Corrections or additions?

This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the March 12, 2003

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Art of Silence from Its Talkative Master

The first thing one notices about world-famous mime

Marcel Marceau is how much he loves to talk. The second thing is how

strikingly articulate, wise, and generous he is with his thoughts

and ideas.

The man who has been called "France’s greatest gift to the world,

rivaled only by croissants," is due to make an appearance at the

State Theatre on Wednesday, March 19, and to remind all of us that

silence is indeed golden.

"As a child in Strasbourg, I was very influenced by Charlie

Chaplin,"

said Marceau, 78, during a recent telephone interview from Clearwater,

Florida, where he was on the first lap of a major American tour.

"I

took my imitation of Chaplin out into the streets to my little

friends,

and when I started miming, I got a lot of attention."

But a "minor" interruption called World War II, and the

occupation

of Paris, interrupted those carefree childhood years for Marceau.

"I went into that war and fought side-by-side with the Americans,

occupying Germany," he says with pride. "When I returned to

Paris in 1946, I thought it was to pursue my studies in art."

But soon enough, this would-be painter yielded the visual arts to

the performing arts, studying the craft of pantomime in Paris. His

teacher: the celebrated "Father of Modern Mine," Etienne

Decroux,

regarded as one of the great luminaries of the theater world who

turned

to an ancient theatrical form with his students.

The roots of mime reside in commedia dell’arte, a form of

entertainment

that appeared to rely on improvisation, but in actual fact, had a

format that depended on the innate skills of the actors. The form

relates more to the manner of performance than the matter, or subject.

Commedia dell’arte began in Italy during the Renaissance and spread

to all parts of Europe, especially France.

So it was a rich tradition that Marceau inherited, and from the very

best of teachers. It was Decroux who also taught Jean-Louis Barrault,

the French actor who immortalized mime in Marcel Carne’s 1945 classic

film "Les Enfants du paradis."

But soon enough, this would-be painter yielded the visual arts to

the performing arts, studying the craft of pantomime in Paris. His

very first performance won him such acclaim that Marceau knew he had

found his calling — and he never looked back. Along with his

celebrated

stage performances, he has done films (he said the single spoken word

— "No" — in Mel Brooks’ "Silent Movie") and

television, including guest spots on Johnnie Carson and Merv Griffin’s

shows.

From his earliest performing days, he created a

signature

character who he dubbed "Bip," a clown who became his own

version of Chaplin’s "Little Tramp." By 1949, Marceau had

formed his own company, the only mime company in the world at that

time. Marceau’s "mimodramas" played to rave reviews, initially

in France, then throughout Europe, and in 1955, in the United States.

"Your country," said Marceau, "had everything. It had

jazz, it had musical comedy, it had opera and dance and slapstick.

But it didn’t have mime. So this was new to Americans, and the welcome

was — well, magnificent."

Film stars like Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Red Skelton, and the Marx

Brothers flocked to see the silent Frenchman who so enchanted

audiences.

"I think they were all amazed by the art of silence — "

But Marceau then quickly amends his remark. "Silence for me

actually

does not exist — not when I work with my soul, my body, my

imagination,"

said the mime who has won, among many other accolades, the highest

honor bestowed by the French government, his designation as an

"Officier

de la Legion d’Honneur."

Marceau’s mission: to make the visible invisible, the invisible

visible,

and to offer his audiences the gift of infinite, seemingly limitless

expression. "If I were just silent, the public would fall

asleep,"

says Marceau wryly. "You must give much more than silence."

Marceau has in his repertoire more than 50 pantomime sketches, and

about the same number of Bip stories. "Bip is actually my Don

Quixote who tilts against the windmills of life. In Bip, we can see

ourselves and all our foibles."

His love of the mime form is so marrow deep that Marcel Marceau has

created a school in Paris where he trains and mentors would-be mimes

from around the world. Two, in fact, are traveling with him on his

current American tour. "They present the show with me — and

they present it with (he pauses) attitude. Yes, attitude," he

says.

Marceau, who has literally traveled the world with his show, reports

an amazing universality in audience response. "You notice small

differences — the Japanese were more shy than Americans at

first,"

he said. "But mostly, people in India and China, Australia and

Europe, all laugh at the same things and understand the sadness in

other things. It’s everywhere the same."

Marceau happened to be touring in the United States just after 9/11.

It was, for him, one of the most gratifying tours of his career:

"People

were so grateful to be entertained and I was so touched to bring them

my art form and see their response."

He has entertained the likes of Nehru and Ghandi in

his earliest days, and later, Presidents Clinton and Johnson, former

French President Francois Mitterand and present President Jacques

Chirac. But Marceau insists that he is just as driven to delight

everyday

audiences. "Every performance has to be like the first time. Every

audience has to be like the most challenging you’ve ever faced.

Without

that, you lose your strength."

Although the State Theater show is billed as part of "The Final

Tour of the World’s Greatest Mime," Marceau is non-commital about

retirement. Indeed, he says he will travel as long as his "spirit

holds out."

On March 19 audiences will still have a chance to see the master

Marceau

perform both vintage and new material. He says he will be doing his

famous "Hands" mime, his "Lion Tamer" sketch, and,

via Bip, the comedy "Bip and the Matrimonial Agency."

And he will definitely present one of his most famous sketches,

"Youth,

Maturity, Old Age, and Death," in which in a mere two minutes,

the mime transforms himself from a robust boy into a withered old

man.

On the subject of aging, Marceau is philosophical. "In my youth,

I spent my energy — used it all up, threw it out. Now, I know

how to breathe how to take my time and conserve my energy both on

and off the stage. Now," said Marcel Marceau, "I dig deeper

into my soul and give my audiences even more. I give them, I hope,

everything that is there."

— Sally Friedman

Marcel Marceau, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The legendary mime on what may or may

not be his final tour. $15-$32. Wednesday, March 19, 8 p.m.


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