Marcel Marceau's Silence Spoke Volumes

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Marcel Marceau; born Marcel Mangel (March, 22 1923 – September, 22 2007) was a French actor and mime most famous for his stage persona as "Bip the Clown". He referred to mime as the "art of silence", and he performed professionally worldwide for over 60 years. As a youth, he lived in hiding and worked with the French Resistance during most of World War II, giving his first major performance to 3000 troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Following the war, he studied dramatic art and mime in Paris.

 

 Marcel in dressing room

 

Marcel Mangel was born in Strasbourg, France, to a Jewish family. His parents were Ann Werzberg and Charles Mangel, a kosher butcher. When Mangel was four years old, the family moved to Lille, but they later returned to Strasbourg.[3] When France entered World War II, Mangel, 16, fled with his family to Limoges. In 1944 Mangel's father was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was killed. Mangel's mother survived.

 

Marcel and Kids 2 

 

Mangel and his younger brother, Alain, adopted the last name "Marceau" during the German occupation of France; the name was chosen as a reference to François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general of the French Revolution. The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges, where they saved numerous children from the race laws and concentration camps, and, after the liberation of Paris, joined the French army. Owing to Marceau's excellent command of the English, French, and German languages, he worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton's army. According to Marceau, when he was five years of age, his mother took him to see a Charlie Chaplin film, which entranced him and led him to want to become a mime. The first time he used mime was after France was invaded, in order to keep Jewish children quiet while he helped them escape to neutral Switzerland. After the war ended in 1945, he enrolled as a student in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris, where he studied with teachers such as Joshua Smith and Étienne Decroux, who had also taught Jean-Louis Barrault.

 

 

In 1959 he established his own pantomime school in Paris, and subsequently set up the Marceau Foundation to promote the art in the U.S. Among his various awards and honours he was made "Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur" (1998) and was awarded the National Order of Merit (1998) in France. He won the Emmy Award for his work on television, was elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, and was declared a "National treasure" in Japan. He was friends with Michael Jackson for nearly 20 years, and Jackson said he would use some of Marceau's techniques in his own dance steps.

 

 Marceland Michael Jackson 2

 

It isn’t easy to turn a biography into poetry. But Shawn Wen does exactly that with her portrait of mime artist Marcel Marceau, who introduced the world to this wordless art form. Wen, a radio producer and multimedia artist, has written her first book with the kind of poetic zeal that suits an artist who practically created silent cinema on stage. Her lyrical essay pirouettes from Marceau’s rescue of children during the Holocaust to his education at Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art in Paris to his acclaimed role playing Bip. But his life wasn’t all heroics and gloss. Wen is quick to include Marceau’s regrets, too. The research here is impressive. Wen mined interviews, reviews and archived performances, even cataloguing his possessions made public after his death in 2007 . Translating Marceau’s backstory is one thing, but evoking his mime performances on the page is an incredibly difficult feat that the author accomplishes successfully.

 

 marcel open hands

 

Wen breaks up her short chapters on Marceau’s upbringing, education and career with many scenes of the mime character Bip. We get a taste of Bip fighting bulls, wooing women in the crowd, mimicking a sea creature. Marceau’s genius still deserves to be seen, but Wen’s evocative writing invites us into the audience to watch the powdered face arch into emotional heights, the body sway against unseen wind. “The mime refashions time,” Wen writes, “sculpting it with a precision instrument. He can suspend it or hasten it at will. He marches in place for three minutes and a lifetime has passed.”

 

Marcel Marceau 1971 

 

If the empty stage is a world without laws, as Wen suggests, then Marceau saw the beauty and the tragedy in the invisible. He became the mayor of his lawless universe. He breathed personalities into his characters who rocketed mime into worldwide attention in the 1970s and 1980s. What was once a European attraction soon gave rise to mime troupes and shows across the United States. Marceau was on top of the world, but still he couldn’t keep his masked grin on his real face.

 

 twentyminutesofsilence     shawnwen

" A Twenty Minutes Silence Followed by Applause" by Shawn Wen

 

Wen characterizes Marceau as a tormented artist who didn’t express himself vocally to his three ex-wives and who was constantly absent from his four children. He could tell stories with his body but couldn’t speak openly with his loved ones. He silent-cried. His wives didn’t know how to access a part of him that he opened only in front of audiences. And the work wore on him, too. “The mime keeps count in heartbeats and breaths,” Wen writes. “After decades, he is weathered.”

 

 

By framing Marceau’s life as a lyrical ode, we aren’t bogged down by dates and key accomplishments. We get just a passing tour of his commitment to saving Jewish kids in the Holocaust by dressing them up as campers and marching them out of Nazi-occupied France into Switzerland. She only briefly notes his relationship with Michael Jackson, who reportedly borrowed Marceau’s footwork to create his moonwalk. (“Michael has the soul of a mime,” said Marceau, as if they were two brothers separated by oceans and time.)  We are instead let into the life of an artist whose movements became the language of his art. As Wen writes, “The body is boneless, loose/like elastic, the form/of anything that vibrates or throbs.”

 

 Marcel Marceau autograph

 

We learn that Marceau was a “life-sized marionette, tumbling for our amusement.” When death comes, Wen writes, “proteins shatter, a pile of shards in a dustpan, loose pebbles in a kaleidoscope.” Her writing acts almost as a prayer in response to losing another star in a sky that dims with each passing guru. “A Twenty Minutes Silence Followed by Applause,”  offers an invigorating and memorable paean to Marceau’s talent and tragedies, wrapped in a melodic critique that is unafraid to show the pain of an artist who sometimes felt trapped in a box.

 

 

In 2000, Marceau brought his full mime company to New York City for presentation of his new mimodrama, The Bowler Hat, previously seen in Paris, London, Tokyo, Taipei, Caracas, Santo Domingo, Valencia (Venezuela) and Munich. From 1999, when Marceau returned with his classic solo show to New York and San Francisco after 15-year absences for critically acclaimed sold-out runs, his career in America enjoyed a remarkable renaissance with strong appeal to a third generation. He latterly appeared to overwhelming acclaim for extended engagements at such legendary American theaters as The Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, demonstrating the timeless appeal of the work and the mastery of this unique artist. Marceau's new full company production Les Contes Fantastiques (Fantasy Tales) opened to great acclaim at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris.

 

Marcel Mengle Grave 2 1

 

Marceau died at the racetrack in Cahors, France, at the age of 84. At his burial ceremony, the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (which Marceau long used as an accompaniment for an elegant mime routine) was played, as was the sarabande of Bach's Cello Suite No. 5. Marceau was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In 1999 New York City declared 18 March "Marcel Marceau Day".