Marcel Marceau

He remains the unquestioned master of the art that dare not speak its name. That's his strength and the art's weakness.

Published July 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Millions who have never seen him perform live, or even on television, have heard of Marcel Marceau. He's, you know, that French guy in white face who for some inexplicable reason doesn't talk. (Oh, but he can talk. "Never get a mime talking," he says. "He won't stop.") Yet how to explain what a miracle he is. He's toured the world with his show 40 times. He's been in scores of TV movies, independent and feature films, including -- if you can imagine it -- "Barbarella," and had the only speaking role in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" (he said, "Non!"). He's written and illustrated several books. He's received France's highest artist honor -- the French Legion of Honor -- and two Emmys. Michael Jackson modeled his moon walk on Marceau's walk-against-the-wind techniques (today, the two are close friends). There was a day dedicated to him earlier this year: The city of New York declared March 18 Marcel Marceau Day. He's garnered honorary degrees from prestigious universities across America. He's had three wives, four children, survived the Holocaust, joined the Resistance and marched in Patton's army. All this, and he has a wickedly weird and original sense of humor. "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards," Marceau once said, "for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup."

Even when you don't quite get it, Marceau makes you think twice.

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I was a young girl, maybe 11, when my parents first took me to see Marcel Marceau. Under the spotlight in a Denver theater, this graceful, solitary figure in black and white -- topped, maraschino cherry-like, with a single red flower -- entranced me with his silent eloquence. As Marceau is fond of saying, he made "the invisible visible." I vowed, to my parents horror, to emulate Marceau by one day becoming the world's greatest female mime. By the time Marceau returned to Denver a few years later, I had formed a mime troupe with my neighbor Katy Burns. In hopes of meeting our one and only god, Katy and I sent a note to the theater requesting an interview for our high school paper. Unbelievably, Marceau said yes.

A few days later, I found myself standing before my hero. I was terrified. Intensely theatrical, Marceau maintained a dancer's elegant, rigid posture and exaggerated out-turned feet, tapping the floor with his black ballet shoe -- a trademark Marceau stage tic. Occasionally he'd vary his pose, gesticulating dramatically, his hands dancing in the air around his head like fluttering butterflies. His salt-and-pepper hair had a touch of Einstein's brilliant unruliness; his thick mask of white pancake makeup and charcoal-lined eyes accentuated his wrinkles. The day I met him was his 57th birthday. To a teenager, he was ancient. I mournfully concluded that this tour would surely be his last.

Katy and I had come armed with a dozen questions, but managed only to ask one. I can't remember the question, but I can recall that his answer, which lasted nearly 15 minutes so that the show started 10 minutes late, began somewhere with God, ended with Mozart and had an impressive number of Marceau references in between. He often spoke of himself in the third person. "It's true, there is only one Marceau." "In my heart, I feel that Mozart wrote his 21st concerto for Marceau." "Even the Hollywood stars, they love Marceau."

At the end of his monologue, he announced, "I must go." But before walking away, Marceau gazed at me and issued a direct challenge: "Of course, you must study mime at my school." And upon graduating from college, I went straight to Paris to audition. This second Marceau encounter was a tragicomic exercise in which I was asked to perform on a small stage before the master himself. "Allez, allez," he said, standing below me in his school's near empty theater, along with a panel of stern judges who would help decide my fate. There Marceau stood, holding the same statuesque pose and, naturally, tapping his foot. "Show me happiness. Show me sadness. Walk through a forest." I grinned, I grimaced, I ducked under branches and feigned exaggerated horror at imagined snakes and long-toothed beasts. All of this I did, like so many Marceau wannabes, very, very badly. To my parents' delight, I wasn't accepted, which is why right now I'm writing this article, rather than tip-toeing after tourists at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or in front of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Now, some 20 years later, I hear that Marceau is not only still, shall we say, kicking, but performing and teaching at the same, superhuman pace that he's managed for half a century. Stop for a moment to consider this breathtaking fact. The man is 76. So he's pushing 80, so what? So, you try bending backwards, head almost but not quite touching the ground, as you prance about under hot spotlights, thousands of eyes fixed upon you, and only you. Or how about, night after night after night, going up and down an invisible escalator (The back! The knees!); attempting suicide; personifying all seven sins; and acting out the creation of the world, from amoeba to man, in 10 minutes or so. Now assume a relentless schedule that demands minimal sleep and maximum physical exertion so that you can perform your one-man show, up to 200 nights a year, at every far-flung corner of the planet. (Keep in mind that you have no understudy.)

