Short Reviews: “Smile, Smile, Smile” “I Didn’t, I Didn’t, I Didn’t”

Clive Barnes? Richard Bentley? Charles Hayward? John Francis Hope? A. Walkely? Wolcott Gibbs? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One-line theatrical reviews are simultaneously hilarious and unfairly dismissive. A grumpy critic who saw the Broadway show “Smile, Smile, Smile” responded with “I Didn’t, I Didn’t, I Didn’t”. Another disgruntled critic saw “A Terrible Night” and declared “Quite so”. Would you please explore this topic of short pungent reviews.

Quote Investigator: Here is a collection of show names followed by terse reviews. Each date corresponds to the year the citation mentioning the review appeared. Some shows and reviews are apocryphal:

1917: A Terrible Night. Quite so.
1920: Pure As Snow. It is not as pure as snow.
1921: An Awful Night. Quite so.
1921: What a Night! Exactly.
1933: A Moral Crime. It was!
1959: Dreadful Night. Precisely!
1959: Oh, Yes! Oh, No!
1965: Wham! Ouch!
1973: Smile, Smile, Smile. I Didn’t, I Didn’t, I Didn’t.
1979: The Cupboard. Bare.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. The discussion begins with compact reviews of a poem and a book.

The famous English poet Alexander Pope published his translation of Homer’s “Iliad” between 1715 and 1720. He sent his opus to the renowned English classical scholar Richard Bentley, but he did not receive a response. Eventually they were both invited to a dinner, and Pope asked Bentley for his opinion. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1787, The Works of Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets: Pope, Start Page 1, Quote Page 126, Printed for J. Buckland, J. Rivington and Sons, T. Payne and Sons et al, London.(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

‘Oh,’ said Bentley, ‘ay, now I recollect—your translation:—it is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope; but you must not call it Homer.’

The above remark appeared in Samuel Johnson’s chapter about Pope in his book “The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets”. The memorably dismissive quip also appeared in 1847 within “Outlines of English Literature: For the Use of the Imperial Alexander Lyceum” by Thomas B. Shaw:[ref] 1847, Outlines of English Literature: For the Use of the Imperial Alexander Lyceum by Thomas B. Shaw, (St John’s College, Cambridge), Chapter 12: The Wits of Queen Anne, Quote Page 289, J. Hauer & Company, St. Petersburg (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Perhaps the best (as it was the shortest) criticism ever made upon the Iliad of Pope, was the acknowledgment returned to the translator, for his present of the volumes, by Bentley the great Greek philologist: «It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope; but you must not call it Homer.» We do no injustice to Pope when we say that his translation contains nothing Homeric from beginning to end, except the names and the events.

In 1864 “The Scotsman” of Edinburgh, Scotland reprinted the following brief critique:[ref] 1864 March 21, The Scotsman, General News, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Edinburgh, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

The shortest review we have seen is in the Boston Post on a new story by Miss Braddon:—“Duley Carleon; or, the Brother’s Secret. By Miss M. E. Braddon. One hundred and twelve pages more of mystery and murder!”

In 1867 the London humor magazine “Punch” published a somewhat opaque brief review:[ref] 1867 July 6, Punch, Or The London Charivari, Volume 53, The Shortest Theatrical Criticism on Record, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Published at the Office, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

THE SHORTEST THEATRICAL CRITICISM ON RECORD.—In MR. READE’S new play now performing at the Adelphi everybody acts well, and MISS TERRY is a-Dora-ble.

In 1871 a newspaper in Scotland published the following concise book review while crediting another newspaper:[ref] 1871 March 17, Montrose Standard, General News, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Angus, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

Perhaps the shortest review on record is one in the Globe of Saturday. The “Memoirs of Lord Brougham” are reviewed in four words: “A very amusing book.”

In 1896 the New York journal “Life” reprinted a brief theatrical review:[ref] 1896 July 9, Life, Volume 28, Number 706, Aut Scissors Aut Nullus, Quote Page 558, Column 2, Published at the Life Office, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Charles Frederick Robinson Hayward, a Denver editor, wrote learnedly of the drama and could keenly analyze every phase of the actor’s art. But his shortest criticism will probably outlive any other written by him. It was as follows: “George C. Miln, the preacher-actor, played ‘Hamlet’ at the Academy of Music last night. He played it till twelve o’clock.”

In 1913 “The Globe” of London reprinted a succinct skewering of a play:[ref] 1913 December 17, The Globe, Men and Matters: Soul of Wit, Quote Page 2, Column 4, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

Probably the shortest dramatic criticism on record is that published by the “Express” on last night’s premiere at the Vaudeville. It runs as follows:—“Mr. Jerome K. Jerome’s new piece, ‘Robina in Search of a Husband,’ produced at the Vaudeville Theatre last night, is described on the programme as ‘an absurd play.’ It is.”

In Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” the character Ophelia spoke a line to Hamlet while they were both attending a play-within-a-play. The line was not a review of the play, but in 1914 the witty critic John Francis Hope decided to reinterpret Ophelia’s line as a zinger:[ref] 1914 November 26, The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art, Drama by John Francis Hope, Start Page 96, Quote Page 96, Column 1, The New Age Press, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

“You are naught; I’ll mark the play,” said Ophelia in the shortest dramatic criticism on record.

