Review: Groucho Marx:The Comedy of Existence

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By Lee Siegel

Yale University Press, £16.99

Despite the fact that Groucho Marx appears in Yale's Jewish Lives series, it is far from being a conventional biography. If it's the facts you're after, the Das Kapital of Marxist studies remains Simon Louvish's Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers.

What Lee Siegel has preferred to do is try to write "what you might call a biocommentary, a book that weaves the outward facts of Groucho's life into and through a story about the inward facts of Groucho's life". Siegel adds that these "inward facts" are sometimes related to the "spiritual evolution of Jewish humour itself", so that becomes a part of Groucho's story, too.

It begins in 179 East 93rd Street, New York, teeming home of Frenchy and Minnie Marx. Siegel has a thing about ineffectual Jewish fathers, starting way back with Abraham, bullied by God into sacrificing Isaac. And Frenchy, according to Siegel, was a chip off the old block. Of course, he didn't attempt to slaughter his sons, but he was a lousy tailor. This didn't make Groucho (real name Julius) want to kill him, but it did diminish his respect. Nor did he want to sleep with his mother, though a word of encouragement would have been appreciated.

This is not the full Oedipus, then, but a wholesale version. Siegel mentions that Freud, the inventor of the Complex, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, witnessed his own father's unavenged humiliation at the hands of antisemites. You get the drift. Siegel sees the origins of Groucho's humour in a family home ruled by an impotent king, bound to wound the psyche of the more sensitive, and Groucho - contrary to all expectations - was one.

The art of examining the wounded psyche is, of course, psychoanalysis, and Siegel has decided to practise that art upon his subject, if only at one remove. In the absence of Groucho's actual presence, his screen persona is summoned as his understudy. This method affords valuable insight into the book's sub-title: "the comedy of existence".

At the same time, this exclusive focus on Groucho's interior geography discounts another important influence upon Groucho and his brothers: America. Ernest Hemingway maintained the following: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." It is, if you ask me, also one of the Marx Bros's inspirations. The dumb daughter of Jim, the runaway slave, being (like Harpo, generations later) the only one not corrupted by logorrhoea and lies.

As the book proceeds, the analyst professes himself a little troubled by what he regards as Groucho's misogyny and, ungendered, cruelty. Though he does praise his subject for always saying what he feels, not what he ought to say, and singles out Lenny Bruce as Groucho's only true successor.

Comedy is heartless, for sure, but it also provokes humanity's secret weapon. Siegel doesn't quote the line, but Groucho once said: "The first thing which disappears when men are turning a country into a totalitarian state is comedy and comics." Then he added: "Because we are laughed at, I don't think people really understand how essential we are to their sanity." An effect achieved by Groucho, according to Siegel, if not at the cost, then at least at the risk of his own.

Siegel's study is a contentious but always stimulating addition to the surprisingly small library of Marx Bros studies. And who can dispute its closing sentiment:

"Finally, and most important, are the priceless films… His performances on screen are Groucho's fullest disclosure of who he really was. They are the biographical gold."

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