There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It

Oscar Wilde? George Bernard Shaw? Oliver Onions? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: The psychology of human desire is paradoxical. The failure to achieve a goal can lead to unhappiness and ever despair. Yet, attaining an objective can produce an aftermath of uncertainty and lassitude. The following adage is humorous and poignant:

There are two tragedies in life—not getting what you want, and getting it.

This notion has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde and the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw. Did either of these Irishmen really employ this saying? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Both Wilde and Shaw used versions of this adage, but Wilde deserves credit for coinage. Oddly, the version in Shaw’s 1903 play “Man and Superman” changed over time as shown in the citations given further below.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1892 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman” by Oscar Wilde. The minor character Mr. Dumby asked the character Lord Darlington whether the love he felt for Lady Windermere had ever been reciprocated. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

DUMBY
She doesn’t really love you then?

LORD DARLINGTON
No, she does not!

DUMBY
I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy! . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Only Two Tragedies. One Is Not Getting What One Wants, and the Other Is Getting It

Notes:

  1. 1893 Copyright, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, (Performed at St. James Theatre in London on February 22, 1892), Third Act, Quote Page 94, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link