Introduction

As the title indicates, this dissertation is about power, humour and the Marx Brothers. More specifically, it aims to show how a significant part of the Marx Brothers’ humour is aimed at disturbing dominant discourse, that is, how they engage in class struggle through humour. In order to do this the dissertation is in two parts, the first being ‘Contextualisation’, the second ‘Exemplification’.

Part One, ‘Contextualisation’, will give the background to the main themes – power, humour and The Marx Brothers. Power will be seen in terms of institutions, ideology and dominant discourse and the description here draws heavily on the work of the critical linguist Fairclough (1989). Further comment is added concerning age, sex and race. Humour will be looked at from three perspectives: linguistic, psychological and sociological, and, it is hoped, the inextricable links between these disciplines will be shown. In discussing the Marx Brothers the main characteristics of their linguistic repertoire will be focused upon to indicate how and with what they engage in the power struggles around the discourse in institutions.

Part Two, ‘Exemplification’, will detail these struggles by selecting three important institutions from social life, drawing up a general model of discourse for each, and demonstrating how these are deliberately disturbed by the Marx Brothers in a struggle for power. These three areas are: the standard language and common sense (for the purpose of this dissertation these are seen as an ‘institution’), medicine, and law. In other words, areas of social life common to everyone living in developed societies.

Some additional comments. The focus of this dissertation is, repeat, the power struggles around discourses in institutions, which can be seen as a form of class struggle. Space does not allow the consideration of other power struggles…[EDIT]… Further, though much inspiration for this study comes from critical linguistics such as Fairclough, Fowler, Kress etc., this work does not claim to be a work of critical linguistics as its main analysis is not of natural speech situations (social life) but of scripted discourse (art). This is not to say that art has no place in social life it is merely to indicate where most of the emphasis of this study lies.
Quotes from the film scripts are attributed to the original screenplay writers and are dated according to the year of the publication of the book containing the script, not the year of the release of the film. This latter will be found after the initial citation of the film title. (The quote from ‘Animal Crackers’ excepted. This is taken from a secondary source and is so attributed.) Quotes from the radio plays are attributed to the editor of the book of scripts and not the original scriptwriters and dated according to the year of book publication not the year of the broadcast of the shows. This latter is given after the show’s episode number.

Finally, a word about time and place. Although more than half a century has elapsed since the Marx Brothers’ films were first shown, and this large time span might seem to invalidate observations equating social relations then and now, it is here contended that in the intervening years their has been no significant changes in the relations within the institutional frameworks specifically discussed in this dissertation. Also, though many of the linguistic sources used for this work refer to the UK and the Marx Brothers’ works all take place in the US, the dissimilarities between the UK and the US, both being English-speaking developed societies, are not considered significant.