Marcel Marceau - a remarkable mime artist

Marcel Marceau as Bip, the Clown, his alter-ego that he made so famous and popular world-wide.
Marcel Marceau as Bip, the Clown, his alter-ego that he made so famous and popular world-wide. | Source

What is a mime artist?

As a child our family lived in southern New Jersey just less than two hours from New York City and I was fortuate to be able to see and experience the theatre in New York. One of my favorite memories is of seeing a performance of Marcel Marceau, the great mimic and mime artist. As a child I was enthralled with watching him perform. And, later, at home, my friends and I would try to mimic the greatest mimic and mime artist of all time. But what exactly is a mime artist?

A mime artist is someone who uses mime as a theatrical performance to act out a story through body motions without the use of speech. In earlier times, in English, these performers were also called mummers. The performance of pantomime actually originates way back in ancient Greece. The name is taken from a single masked dancer called a pantomimus, although at that time not all performances were necessarily silent. Later, in medieval Europe, early forms of mime such as mummer plays evolved that were totally silent. And, by the 19th century in Paris, France, Jean-Gaspard Deburau introduced the silent mime in white face that Marcel Marceau made so famous.

By the 20th century a new medium brought the mime artist to us and that was through the motion picture. Silent film comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton delighted audiences, first by learning the craft in the theatre, and then through film they had a great influence on the art. They created a vast audience for mime and made it popular to the masses.

Traditionally, mime performances involved the actor wearing tight black and white clothing with white facial make-up. Today, contemporary mimes often perform without whiteface and are very popular as street mime artists, especially in the large European cities. In Barcelona, Spain, take a stroll down La Rambla and you will see mime artists in action and standing stoic as live mannequins. Many a time I have accompanied my Spanish students down La Rambla as a mime artists ate imaginary bugs from my head and hair, much to the delight of my students and passerbys. I have always enjoyed mime wherever I have found it, but the master of them all was Marcel Marceau, a remarkable mime artist.

Marcel Marceau 1923-2007

Marcel Marceau was born Marcel Mangel and into a Jewish family in Strasbourg, France. He had a remarkable life as well as becoming a renowned mime artist in his adult years. He had a typical childhood and education in Strasbourg. His father was a kosher meat butcher and all was well until World War II loomed ahead. With the beginning of the war, his family fled to Limoges, France. Marcel and his brother managed to stay hidden away in Limoges, but his father and mother were picked up and deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. His father was killed at the camp, but his mother managed to survive Auschwitz, a feat in itself.

It was at this time, that Marcel and his brother adopted the last name Marceau during the German occupation of France. The name was chosen in reference and respect to Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general in the French Revolution.

The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges and saved many Jewish children from race laws and concentration camps. Marcel actually started miming as a way of keeping the children quiet as they were escaping to Switzerland. He was so good at it that at the end of WWII he enrolled as a student in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatci Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris. Here he studied with the great pantomime master at the time, Etienne Decroux.

After studying, he joined Jean-Louis Barrault's theatre company and was cast in the role of Arlequin in the famous pantomime, "Baptiste." This role won him so much acclaitm that he was encouraged by theatre professionals to present his first "mimodrama," "Praxitele and the Golden Fish" at the Bernhardt theatre that same year. He was so well acclaimed in that role that Marceau's career as a mime was firmly establised.

He created his loveable alter-ego, Bip, the Clown in 1947 and played at the Pocket Theatre in Paris. He wore a striped pullover and a battered beflowered silk opera hat. Marceau always said that the costume symbolized life's fragility and just as the "Little Tramp" became Charlie Chaplin's alter-ego, Bip became Marceau's.

Bip's misadventures were performed with everything fron butterflies to lions, from dance-halls to restaurants, and from ships to trains. His silent mimed exercices all became classic displays and as a style of pantomime, Marceau was without peer. HIs satires on everything from sculptors to matadors were described as works of genius,

In 1949, after winning several prestigious performance awards, Marceau founded and opened the Compagnie de Mime Marcel Marceau. At the time, this was the only company of pantomime in the world. His ensembles were so highly regarded that they played only the great theatre houses of the world. They performed all over the world to spread the "art of silence." He finally toured the U.S. in 1955 and 1956 to SRO crowds in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. His last U.S. tour was in 2004; his last European tour was in 2005; and his last Australian tour was in 2006.