And yet, despite his fame and genius, Marceau seems fated to swim against the current. There's the irrefutable fact that some, OK many, people just don't like mime. They find it too cutesy, too annoying, a form of corporal punishment. As with sumo wrestling, opera or bagpipes, you either love mime or you don't. You really don't.

In his essay "A Little Louder, Please," Woody Allen is so confounded by the antics of a "famed international pantomimist," that he launches into a solo game of charades. "Pillow ... big pillow. Cushion? Looks like cushion ..." Alas, after all these years, mime -- the art that dares not speak its name -- still gets little respect. Anti-mime jokes tend toward the violent (If a tree fell on a mime in the forest, would anyone care? If you're going to shoot a mime, do you use a silencer?)

The antipathy is often justified. With the exception of a few rare talents, most are nothing but genetically inferior spawns, mimicking the one true practitioner. The trouble is that these watered-down Marceaus rarely get it right -- and in so doing have made mime a four-letter word. "There is," as Marceau says, "only one Marceau." Yes, he's the real thing. He has an impeccable comic sense, and knows how to make you feel, in your soul, the tragic moment. It's no accident that children are his best audiences, because his art demands active participation, imagination. His is a world fashioned out of thin air. You see a statue, a pickpocket, a matador, a lion tamer, a soldier, a man passionately embraced by his lover. Marceau's highly stylized, lyrical sketches can be light and whimsical or bitingly satiric and dark. "Marceau in our time," says New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes, "remains the supremely eloquent voice of silence and poet of gesture."

Perhaps true appreciation of Marceau requires a step back in time. Before Marceau broke out of an invisible box and stepped into millions of American's living rooms on Max Liebman's "Show of Shows" nearly 40 years ago, you could fit the number of people who knew or much less cared anything about the art of pantomime in a Citroen. What we know of mime -- the mute theatrics, the exaggerated body language, the requisite black-and-white get-up -- was essentially minted by Marceau.

From an early age, the theater seemed Marceau's destiny. Born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, on March 22, 1923, he came from a lively Jewish family with socialist ideals and an artistic bent. His extended family included many musicians and dancers. By the age of 7, Marceau was entertaining neighborhood friends with his comic talent. "I discovered I could make people laugh and cry without speaking," says Marceau, who wasn't "doing mime." He was, in fact, imitating Charlie Chaplin. (Indeed, Marceau's thickly lined eyes and mouth and black-and-white silhouette evoke Chaplin's silent-screen image.)

When Marceau was 15, his life unraveled. On the day France entered World War II, his family was given two hours to pack. Marceau and his older brother, Alain, fled to temporary safety in Limoges. Alain became a leader of the local French underground, and young Marcel joined in. To hide their Jewish origins, the brothers changed their family name to the solidly patriotic Marceau, a famous general in the French Revolution.

Marceau's wartime activities presaged his later artistic role as illusionist. Using red crayons and black ink, he altered the ages of French youths' identity cards, proving them too young to be sent to labor camps. And later, masquerading as a Boy Scout director leading campers on a hike in the Alps, he saved hundreds of Jewish children's lives by smuggling them into Switzerland. No surprise, then, that his most affecting works -- notably "The Trial," "The Cage" and "Bip Remembers," which recounts Marceau's own wartime experiences -- are highly political.

In 1944, Marceau's father was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where he died. His mother headed to Perigueux, in the south of France, with the two brothers, but when the situation became too dangerous, Alain and Marcel fled to Paris. Despite the desperate times, Marceau continued entertaining fantasies of a future in the theater. "I wanted to be a speaking actor," he insists, though most of his theatrical inspirations were silent screen stars: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and the Marx Brothers.

Again his career was put on hold when he entered DeGaulle's Free French Army. Because he spoke such good English, he was appointed as a liaison officer with Patton's army. When he returned to Paris, the city was liberated, and Marceau was free to pursue his dreams. In 1946, he enrolled in Paris' famous Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre.

