The Poisoned Barrel Pub, Hackney, London. A group of friends are crowded around a table; some read while others sketch, play chess, darts or tinkle at the piano. Many smoke, furtively. We join them halfway through their conversation.
Michel de Montaigne (flicking a speck of dust off his velvet sleeve)
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.
Sophocles (wrapping his toga close, for the night is cold)
Ah Michel, a short saying oft contains much wisdom!
Charles Schulz (loudly eating crisps)
Sure, Soph, but don’t forget there’s a difference between philosophy and a bumper sticker.
(He passes Sophocles the crisps.)
Voltaire (fondling a strand of his voluptuous hair whilst snarling at Sophocles)
Exactly, Charles. A witty saying proves nothing!
(Voltaire leans over and snatches the crisps from Sophocles and eats them greedily.)
Norman Douglas (studying a map of Sicily through a monocle)
I disagree monsieur! What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes? Take 50 of our current proverbial sayings: they are so trite, so threadbare, that we can hardly bring our lips to utter them.
Sam Goldwyn (lighting an enormous Cuban cigar)
It’s time for some new clichés!
Marlene Dietrich (taking a deep drag on her gold-tipped cigarillo)
I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized as wiser than oneself.
Michel de Montaigne (yawning & taking a pinch of snuff)
Exactly. When I quote others I do so in order to express my own ideas more clearly.
Samuel Palmer (wild-eyed, sketching a tree)
Wise men make proverbs, but fools repeat them!
(Tom Lehrer jumps up, strides to the piano and starts singing.)
Tom Lehrer (tunefully) Plagiarize, plagiarize / Let no man’s work evade your eyes / Remember why the good Lord made your eyes / Don’t shade your eyes / But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize / Only be sure to call it research!
Dorothy Sayers (tossing a whisky back then lighting a pipe)
Oh fiddle-dee-dee, Tom. I always have a quotation for everything. It saves original thinking.
Evelyn Waugh (pouring himself a glass of Chateau Gombaude-Guillot 1952)
Put a sock in it, Tom! In the dying world I come from, quotation is a national vice.
Jorge Luis Borges (fondling a peony, staring sightlessly into the distance)
Life itself is a quotation.
Jerry Seinfeld (sipping iced water)
Jorge you might be interested in this book I’ve compiled from the Internet. It’s a book of quotations attributed to the wrong people.
(Jerry looks at Jorge. Jorge does not respond. Jerry stares at the table.)
Dorothy Parker (irritated, takes the bottle of Chateau Gombaude-Guillot 1952 from Evelyn and pours herself a generous glass)
I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound, if only I could remember the damned things.
Robert Benchley (grabs the bottle from Dorothy and pours himself a glass)
Oh come now Dorothy! The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.
Jerome Stern (doodling on a napkin while crossing his legs)
Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossing of legs.
Virginia Woolf (glaring at Dorothy)
One has to secrete a jelly in which to slip quotations down people’s throats and one always secretes too much jelly.
Vladimir Nabokov (archly, while giving the barmaid the Glad Eye)
There are aphorisms that, like airplanes, stay up only while they are in motion.
Hesketh Pearson (archly, tossing a dart)
Misquotations are the only quotations that are never misquoted.
George Orwell (in a flat cap, reading a book on socialism and swigging stout)
In places, this book is a little over-written. He is no more able to resist a quotation than some people are to refuse a drink.
A Man No-One Recognizes (whispers anxiously)
Originality is the art of concealing your sources.
(Man exits, swiftly.)
William Blake (looking wild-eyed after A Man No-One Recognizes)
Who was that man? To generalize is to be an idiot!
Virginia Woolf (grandly impatient)
Oh for goodness sake, William! Arrange whatever pieces come your way!
John Cage (tapping a glass of beer with an interested look on his face)
Identification. What then shall we do? Shall we call it by his name or by its name? It’s not a question of names. One way to write music: study Duchamp. Say it’s not a Duchamp. Turn it over and it is.
Marcel Duchamp (looks up from game of chess)
Why thank you John. However, I must disagree! I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.
Samuel Beckett (shouting above the mêlée while popping the cork of a bottle of champagne)
Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness!
Gertrude Stein (getting up to dance)
You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So you might as well dance. Merce?
Merce Cunningham (getting up to dance with Gertrude)
The only way to do it is to do it!
(Tom Lehrer plays a jitterbug. Gertrude and Merce dance wildly, laughing.)
Sophocles (applauding loudly)
I’m in love with the Modern World! Barman, tequilas all around!
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.
First published in Issue 147