Wolcott Gibbs? Alexander Woollcott? Else Rempel? Thomas Vinciguerra? Guinness Book of World Records? Apocryphal?
This pithy critique has been attributed to Wolcott Gibbs and Alexander Woollcott who both wrote for “The New Yorker” magazine. Yet, I suspect that this anecdote is fictitious. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) provides no matches for “Wham!” which reduces the credibility of the tale. Alexander Woollcott died in 1943, and Wolcott Gibbs died in 1958.
The earliest match found by QI appeared in “The Edmonton Journal” of Alberta, Canada in 1965 within a column titled “Else Rempel’s Edmonton Notebook” which printed the following short item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1965 January 14, The Edmonton Journal, Else Rempel’s Edmonton Notebook: For What It’s Worth, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
For What It’s Worth
The shortest criticism in theatrical history was made by drama critic Wolcott Gibbs when he reviewed a farce called Wham!
Gibbs’ only comment was “Ouch!”
This anecdote was doubted by journalist Thomas Vinciguerra who was knowledgeable on this topic. He compiled and published the collection “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker”. Vinciguerra said the following about Gibbs during an interview in 2011:[ref] Website: The New Yorker, Interview title: Q. & A. Thomas Vinciguerra on Wolcott Gibbs, Interviewer name: Jon Michaud, Date on website: October 10, 2011, Website description: Essays, commentary, fiction, and cartoons. (Accessed newyorker.com on February 4, 2022) link [/ref]
I first heard of him at age twelve, when I came across him in “The Guinness Book of World Records.” The editors said that the world’s shortest piece of criticism had been “attributed” to him. Supposedly, in reviewing a farce called “Wham!” Gibbs wrote the single-word response “Ouch!” I thought the comment was hilarious, and that Gibbs’s name sounded owlish and prickly—both of which, I later discovered, he was. It didn’t even matter that the review turned out to be apocryphal.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The quip credited to Gibbs also appeared in “The Daily Review” of Morgan City, Louisiana in 1966,[ref] 1966 November 19, The Daily Review, Anyhow by Barbara Joy, Do You Know, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Morgan City, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland in 1967.[ref] 1967 January 22, The Baltimore Sun, Charlie Rice’s Punchbowl: Mini-Quips by Charlie Rice, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
In 1971 the tenth edition of the “Guinness Book of World Records” printed the Gibbs anecdote:[ref] 1971, Guinness Book of World Records by Norris McWhirter and Ross McWhirter, Tenth Edition, Chapter 6: The Arts and Entertainments, Topic: Theatre, Quote Page 194, Sterling Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) [/ref]
The shortest dramatic criticism in theatrical history was that attributed to Wolcott Gibbs (died 1958), writing about the farce “Wham!” He wrote the single word “Ouch!”
In 1981 “The Book of Heroic Failures” printed an error based on a misreading of the “Guinness Book of World Records”. The author confused “Wolcott” and “Woollcott”. Thus, the joke under examination was incorrectly reassigned from Wolcott Gibbs to Alexander Woollcott. The book used the misspelling “Woolcott”:[ref] 1981 Reprint (1979 First Publication), The Book of Heroic Failures: the Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club Of Great Britain by Stephen Pile, Quote Page 146, Futura Publications, London. (Verified with scans)[/ref]
The Guinness Book of Records mentions Alexander Woolcott’s Broadway review of Wham! which read ‘Ouch!’ But there is one more dismissive. At the Duchess Theatre in London at the turn of the century there opened a show called A Good Time. Next morning it got the simple review, ‘No’.
In 1982 “Great Theatrical Disasters” by Gyles Brandreth also misattributed the joke:[ref] 1982, Great Theatrical Disasters by Gyles Brandreth, Chapter: The Revenger’s Tragedy, Quote Page 121 and 122, Granada, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
An even shorter review came from Alexander Woollcott, whose notice for the play Wham! read, ‘Ouch!’
The connection to Gibbs was not forgotten. In 1987 “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur included this entry:[ref] 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Chapter: The Critical Curmudgeon, Quote Page 55, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]
Ouch! Wolcott Gibbs reviewing Wham!
In 1990 “American Literary Anecdotes” by Robert Hendrickson credited Gibbs based on “Guinness”:[ref] 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: Wolcott Gibbs, Quote Page 87, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
Gibbs is credited by Guinness with the shortest dramatic criticism in theatrical history. Reviewing the Broadway farce Wham! he wrote only “Ouch!”
In 2002 “Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!” misattributed the quip:[ref] 2002, Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!, Compiled by Laura Ward, Quote Page 247, Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
Alexander Woollcott’s Broadway review of a show called Wham!
In conclusion, QI currently believes that this review was concocted as a joke about a non-existent show. There is some weak evidence that Wolcott Gibbs crafted the review; however, no Broadway show called “Wham!” existed during Gibbs’s tenure as a critic, and the earliest attribution to Gibbs appeared in 1965 which is several years after his death in 1958. Conceivably, there is a show with a similar sounding name, and someone created a comparable one-word review, but QI has found no trace of this. Also, the ascription to Alexander Woollcott unsupported.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration of the word “Wham!” in comic book style from an account at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Jim Fishwick whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)