In 2003 Marcel Marceau went through the motions in the United States for nearly the last time. After 48 years of touring almost annually in the country that sealed his reputation as the world’s greatest mime—even before his native France recognized that “le mime Marceau” was without living equal—the renowned performer, at the age of 80, visited some 20 U.S. cities in what were to be his some of his final American appearances. (His last U.S. visit was a 2004 stint at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.) In 2007, on the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar, Marceau died, and with him died his signature character Bip—the silent, white-faced stage persona with woebegone eyes, striped pullover, baggy pants and red-flower-trimmed stovepipe hat. “Born in the imagination of my childhood,” Marceau wrote, “Bip is a romantic and burlesque hero of our time. His gaze is turned not only towards heaven, but into the hearts of men.”
In the ephemeral and often sectarian world of the movement theatre, when the apex of a certain aesthetic style and the concrete philosophies of a powerful new school become so inextricably linked to the fame of its greatest proponents, it is only natural to ask whether it may be possible for this artistic legacy to live on and to grow and flourish to serve future generations. That question became especially acute for Marceau in the last years of his life. In addition to promoting his own school in Paris, which was forced to close in 2005 after the city government withdrew its funding, he had established a foundation to promote the art of mime in the United States. “I understand that local politics were involved,” says the producer Tony Micocci, who represented and worked closely with Marceau in the U.S. and internationally for the last decade of his career. “Marcel was touring at the crucial moment when a personal appeal to the right people might have made a difference. It was all very sad and hurt him deeply. He was very proud of the school and loved to teach.”
Marceau hoped that he had paved the way for other mimes in America. In my two conversations with Marceau (in 2000 and 2003, both in New York City), he singled out some of his disciples and former students: Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus; Chuck Hudson, a theatre and opera director, former artistic director of the Immediate Theatre in Seattle and now artistic associate of La Lingua della Lirica, an intensive summer training program for opera singers in Italy; Samuel Avital, founder and director of Le Centre du Silence Mime School in Boulder, Colo.; and Gregg Goldston, founder of the Goldston & Johnson School for Mimes, an intensive summer program, and founder/director of the Invisible People, a seven-member touring company. Other Marceau-trained performers and teachers include Kirsten Stephens and Dean Hatton, who recently concocted Silent Poetry, a tribute to the maestro; Mark Jaster, Marceau’s former teaching assistant who founded with Sabrina Mandell the Happenstance Theater in Rockville, Md.; Robert Rivest, who in 2001 founded the Rivest School of Mime Theater in Springfield, Mass.; and the incomparable actor Bill Bowers, who presently teaches at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, Paper Mill Playhouse and VSA Very Special Arts.
In 2000, Marceau allowed the ensemble members and graduates of his Paris-based troupe, la Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame Marcel Marceau, to shine in a U.S. tour of The Bowler Hat, a tragicomic fable which did not involve Bip as a character. Subtitled “The Strange Tale of Jonathan Bowler,” this whimsical work was an homage to Charlie Chaplin and featured Marceau as Jonathan, a nondescript clerk at the London treasury department during the years between World Wars I and II. Dressed in the rigid and respectable attire of an Everyman (a dark suit and bowler hat), the sad-eyed Jonathan visits a local pub, where he madly falls for a girl, and buys a striking Spanish-style sombrero to impress her. Endless grief falls upon Jonathan when he realizes that the bowler hat won’t come off his head; the situation, which echoes Marceau’s mime adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, sets the stage for surrealistic dream sequences that gave Marceau and his troupe of mimes a chance to show the full extent of the narrative possibilities and theatrical effects of a physical-theatre-based dramaturgy he liked to call “mimo-drama.”
Marceau was famously silent on stage. To consolidate his reputation as the master of silence, he was not above self-parodying his own image, as in the 1976 Mel Brooks film Silent Movie, in which he had the sole speaking part. (Asked if he would like to appear in the first silent movie made in nearly 50 years, he replied, “Non.”) Offstage, however, Marceau was garrulous to an entertaining fault. In interviews with reporters, during workshops that involved students and the general public, indeed in almost every occasion where interested listeners gathered to hear him expound on his theory of mime’s special relativity as an autonomous art form, Marceau spent an inordinate amount of time educating people about the elements that make mime independent though somehow related to dance, music, circus and Asian classical genres. Frequently, while demonstrating with his expressive hands and nimble body the rudiments of the art, and breaking down such famous sketches as The Staircase and Walking Against the Wind into their component physical parts, he would sometimes pause in mid-mime to toss off such words as “grammar” and “codes” and “style pantomime.” “When you speak words, you create an image, and when you are silent, the attitude of the moment creates an image,” he declared in one memorable workshop at Hunter College in New York.
