My Watch Has Stopped
At this point, we may suspect that Groucho is only slightly better off
than the supporting characters in his films. He seems conscious of the
problematics of identity, but unable to work through them. He seems
unable to perform his identity, and relies heavily on signs. Even in real
life, his signs seem a part of him. Once on a celebrity tour, the crowd
did not recognize him without the mustache. As soon as he stuck it on,
they gave him big cheer.1 However, we mislead ourselves if we
view Groucho in this light. Groucho, in fact, realizes the silliness of
visual cues of identity. If he does not, we cannot account for his
constantly changing uniforms during the war in Duck Soup.
Furthermore, if identity largely depends of performance,
then we can recognize that Groucho in truth has taken on the position of
Seeing Groucho as the traditional fool allows us to reconceive our
conception of his identity. Willeford points out that the identity of a
fool is very unstable and fluid.2 This fluidity provides the
fool with a variety of advantages. First, he can engage in perceptive,
but temporary, parody, such as Groucho's parody Strange Interlude
in Animal Crackers. The flexibility of identity also allows him to
point to society's foolishness by simultaneously engaging it and
reflecting it. By concealing his own understanding of self, Groucho
reveals the tenuous nature of the identity of others.
Groucho, however, does not represent a true archetype. The typical
fool is a person of below average standing in the community who somehow
makes deeper comments about society.3 The fool's
primary function is to be a fool. Groucho, on the other
hand, often starts in a superior position in his movies, such as a heroic
explorer, a national leader, or a college president. Even when not
situated highly in
society, he always seems to be at an advantage. From these positions, he
chooses to perform the role of the fool, idiosyncratically expressing his
Finally, we get from these films a chance to reveal the nature of
identity. The characters do not
always resolve their problems of
self-discovery, but they show us ways to do so. The Marxes point out the
difficulties of using visual signs to create, maintain, and display
identity. They point, instead, to the possibilities of self-actualization
through performance. In their behavior, they point to problems in the
larger society, and prod us towards self-reflection.
A Day at the Races
Steinburg: May I say I've seen quicker examinations.
Hackenbush: Maybe, but you'll never see a slipperier one.
This website has been designed with the intent of physically
representing this identity dynamic. The front page features seven signs
that each reveal one aspect of this examination. The signs, and each page
individually, do little to create a sense of intellectual identity. Only
by removing the signs, and plunging through several layers, do we arrive
at an understanding of how to create identity. The performance of
reading and web-navigating create a sense of being for the page, and
hopefully allow for discovery.
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1The Unknown Marx Brothers. Dir. David Leaf and John
Scheinfeld. DVD. Fox Lorber Associates Inc., 1993.
2Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in
Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern University Press,
1969, p. 140.
3Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary
History. London: Faber and Faber, 1935, p. xi.