It Is the Best Play I Ever Slept Through

Oscar Wilde? Myron W. Reed? Will Rogers? Charlie Carter?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several weeks ago I saw an article with the following humorous title:

Why Arianna’s Talk Was the Best I’ve Ever Slept Through

The piece was actually a very positive assessment and summary of a talk delivered by Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post.[ref] Website: Huffington Post, Article title: Why Arianna’s Talk Was The Best I’ve Ever Slept Through, Article author: Dharmesh Shah, Author description: Co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, Date on website: August 27, 2013, Website section: The Third Metric. (Accessed on October 15, 2013) link [/ref] I was reminded of a one-line critique of a drama attributed to Oscar Wilde:

It is the best play I ever slept through.

Is this really one of Wilde’s witticisms?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest ascription to Wilde located by QI was published in 1911. The prominent actor and producer Seymour Hicks knew Wilde and socialized with him. The memoir he published reported several remarks credited to Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts below:[ref] 1911, Seymour Hicks: Twenty-Four Years of an Actor’s Life by Seymour Hicks, Quote Page 132, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Innumerable are the witticisms laid at his door. What could be more delightful than his remark to the gushing female admirer who, shaking him warmly by the hand, said: “Oh, but Mr. Wilde, you don’t remember me. My name is Smith.” “Oh yes,” said Wilde, “I remember your name perfectly—but I can’t think of your face.”

It was Wilde who, on being asked on returning from a fashionable premiere how he liked the piece, replied: “My dear friend, it is the best play I ever slept through.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Oscar Wilde was in jail from 1895 to 1897, and his social circumstances changed dramatically afterward. If he employed this quip then he probably said it before 1895.

The earliest printed evidence located by QI of a version of this joke appeared in 1898. A Denver, Colorado newspaper described a sermon given by Rev. Myron W. Reed on the topic of “Conversation”. The Reverend joked about a loquacious man he knew, and his discursive speaking style. The soporific event was a lecture instead of a play:[ref] 1898 May 23, Denver Evening Post (Denver Post), On Raising Youths: To Make Them Brave Tell Them Brave Stories: Myron Reed’s Sunday Sermon, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

He gave a lecture on Portugal, and before he was through he had given a lecture on the world, for Portugal is remotely related to the Philippine islands. It was the most exhaustive lecture I ever slept through.

In 1922 an actor named Theodore Roberts reminisced about his days as a hard-working stage director. To achieve relaxation he would attend a movie and close his eyes to the flickering shadows on the screen:[ref] 1922 March 5, Reading Eagle, Valley Forge in Film Show of Ten Years Ago, Quote Page 20, Column 5, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

The humorous remark, ‘that’s the best picture I ever slept through,’ had a practical application in my case.

In 1923 the famous humorist Will Rogers used a version of the quip in his widely-syndicated newspaper column. He constructed a collection of fictitious responses to a speech by President Calvin Coolidge, and one comical reaction was from a congressman:[ref] 1923 December 23, Boston Globe, Straw Vote on Coolidge Message Proves Girls Should Have Mothers by Will Rogers, Quote Page A6, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Democrat and Chickasaw Indian,
Of Oklahoma

It was one of the best Messages I ever slept through.

In 1929 the set of exemplary sleep inducing events continued to enlarge. An opera was added to the collection containing a play, a lecture, a film, and a speech:[ref] 1929 November 2, Washington Post, The Once Over: Society and the Opera by H. I. Phillips, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The Metropolitan Opera season opened in a blaze of market depression in New York the other night. Again all records for gross poundage of millionaires herded under one roof were broken.

“Manon Lescaut” was the musical attraction and it was unanimously voted the best opera the 400 ever slept through.

In 1937 a newspaper in Valparaiso, Indiana printed a letter from a graduating high school senior:[ref] 1937 May 27, Vidette-Messenger, Readers’ Views on Subjects of Public Appeal, (Letter dated May 26, 1937 from “A Senior”), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Valparaiso, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Yes, sir, that was the nicest Baccalaureate service I ever slept through. In the first place, they marched the teachers up in front of the graduates so that if any of the seniors wanted to doze no one could see them.

In 1946 a biography of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson discussed the joke and asserted that Wilde was reacting to a play by Arthur Pinero:[ref] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 196, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

He had a poor opinion of contemporary dramatists. “It is the best play I ever slept through,” he said of a piece by Arthur Pinero, and of another playwright: “There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.”

The expression was still being used in Wilde’s homeland in 2007. The Irish Independent newspaper printed the remark of an underwhelmed viewer of a show about the Amazon River:[ref] 2007 January 9, Irish Independent, Charlie Bird goes astray up the Amazon, Record Number: 53616262, Ireland. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

Along with the other half a million fee paying viewers I sat in anticipation of what the bird man might present on his journey to and from the source of the Amazon. It was the best documentary I ever slept through.

In conclusion, QI has not located this jape in the writings of Oscar Wilde. However, there is evidence that he employed it. In addition, one of Wilde’s biographers named Arthur Pinero as the target of the barb. The jest has evolved over time, and a version was also used by Will Rogers.

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