As agile as an acrobat and with the discipline of a dancer, Marceau never stopped performing, even in old age. He knew five languages and spoke in a soft, tenor voice. Without makeup, he cut a bedraggled, elfin figure, with curling sandy hair and a look of feline wildness, a Gallic cross between Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. He reveled in bringing mime to the masses—he was mime’s greatest popularizer. But in lyricizing mime and mimo-drama as theatre genres of the imagination that have no boundaries, the maestro seemed to have had difficulties divorcing his personal memories and artistic achievements from offering a more objective or more scientific view of his subject. The best he could do was to refer to himself frequently in the third person. Still, this inveterate crowd-pleaser had the heart of a poet. When he rattled off, as he does in the following edited transcript, all the variety of influences that had contributed to the making of his beloved Bip, it became evident that he obsessed in seeking to gain a strong measure of respect, credibility and integrity for a method of physical training that for as far back as he could remember many actors had frequently despised. “Even when I started,” Marceau told the Washington Post in 1980, “actors still had contempt for mime. It was an exercise for them, the mime corporelle, all the muscles working. Decroux used to teach us nude.”
If Étienne Decroux was the father of modern mime, Marceau was, in a sense, mime’s postmodern actor-dramaturg. He took Decroux’s grammar and technique, simplified his rarefied abstractions and infused them with a poetic lyricism rooted in narrative elements and melodrama. As the character Bip, Marceau tamed lions, chased butterflies, looked for a job, went to war and became a street musician. Appropriating aspects of both Charles Chaplin’s Tramp and Pip in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, Marceau’s Bip borrowed the whiteface of the 19th-century French character Pierrot, whom the actor Jean-Louis Barrault had re-created in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), which itself was partially based on the life of Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the greatest French mime of the 19th century. Pierrot in turn had its roots in the mime tradition of Italy’s commedia dell’arte three centuries earlier, specifically the stock role of the Harlequin, who influenced the great silent clowns in American film—from Chaplin to Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, all of whom contributed to Marceau’s aesthetic.
In addition to synthesizing the essences of his literary, theatrical and cinematic forebears, Marceau added new gestures to Decroux’s repertoire of codes. Marceau’s longer works consisted of more than 50 “pantomimes de style” and more than 50 “pantomime de Bip.” (The exact numbers tended to vary.) Through the use of optical illusion, the style pantomime attempts to enlarge the visual imagination through a display of skill and virtuosity. It is a lot like going to the circus to watch amazing feats or a magic show to see a magician’s tricks. “That is why the symbolic mime is often based on the struggle of man with the elements, like wind and fire,” Marceau said. Mime is an art of attitude which consists not just of portraying people and objects but also identifying with the elements of nature and with other people. “We can define mime as an art of identification not only through imitation but also through re-creation,” Marceau said. “If I want to mime a flower, I take the shape of a flower. If I want to mime a wind, I take the weight of the wind. To mime is to pass physically from one state of mind and body to take the shape and spirit of what you are portraying.”
The pantomime de Bip refers to what Marceau likes to call his deeper creations: The Tragedian’s Beard on Opening Night, Bip as a Tailor in Love, Bip in Modern and Future Life, as well as full dramas based on classics, such as Don Juan by Tirso de Molina. Marceau’s revolution was to wield the generative power of the mime training he had inherited from the French cartel. His worldwide successes reinforced the notion of mime’s capacity to incite new and original creations and therefore drove many actors, students and clowns to seek out the original teachings of Decroux. But while the Decroux-trained Barrault integrated mime with text to show how his notion of a “total actor” might enrich an actor’s creative contribution to a script, Marceau insisted that silence, in a theatrical context, was not just golden but also entirely sufficient. Marceau sought to richly imagine and dramatically sketch through mime the laughably saddening costs of being human.
