Artaud on the Marx Brothers

By Antonin Artaud

The first film with the Marx Brothers that we saw over here was Animal Crackers which, although it had been universally acclaimed as being something out of the ordinary, seemed to me to be a device that used the screen to generate firstly a special form of magic which is unattainable in conventional relationships between words and images, and secondly, albeit in a characterised form, a certain level of poetry which is detached from the spirit and which could be described as surrealism. Animal Crackers had all of that.

This kind of magic is very difficult to explain, mainly because it is not inherently bound up in the cinema. But neither is it part of the theatre and for this reason a possible explanation lies within certain successful surrealistic poems. The poetic quality of a film such as Animal Crackers could satisfy the definition of humour if this word had not long lost its sense of integral liberation and detachment from all reality in the mind.

In order to understand the powerful, total, definitive and absolute originality (and this is not an exaggeration, merely my attempt at a definition – although my enthusiasm may carry me away!) of films like Animal Crackers and in some parts (above all towards the end) Monkey Business, we have to admit that the humour also includes a certain amount of anxiety – even tragedy – and fatality (neither happy nor unhappy but very awkward to formulate), which runs through it like the revelation of a terrible affliction across the profile of absolute beauty.

In Monkey Business we again have the Marx Brothers, all with their own individual characters, brimming with confidence and manifestly ready to do battle with the rest of the world, except that whereas in Animal Crackers each character seems to degenerate progressively, we see from the start their clowning antics and cavortings, some of which are genuinely very funny, and it is only towards the end that things get more serious, with objects, animals, noises, the master and his servants, the host and his guests, all becoming more and more frenzied, frantic and rebellious and accompanied by a rapturous and sometimes lucid commentary from one of the brothers, carried away by the mood that is generated as the film progresses. This is a commentary that seems to be both astounded and transitory. Nothing is as hallucinating and at the same time as terrible as this kind of manhunt, as this battle between the rivals, as this pursuit into a cow-shed or a barn festooned with spiders’ webs, while men, women and beasts all act out their parts and find themselves surrounded by a pile of miscellaneous objects, whose respective movements or noises will all turn out to be relevant.

And where in Animal Crackers a woman is bowled over, head over heels, onto a sofa, revealing for a split second all we want to see, where in a dance-hall a man launches himself onto a woman, executes a number of dance steps with her and then beats out the rhythm on her bottom, we see evidence of a kind of intellectual liberty, where subconsciously each character, constrained by convention and custom, acts out his – and also our – revenge. In Monkey Business, a fugitive throws himself onto a beautiful woman that he has met and dances with her poetically demonstrating the charm and grace of attitudes. Here the spiritual claim seems to be twofold emphasising all that is poetic and even revolutionary in the antics of the Marx Brothers.

But the music to which the couple, the fugitive and the beautiful woman, are dancing is both nostalgic and haunting, a music of deliverance, with a subtle hint of the dangerous side of these humorous antics, whereas when the poetic spirit emerges, a sense of seething anarchy and a total lack of reality are perceived through the poetry.

If the Americans, who have exemplified this genre of film, want to regard these films purely as comedies and are content to stay within the facile and comic bounds of the definition of humour, so be it, but that should not prevent us from considering the climax of Monkey Business as a hymn to anarchy and full-scale revolution – a climax that puts the bleating of a calf on the same intellectual level with the same level of agony as the anguished scream of a terrified woman – this climax, where in the gloom of a filthy barn, two hired hands groping the bare shoulders of their master’s daughter, treating the distraught master as their equal – all of this against the riotous cavortings (even this is intellectual) of the Marx Brothers. But the triumph of all this lies in the visual and audible exaltation of these shadowy events, in the degree of vibration that they attain and in the powerful combination of anxieties that they project into the mind.