Marcel Marceau, the French mime artist was the 20th century’s most famous artist for silent art of movement, gesture and facial expression that had fallen from fashion since its heyday the century before. No other performer did more to re-establish the widespread popularity of mime than Marceau, who described it as “the drama of silence that speaks direct to mind and emotion”. For 40 years he toured his silent one-man show all over the world, seeming to conjure out of thin air butterflies, chairs, lions, the bars of a prison cell, or the panic of a mask-maker unable to rip the grin from his face.
On a bare stage with a minimum of properties and only music (mainly by Mozart) for sound, Marceau would carry the audience’s imagination with him as he climbed a mountain, walked a tightrope, scaled a ladder, attended a dull party, waded diffidently into the rising sea or struggled uphill against the wind.
After appearing with Barrault in Baptiste, a stage version of Les Enfants du Paradis, Marceau set up his own mime company in Paris. This was an immediate success, and here Marceau evolved his most familiar and approved creation, “Bip” — a small, mute, white-faced character, derived from Pierrot and Harlequin, who wore a short jacket, striped jersey, bell-bottomed sailor trousers and a crumpled top hat.
He was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, Alsace, France, and was brought up in Strasbourg and Lille. There he was introduced to music and theatre by his father, Charles Mangel, a kosher butcher, who also sang baritone and was a supporter of arts and music. His mother, Anne Mangel (née Werzberg), was a native Alsatian, and the family was bilingual. At the age of 5, his mother took Marcel to a Charlie Chaplin’s movie, and he was entranced and decided to become a mime. Young Marcel was also fond of art and literature, he studied English in addition to his French and German, and became trilingual.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the family had two hours in which to pack up and flee before the advancing Germans. Marcel and his elder brother Alain ended up in Limoges, where they joined the French underground movement.
In 1944 his father was captured by the Nazis and sent to his death at Auschwitz. Meanwhile, his brother Alain’s photograph was among those on the Gestapo’s wanted list at Limoges. Marcel was sent to Paris where, using a false identity card that Alain had arranged for him two years earlier, he registered under the name of Marcel Marceau.
Although he had studied decorative art, especially enamelling, at school in Limoges, it was the theatre in German-occupied Paris that now seized his imagination. He enlisted, as Barrault had done before, at Charles Dullin’s theatre school. It was not long before his youthful delight in the silent film acting of Buster Keaton and Chaplin led him to become a pupil, as Barrault had also been, of the great but demanding Etienne Decroux with whom Barrault had played the mime Baptiste in Les Enfants du Paradis.
His “art of silence” filled a remarkable acting career that lasted over 60 years. He was an actor, director, teacher, interpreter, and public figure, and made extensive tours in countries on five continents. Outside of his mime profession, Marcel Marceau was a multilingual speaker and a great communicator, who surprised many with his flowing speeches in several languages. In his later years he was living on a farm at Cahors, near Toulouse, France. He continued his routine practice daily to keep himself in good form, never losing the agility that made him famous. He also continued coaching his numerous students.
Marcel Marceau passed away at his home in France, on September 23, 2007, like an Autumn leaf after the Autumn Equinox, and after Yom Kippur in Jewish calendar, having the Day of Atonement as his final curtain. His burial ceremony was accompanied by the Mozart’s piano concerto No21, and the music of J.C. Bach. Marcel Marceau was laid to rest in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.
Quote from Marcel
The most touching moments of our existence, leave us without words. It’s very difficult for a mime to lie, because for lying, the words are necessary.