Up from Nothing to a State of Extreme Poverty
People have often tried to assert their identities through their professions. The Marx Brothers play upon this idea to show the fragility of type of assertion, but they also try to work within the dynamic.
In Animal Crackers, the brothers clearly show us how job titles do not correlate to identity. Groucho shows up as a great African hunter and explorer, Captain Spaulding, but between his unlikely attire and his facetious story-telling ("One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."), we have little reason to believe he is an explorer. That the other characters believe this identity does not make it so. These people merely fall for the trappings of a profession--his a pith helmet (always a hat involved) and his entourage of African natives (whom he treats as cabbies). Chico claims to be a musician, but according to his statements, he makes more money by not playing music. Harpo plays the Professor, but he seems to research only fleeing blondes and kitchen utensils. His professorial clothes, as if in protest, quickly come off, revealing something far less academic.
Having shown that titles and signs do not create a profession or an identity, the Marxes move on to show the performative nature of identity as tied to jobs. One is what one does. Judith Butler, in speaking about gender, says that identity is "performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express."1 Action does not represent an idenity; instead, it creates it. For example, in Monkey Business, one must perform the role of a gangster to be a gangster. Groucho gets a job with Alky Briggs when he displays his fearlessness. Chico and Harpo must perform toughness in order to be hired as bodyguards. They're so certain of their ability to perform this role, that when they end up guarding the wrong body, they assume that their boss has simply disguised himself.
In A Day at the Races, Groucho tries to pass as a doctor despite actually being a veterinarian. However, he best performs the role of a vet, even to the point of giving horse pills to his human patient Mrs. Upjohn. Eventually challenged to do a real doctor's examination, Groucho fails miserably and must escape on horseback (as befits a vet). Groucho's identity is tied not to the job he holds (doctor), but to the role he performs (veterinarian). These events may also remind us of Groucho's line in Monkey Business: "Sure I'm a doctor. Where's the horse?"
Likewise, Chico and Harpo attempt to disguise themselves as barbers in Monkey Business. Their pursuer falls for the disguise (since the Marxes' foils always succumb to the most basic tricks of signification). As many characters in these films appear as sleepwalkers in life, this man literally falls asleep when he is satisfied with the signs the brothers show him. However, Chico and Harpo cannot adequately perform this role, eventually cutting off "one-a snoop too much." They must escape from their own disguise before they lose sense of their identity. Reinforcing the connection between performance and identity, we later see the real barber paid for his actions. When the Marxes attempt to leave the ship in this movie, they steal Maurice Chevalier's passport. Zeppo correctly points out that it will not be enough to look like Chevalier, they must be able to sing like him. The first three of them fail miserably in this attempt, but Harpo nearly succeeds. Despite the fact that he looks nothing like Chevalier, the officers are almost willing to let him pass because he performs like the singer (at least until his phonograph winds down).
In A Night at the Opera, the three brothers and their pal Baroni find themselves out of work, and with nothing to perform. This moment represents the peak of Marxian existential anguish. With no work, and no roles to play, these men have no identity. To change things around, the four of them stage (or un-stage) a crazed attack on the opera. By dropping mis-matching scenery across the stage, the brothers show the arbitrary nature of signs. By destroying the signs of the opera and generally creating chaos, the brothers force the people around them to wake up. In the midst of the disorder, Baroni performs his role as opera singer, and wins his lover and his job. The Marxes can also resume their job as agents (although how well they perform this job can be debated).
Ultimately, we see that a performative approach to self-actualization gives one's identity a certain amount of stability. When this performance is tied to a profession, the tenuous nature of identity can be revealed simply through the loss of a job. However, through role performance, one can maintain identity regardless of profession (sometimes unintentionally, such as when Groucho's Dr. Hackenbush remains a veterinarian). By valuing performance over signs, one can gain some security in identity.
11Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991: 13-31, p. 24.