The Jewish Journal Archive
April 28 - May 11, 2000

A Face for the Ages


Face blanched white. Eyes burning with joy or pain. Cheeks twitching to the design of rail-thin red lips. Eyebrows educated to infinite suggestion. This face has seen much. This face has projected even more. The miraculously expressive face of Marcel Marceau remains an unforgettable image to the millions of spectators it has entranced the world over.

Hailed as the world's greatest living mime, Marceau has almost single-handedly preserved and promoted this silent art. His name has become synonymous with mime; and his trademark character - Bip - is as instantly recognizable as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp or Buster Keaton's poker-faced buffoon. Indeed, these two stars of the silent screen were major influences on Marceau, as he explored the artistic possibilities of performance without sound.

The art of mime dates back to antiquity, when performers were part-actor, part-athlete, hidden behind masks. This tradition carried through commedia dell'arte, with its stock characters and intense physicality. In Marceau's words: "From commedia, our discipline divided into two currents, the English pantomime tradition from Grimaldi to Chaplin and Keaton, and French pantomime, in the school of Pierrot." Marceau combines the virtuostic physical agility of these forebearers with a romantic sensitivity all his own.

Born to a French-Jewish family in Strasbourg, France, in 1923, Marceau's early artistic ambitions were thwarted by the Second World War. He joined the underground French Resistance, then enlisted in the First French Army after the Liberation, fighting the Nazi armies on the western front. Demobilized in 1946, Marceau returned to Paris to study with France's greatest mime master, Étienne Decroux.

Decroux taught mime as an art of physical control. His was a system of agility, versatility and grace, requiring tremendous strength, concentration and accuracy. The great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault (Les Enfants du Paradis) shared this class with Marceau, as did A.R.T. senior actor Alvin Epstein. Their studies concentrated on defining a technical vocabulary of gesture and movement capable of communicating thought and emotion with the whole body, not just the voice. This view combined ideas of the British director Gordon Craig, with Antonin Artaud's theories of physicality and the choreographic tradition exemplified by Serge Diaghilev. Jacques Lecoq also emerged out of this post-war movement towards highly stylized physical performance.

It is to Decroux's immense credit that each of his important students found a distinct creative application for his training. Lecoq returned to masks and founded a school of mime in Milan with Giorgio Strehler, spurring a revival of commedia dell'arte. Barrault became the preeminent post-war French actor, starring at the Comedie
Francaise for many years, where his cool charm and virtuosity came to epitomize the French acting style. Alvin Epstein's gifts are well-known to A.R.T. audiences. From Decroux, Marceau learned refined physical expressivity - a "technical grammar," as he calls it. His unique innovation, however, was inflecting mime caricatures with shades of delicate emotion, "revealing the burdens of the soul." This can be called, as one critic wrote, "the purest essence of theatre."

In 1947 a person entered Marceau's life, altering it forever. On March 22, at the Théatre de Poche, in Montparnasse, Bip was born. Bip, whose name derives from the main character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, became Marceau's on-stage persona, his alter-ego. Part commedia Harlequin, part French Pierrot, wholly Everyman, Bip has been the face of Marcel Marceau for the last 53 years. His distinctive powder-white countenance signifies a "tip of the hat to Pierrot, Charlot, and the masked mimes of Greece and Rome," while the dog-eared old hat with withering flower in its brim symbolizes the duality of our clumsy haggard nature with sensitive human vulnerability. "Bip is a theatre of light and shadow unto himself," says Marceau. "He is the theatrical incarnation of the universal man on the street, transcending race and nationality."

For his character Bip, Marceau has created over 30 solo sketches, representing trials and tribulations, as he puts it "like Don Quixote's struggles against the windmills of life." These and a series known as "Pantomimes of Style," form the core of Marceau's repertoire. Movement monologues such as "The Birdkeeper," "Hands," and "Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death" have become classics. In "The Maskmaker," Marceau molds one tragic and one comic face out of thin air. Trying on his creations, the mask maker alternates between the two. Switching masks at a breathtaking speed in this virtuoso contortion exercise, the comic mask gets stuck. He cannot remove it. He becomes increasingly frustrated and eventually desperate. His body expresses frustration, anger, despair, yet his face remains a haunting grin. Ultimately the comic mask is dislodged, revealing a shattered, terrified artist behind. Such "Pantomimes of Style," Marceau dubs "Cries of Silence," modeled to "reveal a dramatic illusion." One after another, the scenes succeed in a dramatically ascending sequence, taking the audience on a two-hour journey, accompanied only by the sound of their own breathing.

In addition to live performances, Marceau has also appeared in numerous films and television specials. He played two contrasting roles in Shanks, directed by Bill Castle; opposite Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim's Barbarella; and ironically, spoke the only word in Mel Brook's Silent Movie. On television, his crowning achievement may have been playing 17 different parts in the BBC's 1974 production of A Christmas Carol. He has also held joint-performance telecasts with his late friend Red Skelton.
Though known for his incomparable individual work, Marceau for many years collaborated with a company of mime artists producing pantomime adaptations based on Gogol's The Overcoat, and Tirso de Molina's Trickster of Seville (Don Juan), among 25 others. These were not dances, nor plays in the conventional sense, but a unique form of physical action telling a story, that Marceau calls "mimodramas." Mounted largely in the 1950s and 60s, with the lithe Marceau in leading roles, the mimodrama genre was revived by the formation of a Marcel Marceau New Mimodrama Company in 1992. The new company's most ambitious production to date is The Bowler Hat, involving 13 mimes, performing to a musical score by Isabelle Serrand. The reformation of Marceau's mimodrama troupe was remarkable for two features. The first, of course, its importance in maintaining the language of mime as drama. Second, the constitution of the company comprising graduates from the École Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris, which Marceau founded in 1978.

Education has formed a large part of Marceau's life over the last 25 years. "I want young people to become masters of their art," he says, "where students can become creators themselves." The tenuous position of his art form and the importance of passing it on has resulted in the establishment of his school in Paris, where aspiring mimes learn "the method of Decroux, and the style of Marceau." Over a three-year course, students take lessons in ballet and modern dance, acrobatics, fencing, western and eastern acting methods (such as Kabuki, No, and Katak), and mime mechanics, taught my Maximilien Decroux, the son of Marceau's great teacher. The school is funded by the City of Paris, but most of the backing for Marceau's projects come from funds and foundations, including the Marcel Marceau Foundation for the Advancement of the Art of Mime in New York.

Marceau's North American debut took place in Ontario, Canada, at Tyrone Guthrie's Stratford Festival, in 1955. This was immediately followed by a nation-wide tour of the United States, culminating in an extended run at New York's City Center in the spring of 1956. Marceau was embraced by America and given honorary doctorates from Princeton, Ohio State and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In Germany he was elected member of the Academies of Fine Arts of Berlin and Munich, named a "Living National Treasure" by Japan. The French government granted Marceau the Deburau Prize (after one of the great 19th-century Pierrot interpreters) in 1948, and, beginning in the 1970s, he began collecting the rewards of an important French cultural ambassador, receiving many of France's highest civilian honors. But, as he explains "In [France], there is a theatre-going public and a popular public - fans of street performers and romantic ballads - who do not respond to the same things. Americans are like big children - they never lose their sense of amazement and wonder. I show them something they have never seen before."

Reprinted from A.R.T. News courtesy of The American Repertory Theater, Cambridge. Marcel Marceau will appear at A.R.T. from June 27-July 23. For tickets, call 617-547-8300.