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In Memorium, 9-27: Marcel Marceau
The Silence Heard 'Round the World

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak

"The mime Marcel Marceau is dead, his personage Bip survives him."

-- Headline in Le Monde, Tuesday

LES EYZIES (Dordogne), France -- The mime Marcel Marceau, who passed Saturday in Paris at the age of 84, after singularly carving out a space for his art, achieved the dream of all dancers: to give silence, as he said (and as Le Monde reminded us Tuesday), the echo of time. (Contrast this achievement -- a theater artist constructing one of the most eloquent dramatic oeuvres of the last 60 years without using a single word -- with the many modern dance choreographers of the last decade who can't seem to be quiet.) He also, as his U.S. agent Tony Micucci told the BBC this week, did it with a humanity that "tore right into the soul" of his audience.

With his pinpoint sense of timing, Marceau would have appreciated that the same issue of Le Monde which reported his passing noted the recent publication, by the Holocaust Memorial museum in Washington, of 116 photographs of German authorities and personnel at the Auschwitz death camp having a good time in their daily lives. (The front page headline, just centimeters to the right of a cartoon of Marceau's Bip in the next column tipping his famous faded top-hat with a rose on top: "Auschwitz, the happy side.") At work, meanwhile, the Germans were killing, among others, Marcel's father, an Alsacian Jew deported there from France. While the young Marcel Mangel, as he was known then, was already oriented towards mime, his own experience back in Occupied France played a major role in his choice of metier. As recounted by Le Monde's Brigitte Salino (and roughly translated here):

"There was above all the silence in which he was obliged to live. Marcel Mangel was 20 years old when he joined the Resistance. At one moment, he found himself a teacher in an orphanage whose godfather was the (Vichy government leader) Marshall Petain. At another, he was surrounded by miliciens, who let him go after seeing his impassable attitude.

"It is this double lesson, of silence and of the gesture, on which was partly founded his choice of mime. 'I have had enough of lying like I had to do in the Resistance,' he said. Furthermore, he did not forget that which he recalled to Le Monde in 1997: 'The people who returned from the camps cannot talk about them, do not know how to recount (their experience).'"

Marceau would go on to have his own lessons to leave for the world. Here are two of his practical and performing lessons which still hold true for dancers:

There's a myth abroad that we in Europe live in some kind of arts funding nirvana. In fact -- and here's the rub -- this only holds true (at least in France) for artists who have the official stamp of state and establishment approval, often determined by a narrow, even ideological clique of bureaucratic intellectuals. Marcel Marceau had to make his own way, largely without state funding, even more so after the student and worker-led revolt of 1968, which placed a premium on verbal agitation and made mime seem old-fashioned. (The San Francisco 'Mime' Troupe, remember, eventually talked.) And yet, drawing on his popularity touring abroad (to the point of being responsible for the founding of mime theaters in some countries) and personal grit and determination, he succeeded, even founding his own school in Paris in 1979.

The other lesson, particularly trenchant for modern dance in a time when many choreographers (at least here in Europe) have misinterpreted the Judson legacy of 'pedestrian' dance as involving 'distancing,' comes from what he told Radio France in an interview some 30 years ago: For Marcel Marceau, the mask -- in his case, Bip's white-face -- was not a way of disguising one from one's audience, but of 'opening' oneself to them.

(To read more on Marcel Marceau, see this review by Angela Jones, and this one by myself.)

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