RANDY GENER: In 2000, you presented a comic fantasy, The Bowler Hat, which marked the 50th anniversary of Bip. Why did you not simply create a new Bip pantomime for that anniversary? Why create a mime tale without Bip in it?MARCEL MARCEAU: When I created the character of Bip in 1947, I did not want to be known only for creating a character who plays alone onstage. Many people do not know that after performing in Jean Louis-Barrault’s troupe I wanted to set up and perform with a company of actors who staged mime plays, or mimo-dramas, as I prefer to call them, and Bip, the dreamy little poet I created, would be involved in the middle of those shows. The format might be a tightly structured story, or perhaps like Peking Opera, which brought on different numbers—acrobatic numbers, singing numbers, maybe 30-minute scenes with Bip—but the show always involved a whole company. But since pure mimo-drama was not recognized as a theatrical art form, I received no subsidy at that time. All the money I earned in my one-man shows internationally I poured back into the survival of my company; when I played in regular theatres in Paris and all over America, I often did not travel with my company, because touring was expensive, and I was more successful when I performed my one-man shows. Meanwhile I had experimented putting on my mimo-dramas with my company. I was forced to disband my troupe after the partial success of Don Juan, a mimo-drama adapted from the play by Tirso de Molina and produced in 1964.
In 1978, when Jacques Chirac was still the mayor of the city of Paris (this was before he became France’s president), he heard about my successes in America, Latin America, Japan and the whole world, and he said, “We have to give an international school for mimo-drama for Marcel Marceau.” It was at that point when my work became subsidized by the town of Paris. In those 25 years that followed, students came from all over the world; they learned all the corporeal art forms—ballet, contemporary dance, fencing, acrobatics—and the main discipline was mime. Of course it was Marcel Marceau–style mime, with its basis in the teachings of Decroux, who was my teacher.
In 1955, I worked with Columbia Artists, and my company came to America with The Overcoat by Gogol and the Bip-style pantomime show, which played at the New York City Center. The shows were a great success with the public. Unfortunately, we had to tour in other countries, and we couldn’t stay longer in New York. The Bowler Hat is a new example of the mimo-drama. In 1978, my dream was to create a mime theatre; it was a necessity to have a school. Mime is not about being a soloist. We can do mime in different ways. Mime can be abstract, mime can be symbolic and mime can also be visual stories, which are drama or comedy. But you have to know how to introduce it, so people will not say, “Oh, with words it would be clearer.”
How is French mime different from other similar traditions?
In France, we had a tradition of mime that comes from the Italian commedia dell’arte, where all the characters were the same as their masks: Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, all those famous stock roles. In the 19th century, at the time of Victor Hugo, the melodrama was very strong, and the French pantomime became a very great art form with what was called the white-faced Pierrot. The French pantomime school was completely silent. All the dancers, acrobats and street performers from the Italian commedia spoke very much. The roots of French pantomime had been in the theatre since the Théâtre des Funambules, through the performances of Deburau [1796–1846], Frederick Lemaitre [1800–1876] and Pierre-Francois Lacenarie [1800–1836].
This influence of the French pantomime was also felt in England in the tradition of music hall, from which Charlie Chaplin was formed. Chaplin was a mime, a dancer and an acrobat. When the silent films arrived, he displayed his genius by creating the trend of the Charlot [the French name for “Little Tramp”], the vagrant who was always looking for a job and was a romantic survivor. Even when the talkies arrived in 1927, Chaplin didn’t talk. He said, “Action is more generally understood than words.” It was like Chinese symbolism; it could mean different things according to different scenic situations. Chaplin said that mime is such a beautiful art form that it has a mysterious power to make people laugh and cry with the emotions of the soul. Chaplin was very special. He believed that mime is a fantastic gift. This influenced me as a child when I saw his films. I imitated him a lot, and I decided to become an actor.
I was a painter, too, but World War II broke out. After the war, I entered the great School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris in 1946, and I worked with Étienne Decroux. He also taught mime at the school of Charles Dullin, the French actor and theatre manager, where I was, too, trained. Decroux was a student of the influential director Jacques Copeau at l’École du Vieux-Colombier, where he began to study and develop the elements of dramatic movement. Decroux saw immediately that I was a born mime. At the time, I was a great admirer of the Asiatic theatres of kung fu, Chinese Opera, Japanese kabuki, Japanese noh, because these art forms were so stylized and so beautiful. So I brought to Decroux a pantomime about the Japanese noh. The character of Bip that I created has some of these qualities of Asiatic theatre. I took the white-face from the memory of the Pierrot, but the proper way I played Bip was inspired by the noh actors. Of course, the grammarian of mime was Decroux. His grammar was the ABC of our art.
