Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Steele MacKaye? Dion Boucicault? W. S. Gilbert? Sanford B. Hooker? David Belasco? Daniel Frohman? William M. Tanner? Walter Winchell? James Thurber? Michael Crichton?

Dear Quote Investigator: A magnificent work of art emerges in its final form like Venus from a scallop shell; no modifications are required according to one unrealistic approach to creativity. Numerous writers and composers strongly disagree and emphasize the need for painstaking refinement. A family of sayings highlights this process:

  • Great novels are not written, they are rewritten.
  • A stage play is not written but rewritten.
  • Good stories are not written but are re-written.
  • The secret of good writing is rewriting.

Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Quote Investigator: In July 1889 the popular U.S. playwright and actor Steele MacKaye published in several newspapers a piece titled “How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil”. The first line presented his thesis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Plays are not written—they are rewritten.
In this lies the advantage of the creative, as distinct from the critical, literature of the stage.

By 1894 the saying had been reassigned to the Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, and by 1903 W. S. Gilbert had been assigned a variant referring to comic operas. Yet, the earliest evidence currently points to Steele MacKaye as crafter of the statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten


  1. 1889 July 28, Democrat and Chronicle, How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil: So Says Steele MacKaye (Written for the Democrat and Chronicle), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)

I Know Only Two Tunes: One of Them Is Yankee Doodle, and the Other Isn’t

Ulysses S. Grant? Abraham Lincoln? W. S. Gilbert? William Tecumseh Sherman? Victor Borge? Richie Havens? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is filled with singing, but my talent in this domain can be accurately summarized with the following quotation:

I know only two tunes: one of them is “Yankee Doodle,” and the other isn’t.

This humorously self-deprecating comment has been attributed to Ulysses S. Grant, but a similar remark has been ascribed to Abraham Lincoln and the famous librettist W. S. Gilbert. Could you please ascertain who first employed this expression?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this quip which has been in circulation for 175 years or more. Several different songs have been mentioned in the joke, e.g., “Old Hundred”, “Auld Lang Syne”, “God Save the Queen”, “Yankee Doodle”, and “Hail Columbia”. In the earliest instances located by QI the person with woeful musical knowledge was anonymous.

In 1839 a New Orleans newspaper printed a short article that described an unnamed individual who wanted to relax while perusing a poem; however an organ grinder and a squalling vocalist prevented a pleasant reverie and provoked an expletive: 1

We ought to apologize for swearing, but really we suffer considerably from music, and only know two tunes, one of which is “Old Hundred,” and the other isn’t. –N. O. Picayune.

This comical tale was reprinted in the “Saturday Morning Transcript” of Boston, Massachusetts and “The Musical Review” of New York. 2

In 1845 the same joke appeared in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper where it was assigned to an anonymous singer: 3

A singer down east says he knows two tunes; one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other is not.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Know Only Two Tunes: One of Them Is Yankee Doodle, and the Other Isn’t


  1. 1839 April 20, Saturday Morning Transcript, Pleasant, Quote Page 134, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1839 May 4, The Musical Review, Volume 2, Number 1, Pleasant, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Printed by William Osborn, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1845 August 11, Daily Republican (Springfield Republican), (Freestanding untitled short item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)