Tallulah Bankhead? Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? James Boswell? Richard Burke? William Hazlitt?
Dear Quote investigator: The actress Tallulah Bankhead was watching an ostentatious play, and she whispered to her companion a hilarious line based on an inverted cliché:
There is less in this than meets the eye.
This quip has also been attributed to two other witty people: Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the comment to Parker or Benchley.
In 1922 the theater critic Alexander Woollcott invited Tallulah Bankhead to join him at a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama “Aglavaine and Selysette”. The following day Woollcott’s hostile review of the production in “The New York Times” credited the remark to a “beautiful lady”: 1
The civility of the spectators was really extraordinary. There was not so much as a snicker, for instance, when William Raymond, as Meleander, cried out anxiously: “What shall I be doing next year?” Not a ripple when Clare Eames, gazing severely at the audience, said: “It is sometimes better not to rouse those who slumber.” It is, it is, indeed. But after all the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: “There is less in this than meets the eye.”
Later in 1922 Woollcott published the book “Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights”. He discussed Maeterlinck’s play in a chapter called “Capsule Criticism” and credited the statement to Bankhead: 2
Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The famous biographer James Boswell recorded an anecdote set in 1783 that contained a comparable quip referring to the ear instead of the eye spoken by Richard Burke: 3
“Lord Mountstuart said at J. R. McKye’s, 30th April, 1783, that it was observed I was like Charles Fox. ‘I have been told so,’ said I. ‘You’re much uglier,’ said Col. James Stuart, with his sly drollery. I turned to him, full as sly and as droll: ‘Does your wife think so, Colonel James?’ Young Burke said, ‘Here was less meant than meets the ear.'”
The 1824 book “Select British Poets, Or, New Elegant Extracts from Chaucer to the Present Time” included the following critical remark by William Hazlitt: 4
Akenside is a poet of considerable power, but of little taste or feeling. His thoughts, like his style, are stately and imposing, but turgid and gaudy. In his verse “less is meant than meets the ear.”
In 1831 “The Register of Arts, and Journal of Patent Inventions” edited by L. Herbert contained a remark referring to the eye: 5
The “Baltimore American” newspaper tells us, that a single horse “trots” along the rail while dragging after him 35 tons weight! Verily there must be “something more (or less) in this than meets the eye.” Either the editor means that the horse trots down an inclined plane, or he intends to raise a “horse-laugh” at the credulity of his readers.
In 1845 a sermon by W. B. O. Peabody in “The Monthly Religious Magazine” included an instance of the expression, but the intention was not humorous: 6
But even this is not the worst of it; they do not believe in the existence of wants which they have never felt. They begin to explain away the words of Scripture, saying that less is meant than meets the eye. They grow sceptical as to all religious feelings.
In 1902 the expression was employed by a book reviewer writing in “The Contemporary Review”: 7
Readers who enjoy a travel book pure and simple should not allow themselves to be “warned off” by the title of Mr. Archibald Colquhoun’s latest work, “The Mastery of the Pacific” (Heinemann), for, speaking of the title only, there is less in it than meets the eye. The political speculation which it implies forms a comparatively insignificant part of the book, and that the least interesting, because necessarily vague and inconclusive.
In 1922 Woollcott propelled the quip delivered by Bankhead to fame by placing it in the pages of “The New York Times” as mentioned previously.
In 1952 Bankhead discussed the incident in her autobiography. Oddly, some of the details she provided were inaccurate: 8
It was through Alex Woollcott that I won my first citation as a wit. Aware of my concern with the stage, Alex asked me if I would like to attend an opening night performance. Would I? I’d have attended any performance with anyone. The opening was Maeterlinck’s The Burgomaster of Stilemonde, one of the Belgian’s minor inventions. At the end of the first act I turned to my escort to say, “There’s less in this than meets the eye.”
I wasn’t aware I’d said anything devastating, but the next morning the comment was repeated in Woollcott’s review in the Times. It was attributed to “the beautiful young woman who accompanied me.”
In 1961 a book reviewer in “The Irish Times” of Dublin, Ireland implausibly attributed the phrase to Dorothy Parker: 9
But his analysis of the infinitely complex Indian character I found pretentious. Reading “A Time in India,” I was reminded of a remark Dorothy Parker once made about Switzerland: “There is less in this than meets the eye.”
In 1973 “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” linked the saying to actor Robert Benchley: 10
Robert Benchley after viewing an arty film:
There’s less in this than meets the eye.
In conclusion, Tallulah Bankhead’s remark in 1922 popularized the expression although earlier examples exist. The variant comment based on the ear instead of the eye has a long history and can be traced back to an 1874 anecdote.
(Thanks to top researcher Nigel Rees whose references “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” and “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations” pointed to Bankhead and Boswell.)
Image Notes: Publicity photo of Tallulah Bankhead for a 1941 Broadway play “Clash by Night” accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Multi-color eye from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.
- 1922 January 4, New York Times, The Play by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1922, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter 4: Capsule Criticism, Start Page 77, Quote Page 86, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1874, Boswelliana: The Commonplace Book of James Boswell With a Memoir and Annotations by Charles Rogers, Quote Page 322, Printed for the Grampian Club, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1824, Select British Poets, Or, New Elegant Extracts from Chaucer to the Present Time, with Critical Remarks by William Hazlitt, Section: A Critical List of Authors Contained in This Volume, Quote Page x and xi, Published by William C. Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1831, The Register of Arts, and Journal of Patent Inventions, Edited by L. Hebert (Civil Engineer), Volume 5, Miscellaneous: American Rail Road, Quote Page 223, Published by B. Steill, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1845 March, The Monthly Religious Magazine, Volume 2, Number 3, Sermon: Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness by Rev. W. B. O. Peabody, Start Page 83, Quote Page 85, Leonard C. Bowles, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 April, The Contemporary Review, Volume 81, Section: Some Recent Books, Start Page 599, Quote Page 604, Horace Marshall & Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1952, Tallulah: My Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead, Quote Page 82, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1961 November 25, The Irish Times, Orientations by John Broderick, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Dublin, Ireland. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: Last Round Up, Quote Page 218, (Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London), Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