In 1917 “The Street of Ink: An Intimate History of Journalism” credited reviewer A. B. Walkley with delivering a harsh two-word assessment of a show:[ref] 1917, The Street of Ink: An Intimate History of Journalism by H. Simonis, Chapter 2: The Birth of the Popular Press: Old and New Journalism, Quote Page 11, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The play was slaughtered at length by other critics, but Walkley simply gave the name of the theatre, the title, which I believe was “A Terrible Night,” and added the words, “Quite so.”

In 1920 “Life” magazine printed the following:[ref] 1920 December 23, Life, Volume 76, Number 1990, Aut Scissors Aut Nullus: A Competition Among Critics, Quote Page 1200, Column 3, Life Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Mr. H. J. Jennings, once editor of the Birmingham Mail, claims to have written the shortest dramatic criticism ever penned: “Last night a play called ‘Pure As Snow’ was produced at the Blank Theatre. It is not as pure as snow.”

His assertion has been disputed, and a correspondent attributes the following very brief notice to an American critic: “A play by Ulysses S—— was played last night. Heaven will judge him.”

Equally pointed was a criticism which once appeared in a Manchester journal: “Last night Mr. W——’s play was produced. Quite a number of people stayed to the end.”—Answers (London).

In 1921 the “Dundee Evening Telegraph” of Scotland published slightly different versions of two examples given previously in this article:[ref] 1921 October 20, Dundee Evening Telegraph, Day By Day, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Angus, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

I used to think that the shortest dramatic criticism on record was that accredited to Mr A. Walkely. It ran:—“Last night’s play was ‘An Awful Night.’ Quite so.” But this brevity of wit has a rival, for a Birmingham critic is said to have the following to his credit:—“The play produced at the X—— Theatre last night was ‘Pure as Snow,’ but it wasn’t.”

In 1921 “The Sphere” of London printed a one-word review:[ref] 1921 December 10, The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home, Volume 87, Number 1142, Wit and Wisdom of the Week, Quote Page 282, Column 2, London, England.(HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

This is almost as good as a prominent critic’s pronouncement on the play called What a Night!—perhaps the shortest criticism; on record. “Exactly.”—The Evening News.

In 1933 the book “Watching the World Go By” described a brutal reaction to play:[ref] 1933, Watching the World Go By by Willis J. Abbot, (Willis John Abbot), Chapter 5, Quote Page 81, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

I well remember its scholarly and poetic dramatic editor, Elwyn A. Barron. A play he once wrote produced the shortest dramatic criticism on record. It appeared in the Tribune and read thus: “At McVicker’s Theatre last night was produced a play called, ‘A Moral Crime.’ It was!”

In 1944 the publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf authored “Try and Stop Me”, and he offered the following tale:[ref] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 14, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Drama critics have to see so many horrible “turkeys” in the course of a season that they may be excused if they occasionally forget their manners in print.

Brooks Atkinson wrote the shortest review on record. It read: “Such-and-such opened last night. Why?”

In 1959 “New Treasury of Stories for Every Speaking and Writing Occasion” by Jacob M. Braude contained this entry:[ref] 1959 Copyright, New Treasury of Stories for Every Speaking and Writing Occasion by Jacob M. Braude (Jacob Morton Braude), Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 89, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

The shortest review on record is of a play called “Dreadful Night.” The account: “Dreadful Night: Precisely!”

In 1959 “The Footlights Flickered” credited reviewer Philip Page with the following witticism:[ref] 1959, The Footlights Flickered by W. Macqueen-Pope, Chapter 15: Critics, Newsmen and—Hannen Swaffer, Quote Page 186, Herbert Jenkins, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

He wrote the shortest notice known in the history of our dramatic criticism. The play was called Oh, Yes! Philip Page simply wrote Oh, No! There was really no more to be said.

In 1965 “The Edmonton Journal” of Canada printed the following item:[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]

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!”

A separate article focused on the example above is available here.

In 1973 “The New York Times” published the following three-fold slam from drama critic Clive Barnes:[ref] 1973 April 5, New York Times, Theater: ‘Entertainment’: ‘Smile, Smile, Smile’ at Eastside Playhouse by Clive Barnes, Quote Page 51, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) [/ref]

A very hard-working and rather talented cast (see listing) last night brought “a musical entertainment” by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss to the Eastside Playhouse.

It was called “Smile, Smile, Smile.” I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t.

In 1979 the book “Criticizing the Critics” credited Barnes with another gag:[ref] 1979, Criticizing the Critics by John W. English, Chapter 6: Random Notes On the State of the Art, Quote Page 156, Hastings House Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

He said of a production called “The Cupboard” : “Bare.”

In conclusion, this domain of criticism combines creativity with cruelty. QI has not attempted to comprehensively determine the veridical existence of these shows and reviews. Some are fictitious. The 1973 show name and review are genuine. There is plenty of room for future researchers.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a purple theatre curtain from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Jim Fishwick whose inquiry about the “Wham!” “Ouch!” review led QI to conduct this broader exploration.)

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