Besides mime, he also was an author of children's poetry books. And, an amazing fact, he received an honorary doctorate from Ohio State University right here in the state of Ohio.

Marcel Marceau spoke volumes to the world without ever uttering a sound.. His mime theatre always had a moral to the lessons he taught us through his amazing body and motions. I would watch spellbound, as well as the rest of the audience, as he acted out his vignettes for us. Not a word spoken, yet we learned so much about life from him. He was the epitome of the phrase: "Silence is Golden."

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved

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Comments 19 comments

BeyondMax profile image

BeyondMax 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Beautiful story, amazing tribute to such a wonderful artist! He was a magic himself. Fascinating!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

BMax: Thanks so much for your kind comments. I didn't know the about his adopting the Marceau name or how he began miming until I researched his life. I just think he was a remarkably talented man! Thanks so much for stopping by.

sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

Thanks for doing the research on this great mime.

josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Suzette, this is an awesome tribute! I don't much about this man, but I love the art of mime! So, i just to stop by and read! Mime is a wonderful type of performing; I love performing and have always wanted to dabble in mime but never too that first step :) Thanks for this look into what seems like a great man!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

sandrabusby: You are most welcome - he is so interesting and I always loved his work. What a genius! Thanks for taking the time to read this and for your comments.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

josh: Thanks so much for reading this. Try your hand at performing - you don't know until you do it! I'm going to tell you a true story right now. When I was in the 8th grade I was in Choir at my junior high school. The choir director called me after class one day and said he has removing me from choir because I couldn't sing. I was devastated. Well, my mom was having none of it and the next day was right up at that school and told him in no uncertain terms to teach me how to sing. The next day I was back in the choir, but a little voice in my head kept telling me "You really can't sing well enough; you really cannot sing." So when I moved on to high school I didn't even try to audition for the choir there. Many years later I was working as a teacher at the high school and helping the choir director to direct a musical production. He said to me, "I can't believe you never were in the choir when you were in high school here." I answered, "I didn't audition because I really can't sing." He almost keeled over and told me he took every student in the choir that auditioned for him whether they could sing or not. I was flabrgassted

josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Yeah I know what you mean, I might try it out someday! I sing and act, I just have never tried to mime, but it sounds awesome!

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Good for you! My comment got all goofed up! Anyway, life is too short not to enjoy it and do the things you want to do in life. Just think, with mime you don't have to memorize any lines. lol

josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Haha, that is so very true! :)

Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

In the painting world, I imagine, mime artistry would be comparable to impressionist paintings. It takes imagination and intellect to be relatable to the masses. Great article, Suzette.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

I agree with your comparision, Amy, with impressionists paintings. Marceau certainly left an "impression" on his audiences. Thanks for stopping by to read this piece.

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

Thanks for the history of this talented man. He turned mime into a legitimate art form. He was amazing.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks for stopping by to read this Hyphen. I enjoyed writing it. Some people are just geniuses and know what the public wants and will enjoy.

Fennelseed profile image

Fennelseed 4 years ago from Australia

I have always been fascinated by the work of Marcel Marceau, but didn't know a lot of his background. Now I do and his story is quite amazing. The clip demonstrates this artist's incredible talent. A very enjoyable hub hightlighting the mime master of all time. My votes and best wishes to you, Suzette and sharing.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Annie: He was the best! I didn't know how he started miming until I researched this myself. What an amazing man! Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for stopping by to read and comment!

Genna East profile image

Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Excellent article, Suzette! He took the premise of a clown and revitalized the art form of mime to perfection. There was no one else like him. :-) Voted way up.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Genna: Thanks so much for reading this. I am glad you enjoyed it as I so enjoyed reading your article. Your poem was so creative and wonderful to read. Marceau certainly deserves these two tributes as he was a unique, creative and genius mime performer.

SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

SANJAY LAKHANPAL 2 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

I saw the performance of Marceau for the first time in the hub video above in which he certainly speaks volumes without uttering word. But this sole video is insufficient to enjoy the incredible talent of the artist. Please upload more videos. Nice hub and voted up.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Sanjay: Thank you for your suggestion. I will look into it. I usually try to find the best video to present what I am saying in the hub. But, I will look for some more. He was amazing and yes, I agree, could say more by being silent than all the words in the world. He really was a master at pantomime. Thanks so much for reading and for your suggestion!

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