It was at the Dullin School that Marceau found his mentor, renowned teacher Etienne Decroux, from whom Marceau would learn that there was, in fact, an art called mime. Decroux had invented an exacting physical grammar, "moving statuary," that called for a virtuoso performer capable of perfect isolation and precise movement. Theater students weren't lining up at the door. "In those days," says Marceau, "mime was a tiny part of drama school study, like saber fencing. Most actors found it too tiring. But it captivated me."

"You're a born mime," declared Decroux, and it was so. But Marceau soon parted ways with his mentor, who was at heart less an entertainer than an academic. Taking Decroux's uncompromising grammar as a launching point, Marceau developed his own style, a language that proved to be more accessible to the masses -- mime for the mainstream. His invention of "mimodramas" signaled the true beginning of modern mime and the end of his relationship with Decroux. Believing that Marceau had cheapened the "science" of mime, Decroux never forgave his star pupil.

This mainstream mime, however, enchanted audiences, especially starting in 1947, when Marceau created his alter ego, "the dreamy little poet" Bip. Dressed in striped sailors shirt and white flair pants, Bip was a classic underdog, a sweet loser who tried hard, and inevitably failed. First playing at Paris' diminutive Theatre de Poche, Bip, aka Marceau, swiftly gained enough fame to take his show on tour, performing throughout Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Holland. Over the next 10-plus years, he wrote dozens of mimodramas. In 1955, he decided he was ready to take his show overseas. If Marceau could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere.

But he was virtually unknown in the United States. His tour opened on Broadway, at New York's small Phoenix Theater, where he was scheduled to play for two weeks. Critics raved -- "Marceau is the essence of theater" -- and the houses filled. His Broadway run lasted an astounding three months, and he went on to tour the country to standing-room-only crowds. By the beginning of the '60s, Marcel Marceau had become a household name.

Which is precisely what troubles him. When Marceau is gone, we won't say, "There goes one of the world's greatest mimes," but "There goes 'the' world's great mime." Marceau is mime, which is the artist's strength and the art's weakness. When the man who made the invisible visible has departed, will mime disappear with him?

"I've heard some people say I'm a 'classic,'" says Marceau. "But time goes so quickly and people forget quickly. What is really important is to remain a classic after your life. One way is to bring mime to more and more young people."
Marceau hopes to keep mime alive through his Paris school, L'Ecole International de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau. He wants people to remember not just Marceau, but the art form he created. "Mimes are masters of silence," he says, "soon forgotten if they don't appear onstage regularly."

To ensure his legacy, Marceau, after gentle prodding from colleagues, agreed to form the Marcel Marceau Foundation for the Advancement of Mime in New York. Foundation board members are an eclectic mix of stars that include Michael Jackson, Placido Domingo, Barbara Hendricks and Dustin Hoffman -- all devoted fans.
The foundation's primary goal is to collect and record Marceau's work. At present, he is making an educational video to teach mime to theater and dance students. And despite the naysayers and joke tellers who've already penned mime's obituary, Marceau believes mime has a bright future. "I believe in the 21st century mime will enter the field of theater as a modern art form," says Marceau. "Remember, it's taken dance 500 years to develop. We are only 50 years old."

One night recently, I phoned him at his country home, a farmhouse just outside Paris. The next day, Marceau would be leaving for a summer-long American tour. It is midnight, his time. I thank him for taking my call at such a late hour.

"But I keep theater hours, you know," he tells me in flawless English.

"You must get tired, though," I say.

"Tired?" Marceau says. "No, I would have been tired if I hadn't played. This has kept me young. My body has kept the same weight and agility it had 30 years ago."

Indeed, Marceau's still as flexible as a Slinky, but time has taken a toll on his hearing, so I find myself in the unkind position of bellowing questions at the world's only great mime. But once he understands me -- just as he had when we first met -- he talks fluidly. He tells stories about performing as a young boy, for Patton's troops, about finally meeting Chaplin in an airport and David Copperfield on an airplane. "Mr. Copperfield said to me, 'You make the invisible visible, and I make the visible invisible.' So I ask him if he could make the plane disappear. Can you imagine? What would the world think if suddenly David Copperfield and Marcel Marceau disappear in the sky?"

I type quickly to keep up while he speaks. Suddenly, he stops and says, "Hello? Hello? Are you there?"

"Yes, Mr. Marceau," I say, "I'm still here."

"Ah," he quips. "I thought perhaps you were doing mime."

By Leslie Crawford

Leslie Crawford is a San Francisco writer.

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