On this day in theatre history–January 9, 1905–George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell premiered in New York City at the Garrick, running for 129 performances, after a triumphal run in London. American matinee idol, Arnold Daly, played the romantic lead Valentine. Though popular with Broadway audiences, William Winter (New York Tribune, Jan. 10, 1905, p. 7) gave it a less than enthusiastic review, calling Shaw “a third rate Ibsen… [and] a weak imitation of the greatest of living English dramatic authors, William S. Gilbert.” Of the play, Winter declared, “there is no viable purpose; no drift; no meaning–yet, all the while, a tremendous pretense of impending wisdom. This is Mr. Shaw’s custom–that he roars in the index, but points nonsense and leads to nothing.”
While Shaw’s reputation clearly survived Winter’s harsh attack, the exuberant praise for Gilbert’s work is unusual from an American perspective. Gilbert’s operettas with Sullivan notwithstanding, his solo dramatic pieces were never especially popular on the American stage. Of the two playwrights, Shaw and Gilbert, the latter eventually proved more worthy of being a “third rate Ibsen,” while Shaw is perhaps better described as one of England’s “greatest” dramatic authors. How times have changed.