A Drama Critic Leaves No Turn Unstoned

George Bernard Shaw? Catholic Standard and Times? Ethel Watts Mumford? Oliver Herford? Addison Mizner? Arthur Wimperis? Colette d’Arville? Ogden Nash? Diana Rigg?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a clever bit of wordplay concerning the role of a critic. The quip transforms the following venerable idiom describing a thorough search:

Leave no stone unturned

Shaw’s challenging plays sometimes received poor reviews, and according to legend he once responded:

A dramatic critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.

The word “turn” refers to the performance given by an individual on the stage. Would you please help me to trace this comical phrase?

Quote Investigator: George Bernard Shaw received credit for this expression from a journalist in London in 1930. See further below. Yet, no precise source was specified, and the joke had already been circulating for many years.

In 1899 the characters “Hi Tragerdy” and “Lowe Comerdy” exchanged lines about an unsuccessful vaudeville show encountering a hostile audience. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Your experience in vaudeville, then, was not very pleasant?” Hi Tragerdy was saying.
“No,” replied Lowe Comerdy; “at Oshkosh they threw rocks at each one of us as we came on for our acts.”
“Pretty severe way of showing their disapproval.”
“Yes; in their efforts to impress us with their utter disgust they left no turn unstoned.”-Standard and Catholic Times

The above item appeared in multiple periodicals such as “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas; “The Daily Northwestern” of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; 2 “The Record-Union” of Sacramento, California; 3 and “Puck” of New York City. 4 The Texas newspaper acknowledged the “Standard and Catholic Times”. The other three acknowledged the “Catholic Standard and Times”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

By 1901 a slightly rewritten version was circulating, e.g., the following appeared in the “Los Angeles Times”: 5

Not Appreciated.

[Catholic Standard:] “That must have been a pretty poor variety show you were with,” remarked the stranded tragedian. “I understand at one town they even threw rocks at you as you appeared on the stage.”

“Yes,” replied the comedian, “in their determination to show their disapproval they left no turn unstoned.”

In the early 1900s three popular authors: Ethel Watts Mumford, Oliver Herford, and Addison Mizner published a series of calendars for cynics. “The Quite New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1908” was released in 1907, and it contained a concise version of the joke which closely matched the saying under analysis: 6

Leave no “Turn” unstoned. Dramatic Critic’s Motto.

In 1914 a columnist in “The Globe” newspaper of London attributed an instance to Arthur Wimperis who was a playwright and lyricist: 7

We are pleased to see that Mr. Arthur Wimperis is a diligent student of this column. “You critics are very merciless. You leave no ‘turn’ unstoned,” he remarks.

In 1929 powerful syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell attributed the saying to French actress Colette d’Arville: 8

Take it from Colette d’Arville, the French prima donna, who is of the opinion that some vaudeville critics are so thorough they don’t leave a turn unstoned.

In 1930 international journalist Frederic William Wile wrote a column called “London Observations” in which he ascribed the quip to George Bernard Shaw: 9

Shaw’s “The Apple Cart,” a characteristic gibe at British politics, is one of London’s box-office successes, despite hostile criticisms at the time of its production. “G. B. S.’s” definition of dramatic critics remains one of his most gorgeous gems — “A dramatic critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.”

In 1950 the magazine section of “The New York Times” published a miscellaneous collection of unsourced quotations from the theatrical domain including the following: 10

“A dramatic critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.”
–George Bernard Shaw

A few weeks later “The Canyon News” of Texas credited Shaw with a slightly altered version of the saying with “one” instead of “man”: 11

George Bernard Shaw, late British playwright: “A dramatic critic is one who leaves no turn unstoned.”

In 1952 the well-known poet Ogden Nash published a book of verse that included the following lines employing variant expressions: 12

This I shall do because I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at sea birds I leave no tern unstoned,

I am a meticulous man, and when I portray baboons I leave no stern untoned,

More information about these quips is available in a separate article on this website located here.

In 1983 the versatile award-winning actress Diana Rigg who played the role of Emma Peel in the “The Avengers” and Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” assembled and published a collection of extremely harsh critical remarks from the realm of theater. She explained the title “No Turn Unstoned” in the introductory chapter: 13

‘A critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned,’ as my friend the Reverend Joseph McCulloch once remarked to me, and from this maxim came my idea for the book.

In conclusion, the earliest instances of the quip known to QI appeared in 1899, and they pointed to an origin in the “Catholic Standard and Times”. The creator’s name remains unknown. A concise version labeled a “Dramatic Critic’s Motto” appeared in a 1907 book by Ethel Watts Mumford, Oliver Herford, and Addison Mizner. The linkage to George Bernard Shaw existed by 1930, but that date was rather late. It is conceivable that Shaw retold an existing joke, but it is unlikely that he crafted it.

Image Notes: Picture of George Bernard Shaw circa 1914 from LIFE Photo Archive accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Reduced size, low-resolution, cropped image of book cover. Publicity photo of Diana Rigg circa 1973 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Thanks to top researcher Nigel Rees who pointed to the “New York Times” citation for Shaw. Rees’s efforts on comical quotations are available in the Kindle edition “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations”. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who found the valuable 1930 ascription to Shaw. Mullins also located the August 17, 1899 citation which was superior to the August 29, 1899 citation.)

Update History: On December 6, 2017 the citations dated August 17, 1899; 1930; and 1952 were added. Also, some sections were rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1899 August 17, The Dallas Morning News, Light Things, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1899 August 29, The Daily Northwestern (The Oshkosh Northwestern), Short Notes, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1899 September 15, The Record-Union, One Bad Turn Deserves Another (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Sacramento, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1899 October 11, Puck, Volume 46, Issue 1170, One Bad Turn Deserved Another, Quote Page 15, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  5. 1901 January 18, Los Angeles Times, Ripples of Mirth, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1907 Copyright, The Quite New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1908, Ethel Watts-Mumford Grant, Oliver Herford, and Addison Mizner, Date: September 26 through 30, Unnumbered Page, Paul Elder and Company, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1914 May 11, The Globe, By the Way, Quote Page 5, Column 5, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1929 February 4, The Atlanta Constitution, Your Broadway and Mine by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)
  9. 1930 February 16, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), London Observations by Frederic William Wile, Section 2, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Washington D.C. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1950 November 5, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, Program Notes: Some fragmentary soliloquies as the Broadway season gathers full headway, Quote Page 30, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1950 November 23, The Canyon News, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Canyon, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1953 (U.S Publication 1952), The Private Dining Room and Other New Verses by Ogden Nash, Poem: Everybody’s Mind To Me a Kingdom Is or A Great Big Wonderful World It’s, Start Page 27, Quote Page 27, J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  13. 1983, No Turn Unstoned by Diana Rigg, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 8, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)