Tennis, Anyone?

Humphrey Bogart? George Bernard Shaw? W. Somerset Maugham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Before Humphrey Bogart played iconic tough and sophisticated characters he appeared in drawing room comedies on Broadway. Supposedly in his first scene as a young actor he came striding onto the stage swinging a racquet and saying:

Tennis anyone?

Later this line became a cliché that was parodied by comedians. But recently I read that Bogart never said it. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: For years researchers have attempted to uncover evidence that Bogart spoke this piece of dialogue in a stage production. Some theater goers indicated that they heard Bogart deliver the line, but this type of testimony is not reliable. In multiple interviews Bogart denied that he said it.

But QI has found a 1948 interview with him in the syndicated newspaper column of Hollywood gossip Erskine Johnson that helps to explain the existence of this assertion. Bogart himself stated that he used a nearly identical line “Tennis anybody?” earlier in his career [EJHB]:

Bogart laughed. “I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: “Tennis anybody?” It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way I come in with a gun and bump ’em off.”

According to the language columnist William Safire the story told by Bogart was somewhat different in 1951. In that year Safire interviewed Bogart for the New York Herald Tribune. The text from a yellowed clipping of the resulting article was reprinted by Safire in the New York Times in 1990 [WSHB]:

”People forget how I used to look on Broadway,” the actor reminisced. ”There would be a crowd of charming and witty young blue bloods gathered in the drawing-room set, having tea, while the hero and the heroine get into a petty squabble. The writer couldn’t think of any other way of getting excess characters off the stage, so the leads could be alone – and that’s where I would appear in the doorway, in my flannels, hair slicked back, sweater knotted jauntily about my neck, four tennis racquets under my arm, breathing hard as I said my line: ‘It’s 40-love out there. Anyone care to come out and watch?’ ”

Safire asked Bogart directly about the disputed line and received a denial [WSHB]:

”The lines I had were corny enough, but I swear to you, never once did I have to say Tennis, anyone?”

Reconciling these pronouncements from Bogart is possible if one assumes that the phrase “Tennis anybody?” was not supposed to be a literal description of words in a script. Instead, Bogart was giving a representational or generic phrase that his character type was assigned. Nevertheless confusion is understandable.

The expression occurs frequently enough that lexicographers have created an entry for it in the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary. Two phrasal variations are listed together with a definition [OEDT]:

anyone for tennis?, who’s for tennis?, etc., a typical entrance or exit line given to a young man in a superficial drawing-room comedy, used attrib. of (someone or something reminiscent of) this kind of comedy.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tennis, Anyone?

You Have an Idea. I Have an Idea. We Swap. Now We Each Have Two Ideas.

George Bernard Shaw? SYSTEM magazine? Stanley B. Moore? Charles F. Brannan? Jimmy Durante? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a very valuable insight in the following saying that is credited to George Bernard Shaw:

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

I’ve seen this quotation mentioned several times during discussions about intellectual property rights, open source software, and copyright. But I have never seen a precise reference. Could you track this one down?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any compelling evidence that George Bernard Shaw made this remark. The earliest citation found by QI closely conforming to this theme was dated 1917. Apples were not mentioned in the following advertisement titled “The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas” for a magazine called SYSTEM that was printed in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Instead of apples, dollars were swapped without perceptible advantage [CTSY]

You have a dollar.
I have a dollar.
We swap.
Now you have my dollar.
We are no better off.
• • •
You have an idea.
I have an idea.
We swap.
Now you have two ideas.
And I have two ideas.
• • •
That’s the difference.
• • •
There is another difference. A dollar does only so much work. It buys so many potatoes and no more. But an idea that fits your business may keep you in potatoes all your life. It may, incidentally, build you a palace to eat them in!
• • •
It was some such philosophy as this that brought the magazine SYSTEM into being sixteen years ago. SYSTEM was (and is) a swapping-place for business ideas.

The same advertisement for SYSTEM magazine was printed in other periodicals such as the New York Times [NYSY]. In succeeding decades the saying was rephrased and reprinted in a variety of publications and books.

The earliest evidence found by QI of apples being used for illustrative purposes instead of dollars was dated 1949, and the speaker was a Secretary of Agriculture in the United States. The words appeared in an education news journal which cited a television broadcast [NBCB]:

… if you have an apple and I have an apple, and we swap apples — we each end up with only one apple. But if you and I have an idea and we swap ideas — we each end up with two ideas.

— Charles F. Brannan, Secretary of Agriculture, from a broadcast over NBC, April 3, 1949

George Bernard Shaw was a famously witty individual and many adages of uncertain provenance have been credited to him. His name is powerfully magnetic in the world of quotations, and it attracts stray attributions. By 1974 the version of the saying with apples and ideas was ascribed to Shaw. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Have an Idea. I Have an Idea. We Swap. Now We Each Have Two Ideas.

America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?

Quote Investigator: A thematic match occurred in 1841 within the book “Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe” (“History of the Progress of Civilization in Europe”) by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand. The following statement was about the ruler of Russia and not the United States. The original French is followed by an English rendering: 1

… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.

… he made his country pass without transition from barbarism to decadence, from childhood to decay.

In 1878 the prominent writer Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a figure of speech based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…

The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.

The theatre reviewer, James Agate, saw a production of the work “Katerina” by Andreyev, 3 and he was deeply unsympathetic to the behaviors displayed by the characters.: 4

Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.

Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between


  1. 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link
  4. 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database)

The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

Oscar Wilde? William Collier? Daniel Frohman? George Bernard Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been involved in several theatrical productions and sometimes the response of an audience to a show is mystifying. A colleague told me that Oscar Wilde watched an early performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the reception was unenthusiastic. Later when he was asked about that night’s presentation he said:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.

I can easily envision Wilde uttering this response. When I used Google I found another version of the line:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster

Do you think this anecdote is true, and do you think either of these lines is accurate?

Quote Investigator: This is an entertaining quip that appeals to people who depend on the fickle reactions of audiences. However, there is little evidence that Wilde ever spoke this quotation. Lady Windermere’s Fan was a highly-successful and lucrative comedy for Wilde.  The earliest attribution to Wilde that QI has located appeared in the 1937 book “Encore” by the theatrical impresario Daniel Frohman who does not identify a specific play [OWDF]:

Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first production of a play that was a complete failure.

A friend said, “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?”

“Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success but the audience was a failure.”

In fact, the core of this joke was employed by another legendary Irish wit, George Bernard Shaw, in a review he wrote in 1892. Shaw’s commentary was published in “The World”, and recorded his unhappiness with his fellow viewers who reacted negatively to a dancer whose performance was deemed too provocative and suggestive [GBSD] [BSTD]:

Take notice, oh Senorita C. de Otero, Spanish dancer and singer, that I wash my hands of the national crime of failing to appreciate you. You were a perfect success: the audience was a dismal failure. I really cannot conceive a man being such a dull dog as to hold out against that dance.

Lady Windermere’s Fan premiered in 1892 and Oscar Wilde did directly address the audience from the stage after the initial performance. However, the production was a success and not a failure, and his words were precisely the opposite of those listed above.

Continue reading The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure