The Many Poses of Marcel Marceau


Arts & Culture

Mime’s brief spell in the mainstream.


A 1974 publicity photo of Marcel Marceau.

At seven years old, before he becomes Marcel Marceau, Marcel Mangel goes to the cinema in Strasbourg with his his father, a butcher with a fine voice. The film is City Lights. A heavy curtain in the cinema pulls back as the lights go down. He sits next to his father, his shoes dangling, the seat and the velvety darkness huge around him.

Music. On the screen: a title, credits, grand municipal buildings, a crowd of people made of blacks, whites, and grays. They’re all still, waiting for something. Then comes a line of speech written in curled white letters, and a fat man gesticulating—these are the final days of the silent-film era. On the screen, a lady holding flowers pulls a ribbon to the sound of a trumpet fanfare, unveiling three giant stone figures. And there is Charlie Chaplin, horizontal, asleep across a giant stone lap. He stretches a leg upward, itches it, yawns. In the crowd, chaos. Chaplin sits up, grabs his cane, tips his bowler hat, tries to wriggle off the sculpture, and gets stuck. He fills the screen, the size of three Marcels.

When the butcher looks down, he sees Marcel’s eyes wide open in wonder, an expression the boy will mime often in years to come when he is the entertainment, being watched by rows of faces in theaters around the world.

The butcher’s son begins to practice Chaplin’s walk, borrowing his father’s trousers and cane to waddle down the streets in their neighborhood. He learns Chaplin’s slapstick routines, finds the timing. At his aunt’s summer house, he puts on performances, miming famous stories—Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood—andChaplin’s Little Tramp.

* * *

His childhood is interrupted by war. When the German troops advance on Strasbourg, the butcher’s family has two hours to pack up and leave home; they flee to the Dordogne, where Marcel and his brother join the Resistance movement. Marcel is a talented illustrator: he uses red crayon and ink to alter the identity cards of Jewish youths so they appear too young to be sent to labor camps. (Later, wanted by the Gestapo, he and his brother will forge their own cards, changing their last name to Marceau in tribute to General Severin-Marceau-Desgraviers, a French Revolutionary.) He poses as a scout leader to smuggle groups of children to the Spanish border and over the Alps to Switzerland.

In a forest near Limoges, on a summer afternoon toward the end of the war, he and a companion enter a sunlit clearing and find themselves face to face with a unit of German soldiers—thirty men and an officer. Boots, breeches, pointed collars, thirty-one helmets, thirty-one pairs of eyes looking out from beneath. Marcel assumes the role of the advance guard of a larger French regiment, puffs his chest, looks squarely back at the Germans, and commands them to surrender their weapons. They do.

* * *

Marceau studies at the School of Dramatic Art in Paris under Étienne Decroux, the inventor of corporeal mime. Decroux is the first to formalize the art of mime for teaching; he has a grammar of movement. Two hundred and fifty positions for the hand. One hundred and eight inclinations for the head. His students spend three months mastering the technique of walking in place. Their faces covered, they learn to convey every emotion through the body. Decroux’s pupils mime humanity in the abstract, like the statues of Rodin: the lover, the thinker, the fighter.

But Marceau, still preoccupied with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, invents a character who combines Chaplin’s movements with the look of a harlequin: a white face, a crumpled top hat with a red flower poking out from the top, white tights, ballet plimsolls, eyebrows painted halfway up the forehead. A face that reveals everything. His creation, Bip, is as innocent as Chaplin’s Little Tramp, as clumsy as Harpo Marx, as deft as Buster Keaton—and named after Pip, of Great Expectations. There is something of the Dickensian orphan about him. Every movement is infused with a kind of naïveté.

Decroux, a purist, disapproves; this characterization is closer to pantomime than corporeal mime. This is populism, he thinks, a debased cabaret form of that which should always strive toward abstraction. He dismisses Marceau’s creation as raccourci, a shortcut—Marceau is too eager to entertain.

And this is true. Marceau has grown up on the slapstick of Hollywood comedies; he wants humor and pathos in his work, and for humor and pathos, you need character. An audience can’t connect with abstraction. Their hearts won’t go out to a statue, no matter how perfect it is.

Marceau in 1963. Photo: Erling Mandelmann

Marceau in 1963. Photo: Erling Mandelmann

Onstage as Bip, Marceau mimes his way through every possible human scenario. Bip gets married. Bip travels by train. Bip goes to a cocktail party. Bip hunts butterflies. Bip’s rectangular face contorts with surprise or horror or wonder. When Marceau depicts the four ages of man, it is said that “he accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.” Audiences fill theaters to watch Marceau’s bizarre alter ego lean on invisible walls, dance with invisible partners, fall in love with empty spaces on the stage. Mute and scrawny, with wiry reddish hair and bristling sideburns, Marceau is still somehow a source of empathy. It’s because of wordlessness: “You don’t laugh or cry in English or French,” he says. “Bip is allowed to go anywhere and dream many dreams.”

* * *

When Bip traps the butterfly in his hands, he holds them out to the audience. Slowly, he draws back one hand to reveal it. And his other hand becomes the butterfly; his fingers twitch and tremor.

As Bip the lion tamer, he leaps through the hoop himself. It frames his head and chest. He roars like the MGM lion.

Bip climbs the stairs and becomes the staircase.

He walks headlong into the wind and the audience perceives it as a physical force, pushing his body into strained shapes.

Marceau’s body is trained in counterbalance, a mime artist’s technique that creates, on an empty stage, weather, brick walls, flights of stairs, and cages. Propless on a dark stage, Marceau’s clown, in his spotlight, works as words on a page do. The audience looks at shapes made in black and white, reads meaning into them, and makes up the rest.

* * *

But offstage, Marceau talks—continuously. He’s an energetic raconteur, reciting his stories in a raspy French accent, pinning his listener with an intense gaze. He loves to be interviewed. He delivers grand maxims and aphorisms about life and art. “Bip is the romantic and burlesque hero for our time,” he says. “Bip is a modern-day Don Quixote.”

He finds it hard to sit still when he speaks, often leaping up to accompany his points with gestures, his hands fluttering about as if they are talking, too. His face contorts and transforms in time with his stories. He speaks five languages and deploys them as he sees fit, without too much concern for grammar. “Never get a mime talking,” Marceau says. “He won’t stop.”

* * *

Marceau teaches his students to breathe silently when they move. When we watch fish in water, he tells them, it’s beautiful because they’re completely silent. Watching silence is like watching through glass. Silence has a musicality, he says.

On stage, the mime can appear subject to altered physical laws. He can defy gravity. Among the dancers who borrow from Marceau are Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The dancer and choreographer Roland Petit decrees that all ballet students must train in the art of mime. Zizi Jeanmaire performs mimes with Marceau, dressed in mirror-image white bell-bottoms, a striped top, a squashed hat, and ballet pumps. Michael Jackson is a disciple of Marceau. His moonwalk is a version of “walking against the wind.”

* * *

A 1971 publicity photo.

A 1971 publicity photo.

He feels his advancing age and fears that the art of mime will die with him. It’s a transitory, ephemeral art, he explains, as it exists only in the moment. As an old man, he works harder than ever, performing three hundred times a year, teaching four hours a day. He is named the UN Ambassador for Aging. Five nights a week he smears the white paint over his face, draws in the red bud at the center of his lips, follows the line of his eyelid with a black pencil. And then takes to the stage, his sideburns frayed, his hair dyed chestnut and combed forward, looking like a toupee.

His body is as elastic as ever, but the old suit of Bip hangs loose on him now. Beneath the whitened jawline is a baggy, sinewy neck. With each contortion of his face, the white paint reveals deep lines. At the end of his show, he folds in a deep bow and the knobs of his spine show above the low cut of Bip’s Breton top.

He is fond of talking about himself in the third person. “There is only one Marceau.” And this is true: Marceau dies and leaves no heir. He had performed the same sketches for sixty years. There was nothing for other mimes to build on. He inspires only poor imitations. On his death, the art of mime steps back out of the mainstream. It becomes a busker’s act—obscure, often mocked.

So all we have is the footage: fuzzy, flickering recordings of his performances. A solitary figure on the stage in a circle of spotlight. We can see the white face below the battered hat and watch it move, flicking from one emotion to the next as if someone is pressing the controls on a mask. The outfit is oddly creepy. The act seems to take itself so seriously as to be ridiculous. But when the figure climbs the staircase, we feel that he is rising upwards. When he lifts the dumbbell, we can sense its weight.

Mave Fellowes is the author of Chaplin & Company. Her stories have appeared in Granta and other publications. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.