George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Clarence Rook? Alexander Woollcott? Hesketh Pearson? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A playwright feared that his upcoming work was about to flop at the box office. After the surprisingly successful inaugural performance the bewildered playwright appeared on stage. Amongst the resounding cheers there was a barely audible hiss. The playwright addressed the lone detractor:
I quite agree with you, but what can we two do against a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?
George Bernard Shaw has received credit for this line. Would you please explore this popular anecdote?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the Chicago, Illinois periodical “The Chap-Book” in November 1896. The Latin phrase “popularis aura” means “popular favor”. Boldface has been added to excerpts by QI: 1
I well remember how at the first night of “Arms and the Man” at the Avenue Theatre, after the audience had been successively puzzled, tickled and delighted, Shaw stepped before the curtain to face the applause. He was tremulous, unnerved, speechless. He looked as though he had expected cabbage stalks, and was disappointed. Suddenly a man in the Gallery began to hoot.
Shaw was himself again at once. He opened his lips, and amid the resulting silence he said, looking at the solitary malcontent. “I quite agree with my friend in the Gallery — but what are two against so many?” A single breath of opposition braced his energies. For Shaw is like the kite, and can rise only when the popularis aura is against him.
British journalist Clarence Rook penned the passage above, and apparently he directly witnessed Shaw deliver the line. The comedy “Arms and the Man” was first staged in April 1894 in London. Thus, Rook’s description appeared two years after the event. An earlier citation may exist, but QI has not yet uncovered it.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
George Bernard Shaw recorded many of his experiences in diaries which were published posthumously. The entry he wrote in 1894 about the premiere of “Arms and the Man” is fascinating: 2
I had the curious experience of witnessing an apparently insane success, with the actors and actresses almost losing their heads with the intoxication of laugh after laugh, and of going before the curtain to tremendous applause, the only person in the theatre who knew that the whole affair was a ghastly failure.
In November 1896 Clarence Rook published the anecdote in “The Chap-Book” as mentioned previously.
In December 1897 The Northern Daily Mail of Durham, England published the following version of the tale: 3
The ready wit for which Mr Bernard Shaw, the London critic and playwright, is noted was never more aptly displayed than when “Arms and the Man” was produced in London. The author, being summoned before the curtain by an enthusiastic audience, was greeted also with a hoot from a dissatisfied person in the top gallery. But the Irish playwright was equal to the occasion. “I quite agree with my friend in the gallery,” said he, “but what are two against so many?”
In 1905 Shaw’s play was revived, and a reviewer in “The Manchester Courier” of England retold the anecdote: 4
It is recorded that when “Arms and the Man” was first produced, and enthusiastic audience called the author for plaudits before the curtain, one man hissed. “I quite agree with you, sir,” quoth Mr. Shaw to the dissentient, “but what can we two do against so many?” The story, even if untrue, will serve. We are still in the position of scarcely knowing whether Mr. Shaw takes himself seriously…
In 1906 “Munsey’s Magazine” of New York published a variant tale while describing Shaw’s response as an example of “Irish impudence”. The detractor in this tale yelled “No speech” instead of hooting or booing: 5
At the first night of one of his plays he was called before the curtain with cries for him to speak. As he came forward a voice from the gallery roared out boldly “No speech.” Absolutely unabashed, the Irish dramatist looked up at the objector and said, “I quite agree with you. But what are we two against so many?” This has the pleasing unexpectedness of the true epigram.
In 1923 “Celebrities: Little Stories about Famous Folk” by Coulson Kernahan included the following version of the story: 6
“Quite so,” said Mr. Shaw, looking up with a smile to the lonely booer in the gallery, “I am of your opinion too, my friend, but”—this with a deprecatory shrug of his shoulders and outspread palms—“What are you and I among so many!”
Also in 1923 Keble Howard writing in “The Sketch” of London reviewed Kernahan’s book. Howard asserted that the anecdote was really about Oscar Wilde and not George Bernard Shaw: 7
He tells the well-known tale of the dramatist who looked up at the man in the gallery who was responsible for a solitary “boo.” “I quite agree with you,” said the dramatist; “but who are we among so many?” The dramatist was not Mr. Shaw, but Oscar Wilde. I heard the story long before Mr. Shaw made his name as a playwright. Mr. Shaw, moreover, never takes a call at a first performance, but Wilde did, smoking a cigarette.
In 1935 drama critic Alexander Woollcott presented another version of the anecdote: 8
Of course, few playwrights can hope to be as nimble-witted as Mr Shaw who, when hauled into just such a curtain speech, was interrupted by a bellicose voice from the gallery saying:
“Shut up, Shaw; your play is rotten.”
“You and I know that,” he replied, “but who are we among so many?”
In 1942 biographer Hesketh Pearson published “Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality”. Pearson asserted that the boo was delivered by Reginald Golding Bright who later became a successful literary agent. Bright’s unhappiness was caused by a muddled line delivered by an actor. A barb aimed at the Bulgarian army was accidentally redirected at the British army. The actor later became a prominent cartoonist for “Punch” magazine: 9
But the only hitch on the first night was when Bernard Gould, now famous as Sir Bernard Partridge of Punch, had to make a remark about the Bulgarian army. By a slip of the tongue he applied it to the British army; and this was more than Golding Bright, then an unknown lad in the gallery, could bear. He hissed.
When Shaw took his call as author at the end amid tremendous applause, young Bright heroically sent forth a solitary “Boo.” Shaw, at the height of his practice as a mob orator, seized on the interruption to make a speech. “I quite agree with you, my friend,” he said, “but what can we two do against a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?”
In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw made a comical remark to theatergoers when he heard the sound of disapproval from a single detractor. The quotation in the 1896 citation is probably the best version based on current knowledge.
Image Notes: Illustration of stage curtain from geralt at Pixabay. The image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.
(Thanks to researcher Ralph Keyes for his work on this topic in “Nice Guys Finish Seventh” (1992). Keyes pointed to Pearson’s book and other helpful citations.)
- 1896 November 1, The Chap-Book Semi-Monthly, Volume 5, Number 12, George Bernard Shaw by Clarence Rook, Start Page 529, Quote Page 539 and 540, Herbert S. Stone & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1986, Bernard Shaw: The Diaries 1885-1897, Volume 2, Edited and annotated by Stanley Weintraub, Entry Date: 21 April 1894, Quote Page 1025 and 1026, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1897 December 10, The Northern Daily Mail, Gossip of the Day (From Outside Sources): Ready Wit, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Durham, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1905 September 19, The Manchester Courier, Manchester Amusements: Theatre Royal (Review of “Arms and the Man”), Quote Page 8, Column 2, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1906 August, Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 35, Number 5, The Best Prose Epigrams by Arthur Penn, Shaw Before the Curtain, Start Page 610, Quote Page 612, The Frank A. Munsey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1923, Celebrities: Little Stories about Famous Folk by Coulson Kernahan, Chapter 7, Quote Page 119 and 120, E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1923 April 18, The Sketch, The Literary Lounger by Keble Howard, Start Page 135, Quote Page 136, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1935 September 29, Boston Globe, Nimble-Witted Shaw Got Best of First-Night Critic by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page A20, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1942, Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 191, Published by Collins, London. (Verified on paper) ↩