Silence, Please! France's Genius of Mime, Marcel Marceau, Is Bringing His Art to the U.S. Once Again
Marcel Marceau is the only mime most people can name, and for him that is both flattering and exasperating. Now the winds of change are blowing through the ancient art form. If the master's painted grin seems broader during this, his 17th tour of the U.S., it is because Mother France finally heard his silence.
Specifically the government—after 10 years of lobbying by Marceau—granted him a $200,000 subsidy with which to open the International School of Mimodrama in Paris. Although he has performed before three American Presidents, he had to ask 13 times to obtain an audience with French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. It took place one hot July day in 1976. With the unshakable panache of a man who is a national landmark even if the bureaucrats don't seem to know it, Marceau announced: "Either France will give me a subsidy or I will go to America. France owes this to me."
The threat was not idle. He took this country by storm after a Maurice Chevalier TV special in 1955; his planned two-week stay extended to six months. The love affair has never cooled down. At least two American universities offered to house and fund his mime school. "If it had been done in America," he says, "it would have been $2 million. I would have said yes, but I am a masochist."
It is a tribute more to his perfectionism than masochism that he has been able to popularize a silent, subtle art in an era when entertainment has grown progressively more noisy, ham-handed and jiggly.
Long-nosed and coiffed like steel wool, Marcel Marceau is not handsome. His street clothes are expensive but fit him as they would a wire hanger. He looks oddly lost inside. Although his third and present wife Anne insists that mime is "his only way of thinking and expressing himself," he is known as a nonstop talker offstage—at least most of the time. The voice that is never heard in performance is a raspy whisper. When Marceau's first wife divorced him in 1958 she charged him with mental cruelty for not speaking to her for days. He claimed he was just rehearsing. His second divorce occurred in the early 1970s.
In conversation, Marceau moves, mugs and gestures with the precision of a geisha at tea. He cannot string together three sentences without his hands fluttering around for emphasis. If he is boasting about his excellent health, he soon will be imitating a beating heart. He speaks five languages and often impersonates whomever he's with. "I watch people with eyes in my stomach and at the back of my head," he has said.
For all that spying, Marceau never seems to threaten. His whiteface onstage personality, Bip, is loved in 53 countries precisely because of his hand-wringing insecurities. "You don't laugh or cry in English or French," Marceau has said. "Bip is allowed to go everywhere and to dream many dreams. But I am a prisoner of my art. People do not want to see me as a character other than Bip."
The son of a Strasbourg butcher, Marceau shrugs, "There was nothing particularly artistic in my family." In truth there were musicians and dancers among his Jewish forebears. Marceau put on his first performances as a child at his aunt's summer day camp. He started with the fables of La Fontaine and worked his way through a pantheon of heroes—Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, Jesus Christ and Charlie Chaplin. Ironically, he won school prizes for recitation; later, he showed talent in drawing.
He was still a boy (and surnamed Mangel, a last name so common in France he doesn't like to reveal it—too many people claim to be related to him) when the family fled German-occupied Strasbourg for Périgueux in southwestern France. He continued his art and drama studies at nearby Limoges and at 17 joined his older brother Alain in the Resistance. With his talent for drawing, he was given the job of forging identity cards. Posing as a boy scout, he also smuggled Jewish children across the borders to Spain and Switzerland, passing them off as campers. Soon the Mangel brothers were on the Gestapo wanted list, but both escaped—Marcel to Paris where he changed his name to Marceau and studied mime at a drama school. Their father was not so fortunate. He died in Auschwitz.
Except for silent films, pantomime had all but disappeared in the 20th century. One of the few practitioners was Etienne Decroux, who became Marceau's teacher. Decroux consulted history to prove the importance of his art in ancient Greece and Rome. Mimes performed before the Roman Senate and even were persecuted for their political satire.
On discovering mime, Marceau says, "I was like a fish in water." He developed a distinct personal style, explaining, "We do not know how the ancient mimes played. Instructions were never written down, so each generation of mimes creates its own style." In 1947 Marceau debuted in Paris as Bip, in striped sailor shirt and sagging top hat. Bip has become the principal character in half of Marceau's more than 100 acts and the subject of his paintings and his books (two for children, one of poetry). His partner, Pierre Verry, who holds the cards that introduce each mime act, and wife Anne agree that Bip is Marceau. Says she: "They can't be separated."
