Category Archives: Orson Welles

Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Orson Welles? Oscar Wilde? James Aswell? Richard Lederer? Anonymous?

yorick11Dear Quote Investigator: The influence of William Shakespeare’s works on the English language has been enormous; consider the following phrases:

To thine own self be true
It was Greek to me
Brevity is the soul of wit
To be, or not to be
Not a mouse stirring

The cultural ubiquity of the Bard’s words inspired the following humorous remark:

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

This statement has been attributed to two very different people who share the same initials: Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1936 by a syndicated columnist named James Aswell who was based in New York. Several Shakespearean productions were being staged in the city, and one featured the actor John Gielgud. Aswell presented the remark of a “debbie” which was a slang term for “debutante”; he then appended his own comment. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2

A pert debbie, attending the Gielgud interpretation the other night, quipped in the lobby: “But how can anyone listen to all those old saws and ancient wisecracks they’ve been hearing all their lives?” . . . Well, a lot of people go to Shakespeare to recognize the quotations.

In 1945 the tireless anecdote collector Bennett Cerf included a thematic joke in his compilation titled “Laughing Stock”, and Cerf also reprinted the jest in his syndicated newspaper column: 3 4

Guy Williams, of the Omaha World Herald, had his ears pinned back by a nice old lady to whom he had urgently recommended a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. “I can’t understand why you all make such a fuss over that man,” she told him after she had looked over the book. “All he’s done is string together a whole lot of very old, well-known quotations.”

In 1949, Evan Esar published the collection “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, and he assigned an instance of the quip in Aswell’s 1936 column to the prominent auteur Orson Welles: 5

WELLES, Orson, born 1915, American actor, director, and producer of motion pictures, radio, and stage.

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1936 October 17, Ballston Spa Daily Journal, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Ballston Spa, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 October 19, The Morning Herald, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 130 and 131, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  4. 1946 March 15, Greensboro Record, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 6A, Column 4 and 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Orson Welles, Quote Page 212, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)

The Enemy of Art Is the Absence of Limitations

Orson Welles? Henry Jaglom? Mildred Pitts Walter? Dom Hofmann? Apocryphal?

orson07Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant movie director Orson Welles has been credited with a fascinating statement about the construction of artworks in the presence of constraints. When a performer or creator faces a limit such as a tight budget for a production then creative thought and innovative techniques are required. The final work may embody a heightened artistry. Here are two versions of the adage ascribed to Welles :

1) The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
2) The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.

I have not been able to find a good citation for this popular remark. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The most revealing citation located by QI was published in the 1992 edition of “The Movie Business Book” within a chapter written by the filmmaker Henry Jaglom. An instance of the saying was credited to Orson Welles by Jaglom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Orson Welles once said to me at lunch, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Economically and creatively that’s the most important advice you can be given. You have limitations; you don’t have $1-million to blow up that bridge, so you have to create something else on film to produce the same effect. Instead of having money to hire hundreds of extras, you have to sneak a cameraman in a wheelchair through the streets of New York City and steal the shot, which gives you a look of much greater reality.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared a few years prior to 1992 in a magazine dated February 1988. Details are given further below. Yet, the above cite is crucial because QI conjectures that Jaglom was the person responsible for placing the adage into circulation. QI has not located any direct evidence of the statement in the writings of Welles or in an interview with Welles.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1992, The Movie Business Book, Edited by Jason E. Squire, Second Edition, “The Independent Filmmaker” by Henry Jaglom, Start Page 74, Quote Page 78, Fireside: Simon & Schuster, New York, (Verified with scans)