In his most recent volume of essays, award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow explores the sources of creativity. Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, published by Random House, probes the genius of artists and
thinkers ranging from the biblical authors of Genesis, to Melville, to Einstein. Appearing among these essays is the following appreciation of the comic pantomime of Harpo Marx, originally commissioned by The Little Bookroom as an introduction to Harpo Speaks... About New York (2001), a memoir of the second-oldest Marx brother's childhood years.
Like all city children of my generation I revered the Marx Brothers. I don't recall bothering to understand why they were so funny, but I looked forward to each of their movies for what I knew would happen: they would dismantle any society in which they found themselves. Everywhere they went they brought chaos and confusion. Nothing could stop them.
Groucho, Chico, and Harpo may not have been the only comedians to outrage propriety, violate custom, and make a shambles of the hope of human dignity, but they disdained the dramatized self-usage of a Keaton or a W. C. Fields, offering instead the brazen assertion of themselves as Marx brothers no matter what names were assigned to them by their screenwriters. Always they stood outside the milieu of their movies, heaping verbal or physical abuse on any character actor who had the misfortune to serve as their foil. They were unremitting surrealists. Even their musical interludes-Chico at his piano, Harpo at his harp-had no discernible dramatic justification. What made them the most radical of their profession was that their comedy, unmediated by anything like normal sentiment, went to the root of the vital social pretense that life is purposeful and the universe subject to reason.
Had we not had the Marx Brothers at the opera, at the races, aboard ship, or at war, I think there would have been perhaps less understanding from us in later life of such exemplars of modernism as Giorgio de Chirico, Marc Chagall, Luis Buñuel, and Samuel Beckett.
Though Zeppo Marx occasionally appeared as a straight man, as far as we children were concerned, there were just the three brothers. Chico we liked the least-perhaps because he was the least funny, or his characterization was thinnest, or because we detected something slipshod or false in his performances. Groucho, we acknowledged, was the wit. He had the words, he sang the songs, and was usually conniver of the plot and organizer of things (though in the true and anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers, their alliances were subject to instant revision and the other two as often as not might make him the victim of their slapstick). But there were moments when we felt menaced by Groucho, as if there was some darkness in him, or some inadvertent revelation of the sadistic lineaments of adulthood that was perhaps premonitory of our own darkness of spirit as when we laughed guiltily at his ritual abasement of the statuesque, maternal Margaret Dumont.
Where Harpo was concerned, there were no reservations. He was our favorite. He was the Marx brother we truly loved. Groucho may have had command of the language, and Chico as well, under the constraints of his oddly chosen Italian accent, but Harpo, in speaking not at all, was our spokesman.
Harpo communicated by putting his knuckles to his teeth and whistling, or by honking the car horn he pulled from his voluminous pockets. When the situation was dire he could warn Chico with a charade. When a pretty girl walked by, his remarkably pliant face-the glazed-over eyes, the dropped jaw-told us everything we needed to know in that split second before he took up the chase. Speechless, he was the purest clown of the three. His wig, his crushed top hat, and those depthless pockets that gave forth scissors, saws, lighted lamps, working telephones, kitchen utensils, and dead chickens, were the trappings of a genius kid. We too were sometimes the proud possessors of what the world thought of as junk. We too had that swiftness of foot that would allow us to chase girls and manage never to catch them. We too understood everything there was to know about the adult world . . . but said nothing.
We loved Harpo because instinctively we knew he was one of us. But we couldn't have understood that his own life as a child might have been the reason for our recognition. In fact, the creative depth of his clowning had to have come from something more profoundly ingrained in his nature than his adult experience in the theater as one of the Marx Brothers about to hit it big in Hollywood. It is impossible to believe that the first time Harpo hung his knee on the hand of the startled distinguished actor standing next to him, that it was a planned routine. It had to have been the inspired improvisation of someone who had grown up in the street, as Harpo did in the streets of New York in the raucous 1890s, where survival depended on one's precise stance toward authority. The Marx Brothers' movies are all about outwitting authority. But apparently it was the gleeful Harpo, the family's street urchin so constantly in its presence, who learned to hustle it with a goofy leer, and make it the inadvertent minion of his own surreal authority.
Handing your leg to a distinguished person is a not inconceivable metaphor for someone, like Harpo, who as a kid had only one ice skate to skate on. Making a comic routine out of a wealth of found objects in your pockets has a certain resonance if as a boy you sustained yourself by selling to junk dealers the treasures you found in the street or stole from moving vans.
The world young Harpo had to outwit included not only cops, truant officers, and neighborhood toughs, but also his family's impoverishment and a degree of distraction from his loving parents that allowed him to drop out of school in the second grade. He had to outwit the New York of his day that gave to such children of immigrants as Adolph "Harpo" Marx a tenement airshaft in which to hang his Christmas stocking, and the luxury of attending New York Giants baseball games on a hill outside the ballpark from which he could see only the left fielder.
The reader will find no self-pity in Harpo's memories-they are recounted with the humor of someone who long ago arose from them into a triumphant professional life. But Harpo's stories make it clear that in his critical early years the world never quite assembled itself from the fractured understandings of his experience into anything comfortably ordinary or rational. The city of New York was in that day an atonality of immigrant cultures, with adjoining blocks ringing with different languages. Children who wandered into streets not their own were routinely mugged. The homes of the rich abutted the homes of the poor. Brewery owners stood in for aristocracy as their liveried carriages clattered over the cobblestones past the awed gaze of urchins. New York was a raucous municipal democracy in which citizenship was not a requirement for voting. The most exciting holiday of the year was not Christmas but Election Day, because it was celebrated by the lighting of enormous bonfires in the middle of every street in every neighborhood.
A collage of disparate, violently-yoked-together elements, New York was the surreal composition of a mad artist. Perhaps in some instinctive way Adolph Marx understood that and it led to his deliverance. Or else why, as Harpo, would he remember so fondly . . . his watch with no hands . . . his lone ice skate . . . the wedge of outfield grass in the Polo Grounds . . . the old warped harp that had been his grandmother's, standing in a corner as if waiting for him?
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