Tell me about the process of creating the Bip pieces.
The Bip pantomimes were almost all my own creations. Sometimes I worked with a mime who was also in my company and whose name is Alejandro Jodorowsky. [During his lengthy collaboration with Marceau, Jodorowsky wrote several of Marceau’s famous routines, such as The Cage and The Mask Maker. Jodorowsky is remembered today for the cult films El Topo (1970) and Santa Sangre (1989).] Jodorowsky would say, “Marcel, will you accept if I give you an idea for a story?” I replied, “Of course, if the idea is good.” Jodorowsky said, “What do you think of a man who tries on different masks showing a variety of emotions? He puts on a laughing mask that gets stuck on his face; he tries desperately but it will not come off. He has to blind himself to take it off his face.” I did the choreography myself, and then we shared the rights for this pantomime, called The Mask Maker. We used the same process when we did The Saber of the Samurai and another cruel tale called The Eater of Hearts. I accept that an author gives me a great idea for a story. In general, the Bip pantomimes are my creation.
What are your thoughts concerning the future of mime or of mimo-drama?
I do think about my legacy. This is why I have a Marcel Marceau Foundation for the Advancement for the Art of Mime. It’s important for Americans to understand that the foundation was not created to form copies of little Bips. It is the spirit of Marcel Marceau, a spirit of a very strong art form that needs to take root in America. America already has many important art forms—classical and contemporary dance, musical comedy, films—that have developed and evolved, but not silent theatre. It is not that mime artists are silent all the time—we have music, too. We do rehearse, like in films, with silence, and we have a composer who, when the mimo-drama has been established, makes music according to the situation. There are two categories of men: A writer has the gift of writing, and the essence of the writer is that the imagination identifies with the richness of every word in a great story. The essence of mime [artists] in the theatre is to make the invisible visible, and to make the visible invisible.
It is well known that you did not see eye to eye with Decroux when he was alive. Did he not approve of the mimo-drama?
No, Decroux approved of it, but he was not able to pursue the art of mime in the same direction I have. Decroux did create small pantomimes, like The Factory and The Trees, which are now considered classical. He made special numbers which were very abstract and beautiful, but he did not create mimo-dramas, a process that involves original stories and classic dramas. Like musicians and dancers who will sometimes turn to Shakespeare to create new works, I as an author and creator with my mimo-drama company have turned to Gogol and other dramatists, or I create my own stories in search of a visual dramatic theatre without words. This is something very important. Dance is accepted as a total art form. Musical comedy is also a total theatre. Mimo-drama is, for me, a total theatre, even if we don’t talk. It is an ancient art form that goes as far back as Greek antiquity and the Romans, whose mimes were soloists. (The Roman mimes had no companies, like in Greece.) When I created Bip, I went back to the great Pierrot tradition by wearing the white mask. However, I don’t play like the Pierrots. My style of pantomime has nothing to do with 19th-century pantomime; it is totally contemporary. In a certain sense, I also went back to the English music-hall tradition, because I was influenced by the technical perfection of Chaplin. The Marceau style opened the door to contemporary mime.
How is Marceau-style mime different from Decroux‘s style?
In the beginning, I made much of the grammar of Decroux to create my own work. But with time, my technique evolved. Decroux respected the Pierrot school, but his body training was based on an interest in a more plastic form, which he called “mime corporeal.” His conception was based on the idea of mobile statuary. He wanted to establish an esoteric form of mime which was statuary and not at all inspired by the romantic definitions of mime in the 19th century. Pierrot had a white face, white silk cloth and black cap. Decroux’s conception of mime was more abstract. He spoke about objective mime and subjective mime. His ideas about mime corporeal were influenced by the expressionist Stephane Mallarmé, by the Russian ballet, by Isadora Duncan. Decroux created the art of counterpoint, contrepois, which expressed that in order for the men to become women, the man had to take the weight of the woman. A mime creates the weight of the objects which are not there. To make things visible, an actor has to recreate objects and people through the body’s work in taking the volume, density and space of these objects and people. Decroux wanted me to help teach mime at his school and create a company, but I felt that I was not as orthodox as he was. Barrault formed his own company at Théätre du Marais, and he did some pantomimes, but it was not a mime theatre exclusively. In fact, Barrault asked me to play Arlechin, and he played the Pierrot. That experience with Barrault was one source of inspiration for Bip. When I created Bip in 1947 with my own company, then starts the history of the modern art of pantomime in the 20th-century theatre. Decroux was interested in a laboratory experience, but he never had contact with the public.
