On January 4, 1922, the New York Times published a review of the dramatic play Aglavaine and Selysette by the paper’s witty critic Alexander Woollcott.
Woollcott had attended the premiere of the play at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York City the day before, on the afternoon of January 3rd.
His review wasn’t glowing.
Aglavaine and Selysette was written in French by the Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck in 1896.
The plot involves a high society love triangle. The language of the play is rather twee.
It was the kind of thing some high society types or eggheads might like. But not Woollcott.
He was one of the iconoclastic, opinionated writers and celebrities who were members of the “Algonquin Round Table.”
In fact he was one of the founding members, along with other legendary wits like columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, humorist and actor Robert Benchley and writer Dorothy Parker.
So, it’s not surprising that Woollcott’s aimed some zingers at the performance of the Maeterlinck’s play.
One of the lines in his review quickly became a famous quip that’s included in many books of quotations. He wrote:
“...the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’”
Woollcott was dissembling a bit by making it seem like he didn’t know the identity of “the beautiful lady.” He’d brought her to the play himself and she was sitting right next to him. She was the then little-known, 19-year-old actress Tallulah Bankhead.
It seems likely that Woollcott didn’t name Tallulah in the review to protect her against possible backlash from high society theatre patrons and producers. But he apparently did tell his Algonquin Club friends, who loved snarky gibes. One way or the other, word got around that Tallulah was the beautiful quipster.
Woollcott confirmed that publicly in a book he published later the same year, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights.
In that book, he called the line one of the most memorable bon mots to appear in his reviews and said:
“[It] was whispered in my ear by a comely young actress named Tallulah Bankhead, who was sitting incredulous before a deliberate and intentional revival of Maeterlinck’s ‘Aglavaine and Selysette,’ a monstrous piece of perfumed posturing, meaning exactly nothing. Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, ‘There is less in this than meets the eye.’”
In her own autobiography, Tallulah, published in 1952, Bankhead recalled it this way:
“It was through Alex Woollcott that I won my first citation as a wit...At the end of the first act I turned to my escort to say, ‘There’s less in this than meets the eye.’ I wasn’t aware that I’d said anything devastating, but the next morning the comment was repeated in Woollcott’s review in the Times...This gave me considerable prestige among those jesters who took such delight in ridicule of their peers, even their betters.”
By “those jesters” she meant the Algonquin Round Table, of which she became an occasional member.
However, as the term she chose for them suggests, she was not entirely a fan of the sometimes vicious humor those jesters were known for.
Nor, ultimately, was she a fan of Woollcott, who died nine years before Bankhead’s autobiography was published.
In that book she wrote:
“Since this is supposed to be a frank and open review of my life it is only fair to say that most of the wisecracks I have mothered have been accidental quips. So long as I have dragged Alexander Woollcott into this saga I may as well voice my opinion of him. It isn’t high. He was vindictive, shockingly petty in a feminine fashion, given to excesses when expressing his preferences or his prejudices.”
Of course, Tallulah, who died in 1968, became notorious for her own excesses, involving wild parties, multiple affairs, marijuana and cocaine.
As she once famously put it: “I’m as pure as the driven slush.”
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