World famous mime Marcel Marceau once justified his insistence on silence with the question, “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?” Marceau, who dedicated his life to the creation of such moments, died in Paris, at the age of 84.
When Marceau appeared in Mel Brook’s spoof Silent Movie, he uttered the film’s only spoken word: “Non!” It’s a humorous in-joke as Marceau famously said, “Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop.” He was best known for his character Bip, whose leotard, soft shoes, white clown makeup and a black opera hat adorned with a red flower became an icon.
Though far from Marceau’s only on-stage persona, Bip’s performances ran the gamut of human experience. Marceau likened Bip to a modern day Don Quixote, calling him a character “alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.”
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel in 1923 in Strasbourg, France. His father was a singer, a fact many credit for Marceau’s exposure to the dramatic arts. When the Germans stormed France, Marceau moved to the southwest of the country and changed his name from Mangel to Marceau in order to hide his Jewish origin. He and his brother Alain worked for the French Resistance, forging birthdates on paperwork so that children appeared too young to deport. Marceau told reporters in 2000, “Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug…That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another.”
Though Marceau escaped the concentration camps in time, his father died tragically at Auschwitz. When asked about his father’s 1944 death, Marceau told press, “Yes, I cried for him.” But then Marceau mentioned the millions of others lost to the Holocaust, suggesting that however painful the death of his father, he is not alone in his loss.
Marceau’s mime character Bip famously evolved on a smoky stage in the Left Bank Cabaret Theatre de Poche, but Marceau cited other sources of inspiration for this character. Resembling Harlequin of the Commedia dell’Arte, Bip also took after Marceau’s other, more acrobatic inspirations: Keaton and Chaplin. Marceau also famously inspired other artists. Michael Jackson‘s moonwalk is one such inspiration, which Jackson took from Marceau’s performance “walking against the wind.”
Also influenced by Harry Langdon, the coy and gentile comedian who temporarily eclipsed Chaplin in his heyday, Marceau is recognized for bringing the art of mime back into the sun after the silent comedians overshadowed the performance tradition in the teens and twenties.
After a two year stint directing the Ecole Internationale de Mime, Marceau founded his own school, Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame in 1978. Marceau worked tirelessly and refused to stop even in his elder years. When an ulcer threatened his health in 1985 he took all of five months off before returning to the stage.
The post-war generation grew up with Marceau and in 2001 he was asked to be the United Nations goodwill ambassador to the aging/older generation.
Bip graced American TV screens in the 1950s, most memorably performing the passage “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death” for which Marceau ineffably transforms himself from a baby emerging from the birth canal, to a child, an adult, and an elder. In the final, sweet moment of “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death,” Bip passes away gently, eliciting in the viewer a poignant and tearless (even joyful) sigh. And though such moments might inspire grief, Marceau’s final act was sweet and fearless, a kindly reminder of humanity rather than a rebellion against an inevitable end.
Marceau passed away Saturday. Details on his funeral at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery are pending.