If you are not performing in your mimo-dramas, can other mimes perform in them as well?
I want to say this: My mime troupe was the first company in the 20th century to become famous throughout Europe and America. With the one-man shows and the mimo-dramas that have been played in different theatres around the world, I recreated an art form out of an ancient art form. How the mime tradition was in the 19th century, I don’t know, because there were no films or videos of those performances. We are lucky today that we have videos and silent films which can show to the public what mime was about. You cannot know the power of mime as an art form without seeing it. The younger generations think that just because actors put on a white face they are suddenly mimes, but that is not the case. Mime is about the quality, the style, the spirit and the conventions of movement. Because mime is a visual art, it is a question then of renewing feelings and of giving style, form and volume to movement conventions in order create an emotion either by plastic beauty and by dramatic density of the action. In my school, we have creation ateliers where the students create their own themes. They learn from the spirit of Marcel Marceau.
If, say, The Bowler Hat is performed by other people later on, would the mimes have to follow the gestures you created?
Yes. Mime is like a choreography; both have a grammar that has been established. Training in the codes of mime is necessary, because mime has a tradition of movement that goes back, just as there are Chinese opera traditions. The noh and kabuki also have traditions that go way back. In mime, that tradition is passed on through the grammar that is taught. An actor learns how to mime going upstairs or downstairs, how to swim, how to open doors. What fascinates in mime is that it heightens the dramatic quality of movement. The public should have the impression that the mime makes sport of the difficulty of weight or the equilibrium of movement. Mime proceeds through the use of rhythm in time. The process can be similar to musical comedy or dance, but of course dance is the art of movement, and mime is the art of attitude. Dance seeks to escape gravity; mime seeks weight. I call mime the art of winged weight. In mime, the situation of the actors corresponds much more to the feeling of the soul. In that feeling, they can express in silence. Talk destroys the mystery of silence.
Are there things mime cannot express?
Yes, mime cannot explore lies. You have to be reachable; you have to be understood immediately.
Why do some people bear such antipathy toward mime?
The answer is very simple: If mime is played by bad mimes, the public hates it. If it is played by good mimes, the public likes it. There are bad mimes, and there are good mimes, just as there are great dancers and there are mediocre dancers. Dance has attained a certain perfection. Music has attained perfection. Opera is a great art form, because it has a tradition of 500 years. But mime as a contemporary art form is very young still. Yes, it has roots in the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the 19th-century traditions and the English music hall, but mime is ephemeral. Except as a history of words, we haven’t really seen the traditions of mime. We don’t truly know how Deburau or Joseph Grimaldi performed on stage. We have to reconstruct their performances in our minds. Chaplin was the first, through the cinema, to make mime present in style, which is why he had a great influence in my life. Buster Keaton, too, as well as Laurel and Hardy.
My art form has influenced the younger generations. When I arrived in America in 1955, I saw everywhere a pattern of speech, drama and dance. Today in almost all universities you see workshops in mime taught by the students who have worked with me in France, come back to America and formed their own companies. In Paris, the Théâtre du Soleil has integrated actors who worked in my school. There can never be another Bip. There will never be another Chaplin. There will never be another Keaton. But inspiration has helped very much to develop the art form. The inspiration of Marcel Marceau is different from the inspiration of Chaplin. Many actors who came out of my school are not Marcel Marceau imitators. But they understood that I created dramatic mime which makes it possible for them to become their own authors. This is a real legacy. Nobody imitates Marcel Marceau. Actors need to train in mime so they can create their own theatre. The art form becomes strong when the mime learns the grammar from the masters. The richer the grammar, the more the imagination follows the dramatic art form and the curiosity of the body. If they have no grammar but have only talent, they can never truly become mimes.