Posted by Keith Rennie on December 07, 2004
Shoot the pianist
What does shoot the pianist mean? It comes from "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best" (Wilde, 1882). The origin is clear, and it's a nice catchy phrase, but it seems capable of bearing several rather different meanings, including
a) Blame the wrong person (it's the piano that's out of tune)? (cf Tom Waits "The piano has been drinking")
b) Punish or criticise excessively somebody who is trying
c) (Don't) criticise (bad) art.
Time International, in a March 2002 headline uses it in sense a. ( Don't Shoot the Pianist: The European Central Bank should not be blamed for the euro's weakness).
Wilde, the recorder (and quite possibly the inventor) of the phrase, uses it to illustrate (with condescencion which he obviously found funny) the Leadville, Colorado miners' rude violence and lack of culture, and in passing, pokes a bit of fun at art critics by suggesting c. Full text below.
So, gentlefolk out there, I have three questions for you:
- Any reliable evidence, independent of Wilde, that such a notice ever existed?
- Any good choice examples the phrase in use?
- Anybody know what Truffaut had in mind when he chose it for the title of his 1960 film, Tirez sur le Pianiste?. What was the message of the film? (Its English title is Dont Shoot the Piano Player). Ashamed to say I have yet to see it.
Thanks in advance for your ideas -- Keith
Here is the full passage from Wilde's Impressions of America :
From Salt Lake City one travels over great plains of Colorado and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville, the richest city in the world. It has also got the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a revolver. I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they
could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me. They are miners-men working in metals, so I lectured them on the Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry 'Who shot him?' They afterwards took me
to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice:
Please do not shoot the pianist.
He is doing his best.
The mortality among pianists in that place is marvellous.