The Misapprehension Of One Adolph (Harpo) Marx

The classically-trained and symphony-polished,
If someone deigned to listen to their disapprobations,
Would tell all and sundry that he was playing it all wrong;
Indeed, his technique so unsound, his fingering so maladroit
That those who had wrestled with that stringed contraption
Reportedly favored by the angels
For years, indeed decades, at Julliard and Oberlin
Insisted that he couldn’t really play at all
(His opinion of his critics remained unquoted,
Though it was said he tuned his instrument
In such a fashion to ensure that he alone could produce notes from it)
Yet every night, in the middle of another evening of knockabout farce,
He would sit alone, under a single light, and pluck away
While the gathering in the seven-fifty tickets sat rapt,
Commutes from Chappaqua and mortgages in Great Neck
Forgotten for the nonce, wholly transported out of themselves
By the shabby- hatted and unruly-mopped figure before them,
Even the cognoscenti and conservatory-bred
Bewitched in spite of themselves,
Though they regarded the strumming
Much differently than the great unwashed in the stalls
(The author of these anomalous tones, being a reticent sort,
Keeping his opinion of them to himself.)


21 thoughts on “The Misapprehension Of One Adolph (Harpo) Marx

  1. I LOVED this one, W.K.!

    My favorite Marx Brothers movie would be the first one I ever saw, “Horsefeathers”, but running a close second would have to be “Duck Soup”.

    By the way, when you say in this, and I quote: “His opinion of his critics remained unquoted”. Well, THAT’S because he couldn’t speak!

    My favorite of Harpo’s harp scenes in the Marx Brothers movies was the one in which he completely demolishes a piano, a process that seems to take forever, and he uses the strings of the piano as a harp! Anyone happen to know which Marx Brothers movie that came from? I don’t remember which movie.

    By the way, my father was in an amateur production of “Room Service” in 1953 or 1954 in Augusta, Georgia while he was stationed at Camp Gordon outside of Augusta. Who played alongside of him? His best Army pal, (no, really), a guy named Robert Duvall.

    For Duvall, it was the beginning of a great acting career. For my father…….. well, let’s just say he went on to a fine career as a secondary history teacher in the New York City Public School System.


  2. Yeah. I agree. He was very good in “The Great Santini”. The funny thing about Duvall, as my father tells me, is that he comes from a VERY military family. I think he was expected to have a military career and to rise in the ranks like his father and grandfather. But he left the army as a PFC, just as my father did. Neither my father nor Duvall had aspirations of army greatness or heroism. As for my father, he was just happy he wasn’t sent to Korea.


  3. Even all these years later, Harpo can still have that effect. I was watching, I think it was Duck Soup, on TCM about a month ago, when my oldest son came in the room about the time Harpo was playing. He sat right down and listened, then commented about how, “That guy could really play.”

    Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
    Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
    Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
    Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
    Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

  4. You know, Bill (well you know Bill….Met’s fan. Gets giddy even though he should know better), there was, back when the Marx Brothers first hit Broadway, some minor hullabaloo over Harpo’s technique or lack thereof. Some folks have too much time on their hands.

      1. Ugh, turned it off after the third inning. K.C. seems to have sucked up all the magic in this series. Still, I never expected the Mets to win the N.L. Pennant, so everything from here on out is just bonus baseball to me.

  5. This is terrible, not your poem, but yet another gaping hole in my education. I’ve never seen a Marx movie, but I did see Adrian Belew on stage at Shank Hall, some sort of round table discussion with other guitarists when Belew re tuned his guitar and played a sound that caused the other “musicians” to wear an expression of flabbergast. Now I can add Marx brothers and The Great Santini and all the other references here to my winter curriculum.

    1. Steve, Your reference to Adrian Belew had me scrambling around through an old cigar box of receipts, concert and baseball ticket stubs, and other junk. Dumped out at my desk right now are ticket stubs and other detritus of my life: Lucinda Williams, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yes, Frank Zappa, Dire Straits, Rush, The Clash /The Who at Shea Stadium 10/13/82, Laser Zeppelin at the Hayden Planetarium NYC March 9, 1984 (tickets were $5.00!), the Mets playing St. Louis at Shea Stadium on Sat. June 12, 1982 (Section 133, Row 6, Seat 3, a $7.00 ticket), The Alarm, a picture of my first girlfriend (Beverly, age 16), Buddy Guy, Neil Young (my car got towed that day in New Haven), U-2 (speeding ticket in Hartford that day), Jerry Garcia solo (September 13, 1989, Old Orchard Beach, Maine), my son’s Boy Scouts of America badge, Mets playing Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday, April 16, 2000 (Giant Slinky Day!), Genesis, Roger Waters, Portland Sea Dogs pocket schedule for their inaugural season of 1994), The Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, my social security card (so that’s where it’s been!), New Market Battlefield, Antietam Battlefield, Twins vs. Blue Jays in Fort Myers, FL (Spring Training game) March 20, 1997, and…a ticket to see Adrian Belew at Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT on Thursday, September 15th (doors open at 8:00 p.m. No guaranteed seating. Ticket price: $6.50.) Maddeningly, it doesn’t have the year printed on it.
      Thanks for helping make this a completely fun and wasted morning.

        1. Thanks to that, I got curious as to what you meant by “Big Electric Cat”. Turns out it’s a song. I listened to it on You Tube. Boy, that guy Adrian Belew could really play the guitar! And MORE SO! (HIs name reminds me of “Wally Ballou”, the “on the street reporter on the great “Bob and Ray” radio show. If you like great deadpan humor, W.K., you’ve got to listen to Bob and Ray, although I have the feeling that you’ve already heard them.


          1. Wally Ballou interviewing the owner of the Uncomfortable Air Conditioner Company of Berwyn, Illinois (Bob and Ray)—–

      1. I used to play baseball at Hadlock Field with a friend of mine in the cold Portland winter of 1988-1989! (Yes, even disc jockeys at the then #1 rated WPOR-FM do crazy things off the air!) We’d have catches on the snowy, icy outfield at Hadlock Field (which was then used for high school games, both baseball and football, before it was refurbished when the Seadogs came into existence) and we’d fall on our asses! No, we weren’t drunk! (That wouldn’t be too responsible of me to get drunk, being that the one I was having a catch with was my eleven year old little brother, as in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America)!


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