Groucho Marx: The Comedy Of Existence
Yale University Press, London
Pub Date: Feb 25 2016
Lee Siegel’s Groucho Marx: The Comedy Of Existence is a change from the usual books about either Groucho or the Marx Brothers in that it seeks to analyse just what lay behind the comedy, the performance. In some ways it is like that moment at school where you are forced to answer the question of why this or that poet used x word at the end of Y sentence in a poem. You know that the poet never revealed why, but someone is about tell you the answer you’re about to give is wrong, because a couple of experts have written a thesis and decided they know better.
So we discuss whether of not Groucho and indeed the Marx Bros were misogynists , bullies (their upbringing created brother who had a natural contempt for both power and the powerless) , and nihilistic performers extraordinaire: “It is a nihilism constructed out of countless fragments of mutually contradicting truths that amount to no stable meaning”
Seigel is interesting on the misogyny question. He writes: “There is another dimension to Groucho’s misogyny. He makes certain that it is an expression of male weakness, not male strength.” But surely misogyny is already , in its essence, an expression of male weakness?
We discuss how much the characters we saw up on the big screen were essentially exactly who Groucho, Harpo and Chico were off-screen.
There are many elements to like in the book. His passages on the letter exchanges and meetings with TS Eliot , are the most revealing and well observed yet written on that topic, and there are a few more such delights. However, the book is bogged down by a ‘I’m an expert’ tone that eventual left me glad the book was not longer. I know Seigel won’t mind me saying this, as in his note on sources he is fairly dismissive with his comments on others’ work, describing one ‘refreshing attempt’ biog as failed because, ‘it too succumbs to its subjects’ larger-than-life aura, as well as floundering in a sea of irrelevant facts and dubious connections’
In the end this is an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying read, which will appeal and/or annoy Marx aficionados, and probably bore all others.