Who was speaking: Walter F. Kerr? Michael Foot? Erskine Johnson? Charlton Heston? David Brin?
Dear Quote Investigator: The complaint that someone is exhibiting “delusions of grandeur” has become a cliché. However, a clever modification of the phrase was memorably employed by a theater critic who was unhappy with an ostentatious performance:
The actor was suffering from delusions of adequacy.
Would you please reveal the name of the critic and the performer?
Quote Investigator: In 1951 the Pulitzer-winning drama critic Walter F. Kerr writing in the “New York Herald Tribune” reviewed a play on Broadway called “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”. Kerr noted that the main actor in the production had recently been dismissed from another key position, and the thespian’s reaction was eccentric: 1
Jay Robinson producer and virtually star of “Buy Me Blue Ribbons,” is a young man of twenty-one who was last season dispossessed of a leading role in a play which he had himself financed. Mr. Robinson is apparently not bitter about this. He has had Sumner Locke Elliott write a play for him a comedy about a young man who is similarly thrown out of his own production, and he is offering it, for his mortification and for ours, at the Empire Theatre.
Kerr’s critical judgement was harsh, and he employed the phrase under investigation to lambaste Robinson. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
Mr. Robinson is not up to the course he has set for himself. In the play, the character concludes by giving up his dreams of overnight stardom and deciding to learn his trade from the bottom up. All Mr. Robinson can honestly do now is to take his own advice. At the moment, he is suffering from delusions of adequacy.
The passage above contained the earliest instance located by QI; hence, Kerr was probably responsible for its coinage.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Kerr’s review caught the eye of a journalist working for “Variety”, and within a week the witticism was reprinted in this important show business periodical. “Variety” stated that Kerr: 2
. . . hit his stride with the “Ribbons” notice, getting off the prize quip of the week with the observation that Robinson “is suffering from delusions of adequacy.” The reviewer has since maintained a readable, perceptive level in his notices.
The unfortunate Broadway notices did not completely derail the career of young Jay Robinson. In fact, in 1953 he was successfully cast in a top role in a Hollywood blockbuster called “The Robe”. In June 1954 a columnist interviewed the actor and reprinted the striking phrase: 3
“Buy Me Blue Ribbons” the play was called. The critics tore it and Robinson into red shreds. Robinson, said Walter Kerr, “has delusions of adequacy.” “Unquestionably one of the most bizarre personalities of our time,” wrote Wolcott Gibbs.
“So,” says the amused young actor, “I went to Hollywood and became Caligula in ‘The Robe’.”
In August 1954 an article about the leadership qualities of the new president Dwight D. Eisenhower was published in several U.S. newspapers. The prominent British politician Michael Foot used the witty saying in his critical remarks, but he disclaimed authorship of the phrase: 4 5
The Labor party is more brutal in its appraisal. Michael Foot, member of Parliament from a distinguished family, states: “He sits at the summit holding greater sway over the destinies of mankind than almost any other single man. He suffers, as someone has said, from delusions, of adequacy.”
In 1955 the syndicated gossip columnist Erskine Johnson reported that an unnamed actor had employed the saying to disparage a colleague: 6
Actor about another: “He has delusions of adequacy.”
In 1957 Kerr released a collection of his theater reviews under the punning title “Pieces at Eight”. The critique from 1951 was included, but Kerr decided to polish his original prose: 7
When I tell you that the character concluded by surrendering his dreams of overnight stardom and deciding to learn his trade from the bottom up—a conclusion which, if read in rehearsal, could only have resulted in Mr. Robinson’s abandoning this role as well—the compounded, spine-chilling confusion of the evening must surely be evident.
Mr. Robinson was game, all right. But what is gameness in a man who is suffering from delusions of adequacy?
In 1967 the Hollywood star Charlton Heston played the role of an orchestra conductor in a film called Counterpoint. He spent weeks learning to properly handle a baton, and he was coached by a conductor named Leo Damiani. When the actor was interviewed he was self-effacing: 8
“They pay me a great deal of money and it is my responsibility to do more than read lines. At the moment I have delusions of adequacy as a conductor. And I’m not as uncomfortable with a baton as I might have been without all the research.”
After the glamorous actress Diana Rigg was the subject of a stinging assessment by a critic she asked for help from other actresses and actors to assemble a set of caustic and sometimes hilarious reviews. In 1983 Rigg published the compilation “No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews”, and the vivid words of Walter Kerr from his 1957 collection were included: 9
Mr Robinson was game, all right. But what is gameness in a man who is suffering from delusions of adequacy?
In 1987 the prize-winning science fiction author David Brin used an instance of the expression in his novel “The Uplift War”: 10
“After all,” he muttered, “what can they do to shake the confidence of a fellow who’s got delusions of adequacy?” The enemy had made a serious mistake here.
In conclusion, the phrase “delusions of adequacy” should be credited to Walter F. Kerr based on the 1951 citation. The target of the barb was Jay Robinson who was still able to continue his career with film roles in The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Virgin Queen and other productions.
Image Notes: Picture of Walter Kerr cropped from an image showing Helen Hayes and Walter Kerr together. This public domain picture is from the Michiganensian, the University of Michigan yearbook; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The ‘Delusions’ image was created by Collin Knopp-Schwyn. The image presents an artistic interpretation of grandiose delusions featuring a housecat and the reflection of a lion. The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to GG who received this expression in an email titled “When Insults Had Class” and asked QI to explore its provenance. Many thanks to Jeffrey Graf, George Thompson, and Dan Goncharoff for helping to verify the exact details of the 1951 “New York Herald Tribune” citation. Special thanks to Dan J. Bye for the details of the 1951 “Variety” citation. Also thanks to Bill Mullins for pointing to data in the Internet Broadway Theater Database. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
Update History: On November 8, 2015 the October 1951 Variety citation was added.
- 1951 October 18, New York Herald Tribune, The Theaters: Won’t Win Any Ribbons by Walter F. Kerr, Note: “Walter F. Kerr, drama critic of “The Commonweal,” will be the guest critic of the Herald Tribune during the fall season”, (Review of the play “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”), Quote Page 20, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1951 October 24th, Variety, N.Y. Crix Riled at Legit Offerings; Let Loose With Toughest Blasts, Start Page 1, Quote Page 74, Column 5, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1954 June 22, Evening Star, The Passing Show: Boy Caligula Unchastened by Those Critical Shafts by Jay Carmody, Quote Page B10, Column 1, Washington D.C. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1954 August 15, Daily Boston Globe, War Hero Ike Still Popular in Britain: But Both Tory, Labor Question His Leadership by Ernie Hill (CDN Wire Service), Quote Page C28, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1954 August 15, Corpus Christi Caller Times, British Disappointed in Eisenhower’s Leadership, Quote Page B2, Column 6, Corpus Christi, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1955 February 8, The Daily Ardmoreite, Erskine Johnson in Hollywood, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Ardmore, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1957, Pieces at Eight by Walter Kerr, Chapter 6: Nightcaps, Quote Page 101 and 102, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1967 January 15, The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, Heston Feels Uneasy In 20th Century Togs, Scott Vernon, Quote Page 7D, Column 3, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1983, No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, Compiled by Diana Rigg, Page 118, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1987, The Uplift War by David Brin, Chapter 82: Uthacalthing, Quote Page 537, A Bantam Spectra Book: Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