George Bernard Shaw? Winston Churchill? Randolph Churchill? Noel Coward? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest example of repartee that I have ever heard about was a famous exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill about a pair of tickets to a play.
Shaw: I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one.
Churchill: Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one.
I hope this jousting really happened. Could you examine this story?
Quote Investigator: The earliest printed evidence that QI has located appeared in 1946 in the influential syndicated column of Walter Winchell, but the participants were not Shaw and Winston Churchill. Instead, Churchill’s son and the popular playwright Noel Coward enacted a partial version of the anecdote. In the following passage UP refers to the United Press news service [WWRC]:
Randolph Churchill and Noel Coward haven’t always agreed on politics. A gag (from a UP pal in London) says that Churchill’s boy wrote Noel asking for two tickets to his new show. He received one ducat and this note: “Let me know if you really have a friend and I’ll send you the other ticket.”
The second cite was printed in the 1947 book “More and More of Memories” by Arthur Porritt. It contained a tale similar to the one above, but the wording given for Coward’s remark was closer to modern phrasing [APRC]:
When Mr. Randolph Churchill asked Mr. Noel Coward for a ticket for a new play he had written, Mr. Coward is said to have replied: “My dear Randolph. Here are tickets for my new show: one for yourself, and one for a friend—if you have a friend.”
The first evidence QI has found for the prevalent modern version is in a newspaper article with a dateline of January 1948 in New York City from the International News Service [EMJG] [EMOW]:
George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill a couple of seats for the opening night of one of his plays, some time ago. Commissioner Ed Mulrooney was reminiscing the other day at the unveiling of the portrait of the late Jimmy Walker at city hall.
Shaw enclosed a little note with the tickets. It read, “Here are two tickets for the opening of my new play. Keep one for yourself and bring along a friend—if you can find one.”
Churchill returned the tickets with a nice little note, too.
“I’m sorry that a previous engagement precludes my attending your opening night.” he said. “I shall be happy to come the second night—if there is one.”
This anecdote was retold many times during the succeeding decades, but the phrasing used to describe Shaw’s message and Churchill’s rejoinder varied considerably. The name of the play was not given in the initial citations, but later versions mentioned at least four different dramas by Shaw: “Man and Superman,” “Pygmalion,” “Back to Methuselah,” and “Saint Joan.” By the 1960s a variant was being propagated that featured Winston Churchill and the playwright Noel Coward instead of Shaw.
The most interesting citation QI has located was published in “Shaw the Villager and Human Being: A Biographical Symposium” in 1962. The book presented the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon named L. W. Plewes who treated Shaw in 1950 when the playwright was 94 years old. Plewes said that Shaw himself provided the following version of the anecdote [LPSV]:
While G.B.S. was in hospital under treatment, some peaches arrived from Winston Churchill, who was in Florida at the time. Hearing from Mr. Churchill reminded G.B.S. of some correspondence he had had with him before Pygmalion was first staged. It went as follows: G.B.S. to Winston Churchill: “I enclose two tickets for the first night of my new play, one for yourself and one for your friend, if you have one.”Winston Churchill to G.B.S.: “I am sorry I cannot attend for the first night, but I should be glad to come on the second night, if there is one”!
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.