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November 15, 1941 - Image 11

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1941-11-15

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Page Elegen

...by Robert Hemenway

(Mr. Hemenway's essay is of the
type which the Editors wish to en-
courage for Perspectives in the
future. The problen treated here-
that of the comic hero on the modern
screen-suggests a dozen other simi-
lar discussions which would be-of in-
terest to our readers.)
EVERY COMEDIAN wears a mask,
denial-of his seriousness and excuse
for our laughter. And every comedian
unmasked is a preacher, though his
sermon may be on the stupidity of
preaching. The preacher's moral shapes
the comedian's mask - the gags, word-
plays, and intrigues - and is the true
cause of our laughter. Understanding
of the comedian comes not with a des-
cription of his comic method (mask)
but with the definition of that attitude
(moral) which shapes his method. Un-
genial though it must be, such:a defini-
tion of the Marx Brothers' attitude gets
to the heart of their humor in a way
that surface description cannot do.
The comedian as preacher may be
tolerant or critical in attitude, and so
liberal, as Shakespeare, or evangelical,
as Jonson. The attitude implicit in the
comedy of manners, that genre to which
the Marx Brothers' comedy is most
clearly related, is critical. In the comedy
of manners, the artist surveys social
man from some fibed point above,
Ilointing out his foibles, and, perhaps,
the more deep-set faults of his society.
The critical attitude takes color and
individually from the position of this
vantage point, the artist's wish. For it
is the wish for what Is not that engen-
ders the criticism of what is. The qual-
ity of the comedy is determhed by the
artist's idea of the relation between
that wish and reality. Only so long as
the projection of the wish is known to be
and smilingly accepted as impossible is
the criticism comic. Believe it possible
and comedy becomes polemic. Know it
impossible, but refuse to accept that
impossibility,'and comedy becomes bit-
ter, sardonic - as in Gulliver's Travels.
The farther the wish is from reality, the
greater the incongruity, and the closer
comedy is to farce. The nearer the wish'
is to reality, the nibre deliate the crit-
icism, and the nearer comedy is to irony.
The wish in the classical comedy of
Ifoliere and Jonson is for a society not
greatly different from the actual, a soc-
iety where the moral principles by
which men act are more sensible or eq-
uitable. Their comedyis largely ironic
and witty, tending occasionally to the
polemic because a society so little dif-
ferent seems possible.
The wish in the comedyof the Marx
Brothers is for a society different in
kind from the real, one in which ex-
ternal moral principles woIld be no
longer necessary. Their comedy tends
to buffoonery and the uproarious, is
never polemic or bitter because the
impossibility of projecting their wish
is obvious, and because, also, their wish
is in a sense realized. For the Marx
Brothers are the wish incarnate, acting
without reference to moral principle,
themselves the denial of external law.
As criticism, the comedy of the Marx
Brothers is an attack on rigidity in
many of its forms: the rigidity of words
- Groucho's madcap punning; of pro-
priety - Groucho's insolence and Har-
po's amorality; of politics - Chico's
honesty, Groucho's guile; of machines
- Harpo's gadgets; of clothes - the
rapid shifting of uniforms in "Duck
Soup's" closing sequence. As wish, their
comedy is the assertion of the good-

ness and self-sufficiency of flexible hu-
man instinct.
From our point of view their comedy
is anarchic and destructive. The Marx
'Brothers walk into Freedonia, into high
society, into the big store, into the opera,
and at once all order is destroyed. But
from their point of view our society
is fake, illogical, unhealthy; theirs is
the only true order, the logic of untram-
meled individuality. The criticism is
persuasive, for in the comfc arena &.of
their films the individualist wins. Grou-
cho, Chico, and Harpo get what they
want, and their wants are ours - the
blonde, the rich widow, the irresponsi- -
The nature of this "theory" of human
behavior is made clear by their formal
conception of character and plot. The
classic comic character acts always on
some external principle. Character, says
Aristotle, is determined by moral choice;
and that description'implies -a choice
dictated from without (moral) and,
in the good art ,work, a continuity of
choice, and thus consistency of char-
acter. The Marx Brothers' actions, on
the other hand, are determined by no
such outer morality. They act without
regard to propriety, humors, or rules.
So their actions are never predictable
in the sense that Tartuffe's are, because
he is a hypocrite; or Sir Fopling Flut-
ter's are, because he is a dandy. At their
greatest the Marx Brothers are "char-
acterless", in the classical sense, though
there is a decadence,' more evident in
their recent films, in which the Marxes'
known peculiarities are relied upon for
laughs. At its most intense, the comedy
of the Marx Brothers depends not upon
the particular qualities of Groucho,
Chico, and Harpo, but upon what they
have in common - completely unin-
hibited individuality.
This characterlessness of the Marx

Editor...........................................Jay McCormick
Fiction Editor .......................................... Gerald Burns
Lois Welles, Mark Lipper, William Kehoe, Eugene Mandeburg,
Nelson Bentley.
Essay Editor................................. Richard M. Ludwig
Erath Gutekunst, Gerald Schaflander.
Poetry Editor .......... .... ........................... David Stocking
Clarence Foster, Audrey Hirschl, Sam Moon, Donet Sorenson,
John Ragsdale.
Book Review Editor .......... ...................Guy Serge Metraux
George Kerr, Ray Ingham, Robert Hemenway.
Art Editor ....... ................................. Tristan Meinecke
Cliff Graham.
Publications Editor .......................... ...........Carol Bundy
Betty Baer, Lynn Bell, Joan Siegel, Barbara DeFries. Etaoin
Advisory Board:
Arno L. Bader, Herbert Weisinger, J. L. Davis, Morris Greenhut,
Allan Seager, W. H. Auden, Donald Martin, Emil Weddige.