Marceau won an Emmy for the TV performance with Chevalier in 1955 and raves for a Laugh-In guest spot in 1968. While in L.A. he hobnobbed with the likes of Gary Cooper, Ginger Rogers and the Marx Brothers. A raucous howl at one Hollywood performance so disturbed Marceau that after the show he demanded to know who was responsible. It was Montgomery Clift, and the two men became great friends. In those years he did two acclaimed specials with Red Skelton; after the first, a pleased Skelton gave Marceau his $1,100 diamond stickpin.
An unceasing student, the mime sought out two aging masters, Stan Laurel and Mack Sennett. But his idol was Charlie Chaplin, who sent Marceau an admiring telegram in 1953. They were not to meet until 14 years later, when they spotted each other at the Paris airport. Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie's daughter, nodded that Marceau was to approach. He did. The two men opened their conversation with a talk about the weather. Later, uncertain of how to disengage himself from the conversation, Marceau began to mime Chaplin's tramp. Chaplin began to mime Marceau miming the tramp. Both were delighted.
"You have to be a success through two generations," says Marceau. "People forget. Once is not enough." Nor is it enough simply to be a performer, he also believes. In the past 30 years he has conducted innumerable campus workshops in mime and made 30 documentary films. Twice before he started mime schools with his own money, but his bank account ran low and he had to resume touring.
Marceau credits his popularity in the U.S. to this country's passion for dance. He estimates that more than 400 U.S. colleges now have mime groups or courses—an amazing interest, for which he can claim full credit. About half of the 90 mime students at Marceau's school are Americans (paying $1,400 for a year's study). Classes also include ballet, acrobatics, modern dance, poetry, drama and fencing, a sport he pursues to keep fit, even on the road. He believes mimes and dancers "are from the same family—they can feel the soul." Still, he declined an invitation to direct the Hamburg Ballet in 1970. "They compared me to Balanchine," he exclaims. "That's ridiculous. I'm Marceau!"
At 55 he says he feels 30, which is fortunate given his schedule. When in Paris, he teaches four hours a day in studios located beneath the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin. Five evenings a week Marceau puts on a two-and-a-half-hour one-man show upstairs before a paying audience of all ages. This is followed by dinner out with Anne and friends. Then he may paint until dawn in their Right Bank apartment. His oils, done in several styles, have been praised by critics. Sometimes he and his wife read poetry or listen to music, with little conversation between them. "It's a silent sort of exchange," Anne says.
She was a 20-year-old fan who showed up at Marceau's dressing room door after a 1971 performance. They were married four years later, between the births of their daughters Camille, 7, and Aurelia, 2½. (Marceau has two sons by his first marriage: Michel, 25, a pop musician, and Baptiste, 23, an ethnologist working in Japan.) Anne teaches poetry and experimental theater at the school and is performing a mimodrama she conceived, The Cry of the Birds, in Paris while her husband tours the U.S. (He is booked into Los Angeles, San Diego and Tempe, Ariz, this month.)
Such are the demands on their time that Marcel and Anne normally share only breakfasts and Sundays with their youngsters and seldom visit their 250-year-old country home on seven acres 50 miles west of Paris. Marceau says proudly, "When I bought the farmhouse, there were only four trees on the property. I have planted more than 2,500 and created a forest. To me trees are the symbols of life. We must be like them. We have the feeling that when we die we are finished. As trees are renewed by other trees, so man must be renewed by man." Yet Marceau sighs, "Life is too short." Certainly it is too full now for the games of chess that make him relax. Luckily he has the ability to fall asleep anywhere. Anne claims he even dozes in the dentist's chair. He also watches his diet carefully and neither drinks nor smokes.
Though he once thought he would retire at 50, Marceau cannot lower the curtain. "I am a philosopher," he says. "I have gone very deep into the rules of our existence to understand our brain, our soul and our concept of life." If during a show he notices audience attention wandering, he frets, "What's wrong with my performance? Why won't they listen?" Marceau begs approval like a child. "He has silent cries," Anne says. Her husband explains, "When you hear the heartbeat of the public, it's music."