3.3 Harpo

Harpo’s role is essentially that of the speechless fool. Boston (1974) makes the significant point that as he never spoke and had a wildly uncontrollable character, Harpo helped the Marx Brothers bridge the gap between the then recently deceased silent comedy, which was almost entirely visual, and the infant medium of sound comedy, which was almost entirely verbal (p.143). Boston further offers the following description of him, which recalls the comments of Schulz in the conclusion to the discussion of humour (2.3), comments which reflected on the strains between man-the-animal and man-the-citizen. Harpo and his behaviour would seem to personify this conflict:

In Freudian terms Harpo is pure libido, with no Super-Ego to check his activities. If he sees a girl he instantly gives chase. His huge scissors cut off ties, hat-brims, coat-tails, skirts, and beards, whilst his omnivorous appetite allows him to eat buttons, telephones, ties, and cigars with relish.

Harpo’s complete lack of socialisation and his ability to associate more easily with animals (in ‘Duck Soup’ he sleeps with a horse, in ‘Monkey Business’ a frog lives in his hat, in ‘At the Circus’ he consorts with a variety of animals), leads Boston to believe he comes ‘from a time before the invention of language, when people communicated with squeals and grunts or the other noises that Harpo is able to whistle or hoot’ (p.144).

Esslin (1968) also traces the roots of Harpo’s humour a long way back in time, but only as far as classical times rather than those of prehistory. Drawing on Reich’s (1903) history of mime, he notes that in the mime-play of antiquity the clown appears as the moros or stupidus; his absurd behaviour arises from his inability to understand the simplest logical relations (p.320). Such a role and such behaviour allow him to break the rules and explore the limits of the possible (Boston p.31) and also to flaunt personal defects that otherwise would be severely penalising (Wilson 1979:227).

Being speechless, Harpo communicates via paralanguage, kinesics, and proxemics, and for Poyatos (1983) these are two-thirds of the ‘basic triple structure’ of interpersonal communication. This compromises: language itself, paralanguage, and kinesics (proxemics can be subsumed under kinesics). Payatos defines paralanguage as ‘a series of vocal/nasal voice modification and independent sounds and meaningful silences’ (Harpo’s sounds usually come from whistling or a horn), kinesics as ‘facial, manual and bodily gestures, gaze activities, manners, postures, postural shifts and stills’ (both page 129), and proxemics as ‘people’s conception, use and structuralisation of space, from their built or natural surrounding to the distances consciously or unconsciously maintained in personal interaction’ (Note 3, p.139). In other words, the full range of nonverbal means used by the clown, mime, and fool for humorous ends.

In the example used here to illustrate these points, which comes from the film ‘A Day at the Races’ (1937), Harpo’s nonverbal skills can be seen working in harmony with Chico’s verbal skills to fend off the threat of a creditor. They are part-owners of a race horse and owe the stable owner money for horse feed. The sheriff is corrupt and is in the pay of the shady entrepreneur who owns the stables. Here he is demanding payment of their debt. Chico has just given him five dollars, which is all he has. It is important to note that Chico is standing in front of the sheriff and Harpo behind.

(1) Sheriff: Five dollars! [He pockets it.] That’s not enough.[Harpo picks the sheriff’s pocket and hands the five dollar bill back to Chico behind the sheriff’s back.] Come on.
(2) Chico: All right,all right. I got some here. There you are. [He hands back the same five dollar bill.]
(3) Sheriff: That makes ten. [He pockets it but keeps his hand in his pocket. Harpo tickles his neck with a piece of straw.] Come on, come on! [He scratches his neck.]
(4) Chico: All right, don’t hurry . I got it some place. I know it’s some place. [While the sheriff is scratching Harpo takes the bill from the sheriff’s pocket and hands it back to Chico.] There I knew it was some place. [He hands back the five to the sheriff.]
(5) Sheriff: Well, that’s fifteen. [He puts the bill in his waistcoat pocket.] Have you got any more? [Harpo reaches into the sheriff’s pants pocket but the bill is not there. He digs deeper and deeper, surprised there is no money.] Hey, what are you doing there! [Harpo goes limp, his hand so deeply in the sheriff’s pants pocket that he pulls out a sock. The sheriff lifts his pants leg, looks at his bare ankle and chases Harpo.] Hey come back here!
(Pirosh and Seaton 1972:145-6)

While Chico stalls verbally (2 and 4) Harpo contravenes the rules of American proxemics (and also breaks the law of the land) by picking the sheriff’s pocket. (Hymes (1972) contrasts American and Arabic personal proximity in conversation, where the latter is much closer than the former). When the sheriff keeps his hand in his pocket, Harpo reverts to a tactile distraction (the straw). However, things go awry when the sheriff changes pockets and Harpo is found out, but not before he has, typically, explored the limits of the possible by pick-pocketing the sheriff’s sock. Once again the power differentials are to be noted. The sheriff is a creditor, the Marxes debtors; he is a law enforcement officer, they are members of the public. These factors do not intimidate them in the slightest and they show great temerity in excecuting their neat verbal and nonverbal trick on their supposed social superior.
To conclude this section on the Marx Brothers a quote from Esslin is appropriate:

With the speed of their reaction...Harpo’s speechlessness and the wild surrealism of their dialogue, the Marx Brothers clearly bridge the gap between the commedia del’arte and vaudeville on the one hand, and the Theatre of the Absurd on the other...the Marx Brothers are clearly recognisable representatives of the ancient and highly skilled tribe of itinerant clowns.
(1968: 236)