Herbert Beerbohm Tree? Albert Chevalier? John Clayton? Johnston Forbes-Robertson? John Golden? James Wallen? John Alfred Calthrop? Charles Dillingham? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Successful producers and directors are regularly sent screenplays and scripts by individuals with high aspirations. Unfortunately, these products of creativity are often terrible. One theater manager in the 1800s responded with a devastating two sentence assessment. The critical words have been attributed to the prominent English actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Era” newspaper of London in 1888. A short item of “Theatrical Gossip” credited the actor and theater manager John Clayton with delivering the harsh assessment in a letter. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
A young author sent a play to the late Mr John Clayton, and begged him to read it. After a few days he received the MS. and the following characteristic reply:—“Dear Sir,—I have read your play— Oh! my dear sir.—Yours, J.C.”
The same item appeared in other newspapers in 1888 such as the “South Wales Echo” of Glamorgan, Wales. 2
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1895 the popular English actor and comedian Albert Chevalier published a memoir containing a section presenting twenty tales from his life in the entertainment world. Chevalier ascribed the rebuff to John Clayton: 3
During my engagement at the old Court Theatre, a budding dramatist submitted to the late John Clayton a very, very bad play for perusal. Clayton read, and returned it, with the following characteristic letter:
My dear sir,
I have read your play—
Oh! my dear Sir!
In December 1895 “The Sioux City Journal” of Iowa reprinted two tales from Chevalier’s memoir, but the editors believed correctly that the anecdote under examination had been published before. 4
In April 1910 the English actor and theater manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson gave a speech at the Lotos club in New York City. The speech was published in 1911. Robertson identified his friend John Golden as the sender of the famous missive, and he also pointed to the unhappy recipient: 5
I am afraid to mention the number of plays that have been read at that theatre. It amounts to many hundreds. I was complaining to my friend the late John Golden, one of our most distinguished actors—I was complaining of the difficulty I had in writing back to a young author my regrets that I could not consider his play for production, and my friend John Golden told me that on one occasion he simplified that difficulty by writing to the man who had sent him a hopeless play, and he wrote in this way:
MY DEAR SIR: I have read your play—oh, my dear sir!
Yours very truly,
I told the story of that letter for a good many years, I laughed heartily at it when my dear friend told it to me, and so did he, and it was always received as it has been received to-night. But on one occasion, in my dressing-room, I told it to one who was my secretary, and to my amazement he didn’t laugh, and I was extremely put out. And it occurred to me that surely it was the secretary’s duty to laugh at my funny story. And I was so annoyed at it that I turned around to him—I was making up—and said, “You don’t seem to be amused with that story.” And the poor fellow very frankly said, “No, no; I was the one who received the letter.”
In June 1910 “Life” magazine printed a version of the tale attributing the remark to Fred Thompson while acknowledging another periodical: 6
Fred Thompson, the theatrical manager, read the manuscript of a play by an amateur author. He sent it back with this note:
“My Dear Sir: I have read your play. Oh, my dear sir. Yours, Fred Thompson.” —Saturday Evening Post.
In 1914 the actor J. H. Barnes published the memoir “Forty Years On the Stage” and credited the remark to John Clayton. Interestingly, Barnes revealed that Clayton’s real name was John Alfred Calthrop: 7
A budding dramatist (brother of a very successful one) sent him a play to read. After a very short time the author wrote to know if it had been considered. No reply. Quite soon again he wrote a very curt letter demanding an answer. Next day he got his MS. back with the following note enclosed—
“My dear Sir,
“I have read your play. Oh! my dear sir!—
In 1920 the periodical “Printers’ Ink” published “The Quality of Restraint in Business Letters: Some Choice Examples from the Correspondence of Famous Men” by James Wallen. The astringent letter was ascribed to Charles Dillingham: 8
An associate of Charles Frohman’s, Charles Dillingham, has attained a similar reputation as a writer of epigrammatic letters. In this vein was a report he made from Paris on Mr. Frohman’s venture in producing “Secret Service” in the French capital. On the opening night, realizing that the performance was a failure, he cabled Mr. Frohman the following:
“The tomb of Napoleon looks beautiful in the moonlight.”
It was Mr. Dillingham who wrote to a budding playwright one of the shortest but most conclusive letters on record:
“My Dear Sir:
“I have read your play.
“Oh, my dear Sir.
In 1941 Max Herzberg published “Insults A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits”. Herbert Beerbohm Tree received credit for the letter: 9
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was apparently the first theatrical manager who returned an unsuitable play to a would-be dramatist with this letter: “My dear Sir: I have read your play. Oh, my dear sir! Yours faithfully, Herbert Beerbohm Tree.”
In 1987 “Theatrical Anecdotes” compiled by Peter Hay included the following: 10
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, to a would-be dramatist:
My dear Sir: I have read your play. Oh, my dear Sir!
Yours faithfully, &c.
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. Based on the 1888 citation and the testimony of Albert Chevalier in 1895, John Clayton (John Alfred Calthrop) is the leading candidate for creator of this missive. During the ensuing years John Golden, Charles Dillingham, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree each received credit. Future researchers may discover illuminating citations which switch the preferred ascription. It is also possible that this comical tale is apocryphal.
Image Notes: Illustration of stage curtain from geralt at Pixabay. The image has been cropped retouched and resized.
(Great thanks to researcher Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” of 2001. Rees noted the attribution to Herbert Beerbohm Tree.)
- 1888 November 10, The Era, Theatrical Gossip, Quote Page 10, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1888 November 10, South Wales Echo, Green-room Gossip, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Glamorgan, Wales. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1895, Albert Chevalier: A Record by Himself by Albert Chevalier, (Biographical and Other Chapters by Brian Daly), Section: A Chapter of Anecdotes: XVIII: Encouraging, Quote Page 231, John Macqueen, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 December 1, The Sioux City Journal, Stories of the Stage, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Sioux City Journal, Iowa. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1911, Speeches at the Lotos Club, Arranged by John Elderkin, Chester S. Lord, and Charles W. Price, (Speech by Johnston Forbes-Robertson: At the Supper in His Honor, April 2, 1910), Start Page 427, Quote Page 430 and 431, Printed for the Lotos Club, New York, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1910 June 30, Life, Volume 55, A Play Appreciated, Quote Page 1198, Column 3, Life Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1914, Forty Years On the Stage: Others (Principally) and Myself by J. H. Barnes (John Henry Barnes), Chapter 10, Quote Page 86, Chapman and Hall, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1920 January 1, Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers, Volume 110, Number 1, The Quality of Restraint in Business Letters: Some Choice Examples from the Correspondence of Famous Men by James Wallen, Start Page 53, Quote Page 54, Column 2, Printers’ Ink Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1941 Copyright, Insults A Practical Anthology of Scathing Remarks and Acid Portraits, Edited by Max Herzberg, Chapter 17: Sarcasm by Mail, Wire, and Cable, Quote Page 203, The Greystone Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1987, Theatrical Anecdotes by Peter Hay, Chapter 8: Dramatists, Quote Page 164, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