When a Review Shapes a Career

When artists – whether performing, visual, or literary —  release their work into the world they’re de facto inviting the world to express an opinion. However, no matter how personally validating a leading role, or a gallery showing, or a published book might be, exposing your work to potential attack is still difficult, frightening, and sometimes so disheartening it can derail an entire career.

Consider Harpo Marx, the silent Marx brother, arguably one of the most gifted physical comedians in stage and film history.

In the days when the Marx Brothers played the vaudeville circuit, audience disapprobation could be quite physical (and often disgustingly smelly) in the form of objects launched at the stage. Of course, the Marx Brothers were just as likely to fling those objects back. W.C Fields, who toured the same circuit with his juggling act, claimed nobody could follow the Marx Brothers except trained seals, because they (the brothers, not the seals) tore up the stage.

Harpo Marx had no trouble with the rotten produce or the odd stream of tobacco juice. Ironically, it was words that hurt him the most, and catapulted him into a career using no words whatsoever.

When the Marx Brothers first took their act on the road, Harpo still spoke lines. However, he had a very thick New York accent. The character he portrayed in their act at the time was supposed to be an Irish immigrant.  As Harpo related in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, they were still playing one-night stands in the midwest when a critic in Champaign, Illinois, reviewed the act and said that while Harpo’s character, Patsy Branigan, was fine in pantomime, once he spoke, the notion he was Irish was ruined.

Hurt, Harpo declared he’d never speak onstage again. When his formidable mother, Minnie Marx, the driving force behind putting her sons onstage, didn’t argue, he realized he’d been terrible the entire time.

Harpo knew he could never match Groucho’s razor wit, nor Chico’s glibness. Since he couldn’t hope to outtalk his brothers, he settled for upstaging them for the rest of their lives.


(In this clip from A Day at the Races, Harpo has just overheard a plot against Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, played by Groucho.)

Before the advent of widespread social media, the way a civilized audience displayed their sentiment was simply not to buy – the ticket, the painting, the book. Things are different now. Now, anyone with an internet connection can express an opinion about everything from politics to the latest viral cat video. This wild and woolly virtual stage is more akin to those early vaudeville days, when audience feedback was immediate and visceral — pelting acts they disliked with garbage, or, by their applause, giving popular acts the chance at an extended run.

But what isn’t different is the hurt the artist feels at harsh words. We all have to accept criticism – and some of us do it with more grace than others – but the feelings of rejection, the same ones that prompted Harpo to become a silent comedian, are still there.

We can only hope the words we choose to take to heart will result in success even a fraction as great.