Hello, I Must Be Going

Identities maintain integrity minimally enough without interference from the Marx Brothers. The brothers disorder and deconstruct identity in every way they can think of. For example, in Animal Crackers, Groucho (as Captain Spaulding) confuses Chico's character Ravelli for Ravelli, and in doing so effectively erases him. Interestingly, security of identity serves as a source of power in the fool-foil relationship.

The image above shows the perfect representation of the Marxes' search for self. They lean above a mirror--everyone needs a mirror for self-examination--but they don't look into it. A mirror can only show us the surface signs of identity, and we tend to easily construct and display something that passes for ourselves based on these superficial signifiers.
Animal Crackers
Spaulding: Say, I used to know a fellow, looked exactly like you, by the name of...ah...Emanuel Ravelli. Are you his brother?

Ravelli: I'm Emanuel Ravelli.

Spaulding: You're Emanuel Ravelli?

Ravelli: I'm Emanuel Ravelli.

Spaulding: Well, no wonder you look like him...But I still insist, there is a resemblance.

Ravelli: Ha, ha, ha, ha...hey, he thinks I look alike.

Spaulding: Well, if you do it's a tough break for both of you.
The Marxes, however, completely obliterate these signs by playing with everything from hats to scenery. Furthermore, as viewers of Duck Soup know, mirrors can be misleading (especially when they aren't even there). In these films, characters do not find their most solid identities through gazing into a mirror in careful introspection, which could easily lead to disorder. The mirror itself presents because of its basic signs, but introspection can be dizzying, especially when to someone who already lacks a firm sense of identity. With no point to start from, a search for identity can go off in unstable, meaningless directions. As we will see, identity does not develop through carefully looking at one's self, but, at least in part, through actually performing an identity role.

In calling attention to the arbitrary nature of signs, the Marx Brothers shake the foundations of socially constructed identity. The codes people use to recognize each other are suddenly found meaningless, and we are called to re-examine our identities. You can see in the image to the right that Harpo passes in the clothes of an opera singer, but he still can't sing. The mirror reflects the signs of an identity, but the signs mislead. If anyone can display the signs of a singer, who is really a singer?

The answer comes, in part through the concept of role performance. Identity in these films becomes performative, as what someone does helps create and maintain who someone is. However, even this ground is sandy. When a Marx cannot truly perform a role, he can often fake it enough (or completely ignore it enough) to get by, and society is willing to accept this trickery as long as the basic coding of identity remains unbroken. The Marxes, though, usually get pleasure out of disrupting this coding system, and identity again crumbles. The gulls almost always remain oblivious to this dynamic, but the audience can witness it. Some viewers, of course, will not realize how these problems apply to them, but much of our laughter stems from recognizing a truth about ourselves in what we see. Much like the traditional fool, the Marx Brothers goad us into thinking about ourselves.

By revealing the functions of both superficial signifiers and role-specific actions in identity construction, these films allow us to understand how a search for identity would take place. In part, it begins by not searching--by not looking into the mirror. On the homepage, You will find examinations of the problematics of identity construction behind the outer ring of icons. After viewing these pages, click on the middle icon to find out how we can use the chaos to begin to rebuild identity.