Brothers means the plotlessness of their
plays. Plot in the comedy of manners
is a putting of the character types in
action and conflict; and plot of its
nature must be somewhat formal and
rigid. As there is no continuity of char-
acter in the Marxes' comedy, so there
is no continuity of action. The plot in
"Duck Soup", for instance, is outside
the Marx Brothers' particular actions;
it is a handy peg to hang gags on. Free=
donia is saved, boy gets girl, the circus
finally shows a profit, but it makes no
difference to Groucho, Harpo, and Chi-
co. They walk in at the beginning, at
the end they walk out, without really.
touching the plot, and without the plot
touching them. It is not the plot
which draws their attention, but the

(Continued from Page Ten)

' Virginia Woolf feels:
"Empty, empty, empty; silent, si-
lent, silent. _ The room was a shell,
singing of what was before time was;
a vase stood in the heart of the house,
alabaster, smooth, cold, holding the
still, distilled essence of emptiness,
And she sees:
"There had' always been lilies there,
self-sown from wind-dropped seed,
floating red and white on the green
plates of their leaves. Water, for hun-
dreds of year, had silted down into the
hollow, and lay there four or five feet
deep over a black cushion of mud.
Under the thick plate of green water,
glazed in their self-centered world,
fish swam-gold, splashed with white,
streaked with black or silver. Silently -
they maneuvered in their water world,
poised in the blue patch made by the
sky, or shot silently to the edge where
the grass, trembling, made a fringe of
nodding shadow. On the water-pave-
ment spiders printed their delicate
feet. A grain fell, and spiralled down;
a petal fell, filled and sank."
But passages such as these come in-
frequently among the continuouos subtle
flashes that reveal the mean and feeble,
the wishing but resentful, the semicon-
scious people who can desire but never
"Between The Acts" is the story of a
pageant; and the most absurd and es-
sentially meaningless of these is Life.

The characters, popping in and out
like stray thoughts, are meant to illus-
trate the chaos and confusion and man-
gled poignancy of human feelings; they
are stray weak embodiments of desire,
sterile pieces of flesh endowed with
longing, and they grope about in path-
etic, clownish futility, and weep for no
reason and laugh the laugh of bitter-
ness; and though secretly they dream
of lovely things, their deeds have hate
and pompousness, treachery and pre-
tense. Among beautiful things they
plant their pettiness and dramatize it
as noble. And they cling with despera-
tion to their dreams.
So, Virginia Woolf has pictured life.
Of course it is a gorgeous tragic fllusion.
Of course the mind alone lends loveliness
to mortal things.
But the frustration that threads our
daily living is the very, thing that calls
for the birth of art, imploring a creation
of symmetry and ordered magic: we
need books written the way Virginia
Woolf writes an occasional paragraph:
for we have seen enough of jumbled life.
The path of the fragmentary and the
disjointed is the path to suicide: we
must have clarity and coherent strength
to find meaning in the continuance of
life. Meanwhile the world still waits
for a work of classic simplicity, and the
minor writers go on quietly drowning
theselves in the waters of their mis-
--Nelson Bentley

rigidity of the plot World.
The wish for a life without rules is
every man's wish, and the criticism of
rigidity in modern life is one that many
have made. Laughter at the Marx
Brothers reflects our vicarious grati-
fication of the wish to escape anxiety
in flexible existence. The Marxes' crit-
icism is incomplete, for freedom and
flexibility can never be total as they
would lhave it be. There must be com-
promise with cultural norms and social
exigency; the compromise may be made
less painful and human actions more
flexible eventually by altering the norms
and immediately by easing the pain of
the individual compromise. Because the
ltfarx Brothers will not compromise, they
are failures; they- remain always out-
casts in the plotted-out Freedonian
world. They are free from pain, as
we could not-be, only because they are
asocial, complete in themselves, never
lonely. Their comedy is saved from
the : sentimental pandering wish satis-
faction of the True Story romance by
our clear realization that their world is
an impossible one. Their comedy is
saved from tragedy only by their denial
of the actual consequences of their an-
archic solution.
(Continued from Page Five)
beers The combination is hard to sur-
The list, of course, is incomplete. It
has to be. One cannot recount two hun-
dred years of 'cookery in a few short
pages. If I have done no more than in-
troduce the subject, mention the most
unusual and most appetizing examples,
my effort has not been in vain. Penn-
sylvania Dutch food has not always been
a matter of pride. There was a time
when Pennsylvania Dutch was a subject
for ridicule, and the dishes which we
nowenjoy were replaced by a new fare
for a 'smarter' generation. But (once
again, the simple, wholesome foods of
our grandmothers and great-grand-
mothers have risen in popularity among
our people and are considered in their
true -light by the rest of America. May
they continue to be always a'part of
Pennsylvania Dutch folklife.

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