The following is from Theatrical jargon of the old days, published in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 3rd October 1968, by Michael Warwick:
“Quoth the raven”, operative meaning “nevermore” 1, was the code sign for actors to beware of certain digs.
1 The reference is to the famous line Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”, in The Raven (1845), a narrative poem by the U.S. short-story writer, poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
In Touring Sixty Years Ago: Delights and Hazards of the Good Old Days, published in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 31st October 1963, Michael Thornton explained that this theatrical use of quoth the raven originated in the appreciations that touring actors wrote in the visitors’ books of the lodgings where they stayed:
Finally Reference Books. During the nadir of the touring system, theatrical landladies were a dedicated class and formed an intrinsic part of theatrical history. Many had kept digs for generations and had handed on the tradition to their children, and nearly every established connection had a book of reference. It was a sort of status symbol of today, a guarantee of quality, exemplified by glowing tribute and peronal [sic] recommendation.
Tired artists, arriving after a twelve hours wearying journey, would find perhaps familiar names and inscriptions by old friends. Spirits would rise, and doubts regarding an unpleasant week’s stay would dissolve into thin air. Comforted by the glowing warmth of a huge fire, even the most frigid soul would expand. Occasionally the dreaded “quoth the raven” would find its way into some odd corner of a book, but on the whole these instances were rare. And Ma, as she was affectionately known, could point with glowing pride to the testimonies and eulogies concerning her cooking, her cleanliness and punctuality.
The earliest mention that I have found of this theatrical use of quoth the raven is from the column Mustard and Cress, by ‘Dagonet’, in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 7th May 1899:
Ladies and gentlemen of the theatrical profession are all familiar with the visitors’ book of theatrical “diggings,” in which the praise of the landlady and the advantages of her apartments are certified by the actors and actresses who have had the honour of paying her rent. The light comedian of the “Tried and True” Company acknowledges that “Mrs. Smith can cook rabbits”; the fair soubrette of “The Naughty Lady Potts” Company says she has been “awfully comfortable”; the leading villain of “While London Bleeds” obliges with a Shakespearean quotation; but the comments in a landlady’s visitors’ book are frequently humorous. Let me give an example.
Mr. Charles Brookfield 2 once during a tour fell upon apartments in which he was not quite happy. When he was leaving, the landlady presented her book and requested him to contribute. The genial author-actor didn’t want to hurt the good woman’s feelings, but he didn’t want to write what he didn’t mean. He hesitated a moment, then taking the book he wrote:
“Quoth the Raven.”—Charles Brookfield.
The landlady to this day shows her visitors’ book to you and points with pride to Mr. Brookfield’s entry. “Everybody laughs when they see it,” she says, “I suppose it is from some funny piece that Mr. Brookfield played in.”
2 Charles Brookfield (1857-1913) was a British actor and playwright.
The second-earliest mention that I have found of this theatrical use of quoth the raven is from The Weekly Telegraph (Sheffield and London, England) of Saturday 8th July 1899:
From the Visitors’ Book.
Actors, like commercial travellers, are constantly “on the road,” and have occasion to “sample accommodation” in all kinds of places, and to record their appreciation in the visitors’ books, only, as a rule, actors patronise boarding houses and lodgings rather than expensive hotels, and their familiarity with stage humour is apt to give point to their sarcasms. Examples of players’ wit at the expense of provincial landladies have recently appeared in print. It would seem (says the “Caterer”) that there is a fatal tendency to quote some familiar but appropriate line. For instance, the words, “I was a stranger, and, etc.,” is to be found in numbers of places with divers signatures appended. Another favourite piece of humour is “Quoth the Raven, ‘Many Times.’” What could be more pithy than the following criticism, mild, yet sufficiently biting: “Mrs. ——’s rooms are magnificent, and most moderate—for a Rothschild.”
Among the versification we find:—
“The eggs were always fresh and good,
So were the beans and peas,
We don’t complain about the food,
But, oh, good Lord! the fleas!”
But perhaps the best of all is to be seen in a landlady’s book at Liverpool:—
“Cooking—good, but plain.
How did the poor soul like that? But no doubt she knows what a sad dog is young Buskin 3.
3 Here, Buskin seems to be a generic name for a tragedian. The common noun buskin is used figuratively to denote the style or spirit of tragic drama; the literal meaning of this common noun is: a type of thick-soled boot worn by actors of Athenian tragedy in ancient Greece to gain height.
Finally, the following is from the column Personal Gossip, in the Willesden Chronicle (Willesden, Middlesex, England) of Friday 23rd February 1900:
“I Quoth the Raven.”
A good story is told of Mr. Lionel Brough 4, the popular comedian and music-hall entertainer. When acting in Edinburgh on one occasion he stayed at lodgings which were not particularly comfortable, but when the time came for his departure the landlady produced the inevitable testimonial book, and requested him to add to it. Mr. Brough was in a quandary; he wanted to mark his sense of the discomfort he had endured, but to write a condemnatory notice under the very eyes of a theatrical landlady calls for a moral and physical courage which few possess. Mr. Brough seized the book, dashed off a line, and handed it back to the virago, who appeared to be well pleased, though, as a matter of fact, she did not understand the testimonial, nor the broad smiles with which subsequent visitors always greeted that particular page in her book. What Mr. Brough wrote was simply: “I quote the Raven.”
4 Lionel Brough (1836-1909) was a British actor.
This cartoon was published in The Stage (London, England) of Thursday 29th May 1958—in a derelict boarding house, an unkempt landlady is showing the visitors’ book to her equally scruffy husband:
“That comic was a funny type. Look what he wrote in the visitors’ book . . . ‘Quoth the Raven’ . . .”
The line from Poe’s poem has occasionally been used outside theatrical circles. ‘Penelope’ mentioned it, about a hotel where she stayed, in Our Ladies’ Column, published in The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 20th August 1892:
The refrain of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe’s verses kept recurring to my mind, “quoth the Raven, never more,” and certainly, “never more,” will I depend on the assurances of an unknown, though highly recommended, landlady, who is so well off and has succeeded so far in making money out of her hotel when there was no rival, that she can afford to ignore her customers, and leave her house in the charge of others, less competent than she is, whilst she herself remains quite indifferent to future favours or testimonials from her guests.
Likewise, one Mary Ventris used quoth the raven, about her “sad experience” at a hotel in London, in the column Echoes and Gossip of the Day, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 5th October 1955:
American guests ordering soft boiled eggs were given eggs like bullets, sausages ordered at the outset of the meal were brought when the marmalade stage had been reached, and so forth.
Partaking of my humble dry toast and hot water breakfast—my hot water was served in a not too clean teapot!—I commiserated with an American woman sharing my table, and was thankful to hear that during her stay in this country she had found hotels really good in other parts. But what she, and the very many other overseas guests, thought of that hotel I hate to think. I know what I thought for them—and for myself. Quoth the raven. . . .