Heinl, Page 9, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

[NCE] 1999, “The Night Club Era” by Stanley Walker, Page 139 Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. [Reprint of a book originally published in 1933 by Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York.] (Verified on paper in 1999 edition)

[RDC] 1934 December, Reader’s Digest, I Wish I’d Said That! by J.A.G. Rice, Page 59, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. [Note in Reader’s Digest says: Condensed from The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1934] (Verified on microfilm)

[SHC] 1943 April 8, Spartanburg Herald-Journal. The Private Papers of a Cub Reporter by Walter Winchell, Page 4 (Google News Page 3), Column 3, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News archive)

[TPC] 1944 February 27, Times-Picayune, Dr Quizzler’s Mind Teasers by John Henry Cutler, (GBank Page 60), Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[BCC] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 14-15, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SHA] 1948 October 24, Syracuse Herald-American (Herald Journal), Notes of a New Yorker by Walter Winchell, Page 25, Syracuse, New York.  (NewspaperArchive)

[RSDQ] 1949 May 01, Nevada State Journal, Winchell on Broadway by Walter Winchell, Page 4, Column 4, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive)

[DQW] 1989, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations by Evan Esar, Page 227, Dorset Press, New York. [Reprint of a book published in 1949 by Doubleday, Garden City, New York.] (Verified on paper in 1989 edition)

[LAC] 1958 December 3, Los Angeles Times, Famous Fables by E.E. Edgar, Page B4, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[LTC] 1968 July 1, Los Angeles Times, Sci-Fi Films Put Hollywood in Orbit by Joyce Haber, Page E23, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[BAC] 1989, Broadway Anecdotes by Peter Hay, Page ix, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)