by Hector Arce
Putnam’s, 541 pp., $14.95
Borges once suggested that writers create their own predecessors, and T.S. Eliot, a long-time admirer of Groucho Marx, had earlier said much the same thing. The suggestion certainly holds for comedians too. Tristram Shandy may now seem rather heavily influenced by Duck Soup, and there are interchanges in Dickens which plainly owe a good deal to A Day at the Races. Consider the unlettered Mr. Boffin’s attempt, in Our Mutual Friend, to contract the one-legged Silas Wegg as a reader. Mr. Boffin’s price is half a crown a week, and Wegg puts on a grand show of magnanimity. “Mr. Boffin,” he says, “I never bargain.” Boffin, impressed, says, “So I should have thought of you,” and Wegg continues:
“No, sir. I never did ‘aggle and I never will ‘aggle. Consequently I meet you at once, free and fair, with—done, for double the money!”
It is, I think, the combination of swindle and non sequitur that brings the Marx Brothers to mind here. In A Night at the Opera, for instance, Chico and Groucho arrange to bring an Italian tenor to New York (“Do you know that America is waiting to hear him sing?” Groucho says. “Well, he can sing loud,” Chico says, “but he can’t sing that loud”). His salary will be $1,000 a night, but Groucho feels he is entitled to a small profit himself, so the singer will actually receive $10. Groucho takes 10 percent of that for negotiating the deal, and Chico gets 10 percent for being the singer’s manager. The singer sends $5 home to his mother. And then of course, Groucho says, there are taxes: income, federal, state, city, street, and sewer. Chico says, “How much does this come to?” and Groucho produces his immortal assessment: “I figure if he doesn’t sing too often he can break even.”
The Marx Brothers also represented anarchy and mischief, and the ordinary world crumbled before them. They would not take no (or yes or even maybe) for an answer, and when their timing was right they seemed absolutely unstoppable. Harpo would just go on forever goosing girls, tooting his hooter, and literalizing every metaphor; Chico would never cease making improbable deals and terrible jokes (“Sure I know what an auction is. I come from Italy across the Atlantic auction”); and Groucho would continue to silence the spluttering representatives of reason:
Groucho: And now, gentlemen, we’ve got to start looking for a new Treasurer.
Minister: But you appointed one last week.
Groucho: That’s the one I’m looking for.
They were aging youngsters who would not grow up, and it is fitting that Groucho should have been, all his life, a fan of Lewis Carroll’s. It is fitting in another way that in their boyhood, as Hector Arce reports in Groucho, the brothers should have made a practice of occupying benches in Central Park and then charging courting couples 10 cents for the use of them: done, for …