With Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceau says he was a born mime: "It happened in the womb." When he was a young boy in his native Strasbourg, neighborhood children would bang on his door insisting that he come out and entertain them with his Charlie Chaplin impersonations. His father, a kosher butcher, was killed at Auschwitz and the family eventually moved to Paris where, in 1947, Marceau enrolled in the School for Dramatic Art. He was soon asked by the great Jean-Louis Barrault to join his acting troupe, and there began his work in mime, a singularly pure art form that he has dominated—and popularized worldwide—in the intervening decades.
Marceau's daring imagination and perfectionism rapidly brought him success in his silent art. He developed a style and set standards for mime. His stage is always the same: bare and black, crisscrossed with white light. His assistant, "the presenter of cards," holds up a placard announcing the name of the act and Marceau begins one of his 80-odd mime routines. His clown-white face is painted with red makeup and he wears a black and white striped pullover, white pants and a grey vest. Typically the performance consists half of style studies and half of the experiences of Bip, a downtrodden but indomitable character that Marceau describes as Charlie Chaplin’s younger brother.
Marceau’s genius Tías not gone unrecognized. He has won an American Emmy award and the French government made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. Recently his government gave him a grant to reopen the international school of mime that he first established in the Sixties, but meanwhile he continues to perform. He’s currently playing to sell-out crowds in the United States and Canada—including Hamilton Place, the Ottawa Arts Centre and Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Maclean’s contributing editor Philip Fleishman spoke with Marceau, now in his fifties, in his office in the traditional home of French mime, the ComédieFrançaise in Paris.
Maclean’s: Your work often represents conflicts of emotion. Is it possible to live with much emotion these days?
Marceau: I think people cannot survive in day-to-day life when they are too emotional because it’s a hard world. But an artist recreates emotion, and this has nothing to do with the real emotion you have in
life. It’s make-believe. This is why he’s a poet.
Maclean’s: So the audience lives emotionally through the artist?
Marceau: Yes, this is why the audience has a need to go to the spectacle, to the show. Everyone has to go away from real life from time to time, to escape from real life, to go to the mountains, or to nature, or to hear music, to listen to poetry, or to go to the theatre or the movies—just to dream and to escape a certain reality of life. Of course you have to be emotional, but you must not be overcome by emotion. In the theatre, when an artist recreates emotion, it is stylized. It’s to give the feeling of emotion, the feeling of death, the feeling of life.
Maclean’s: Then what you do on stage is an externalized process, not something that comes from inside?
People are mistrustful of language because they have always been misled bywords
Marceau: It comes from inside, but it’s recreated. It is exactly like Matisse or Rousseau or other great modern painters. They stylize the reality of what they see, and the emotion comes from the involvement we have with this recreation. So in the theatre, it’s the stylized idea of death. I die not falling on the floor but standing, and with a drop of a hand and the drop of the head the public knows I am dead, you see. Everybody knows that it’s a pure illusion, but this is the art of theatre, the kind of theatre I do. Pantomime summons up all the struggles of life, the dreams, the frustrations, the hopes and every feeling we have. The dramatic impact is not unlike the feeling we get from music.
Maclean’s: Is it because words make things concrete that you avoid them?
Marceau: Well, I think we are much nearer poetry. What poetry does is to go away from the real prose, from the reality of everyday words, to create images. Poetry is surrealistic, and often has nothing to do
with logic. In the same way, we use our gestures as symbols.
Maclean’s: How do you choose these symbols?
Marceau: This is one of the mysteries of creation. From where does it come, the gift of creation? I think that some people are gifted to be painters, others to be mathematicians, physicians, and all sorts of métiers. The actor has the gift of recreating not only the feelings but of choosing materials from life which would be exciting to be seen on a stage. The most difficult thing for an artist is the choice.
Maclean’s: You have said that you get many of your symbols from the work of Charles Dickens, particularly Great Expectations.
Marceau: Yes, 1 have been greatly influenced by Dickens. But when you transpose his work into theatre, it’s the image of Dickens, not what he has written, that you portray. Likewise Joyce would be an influence, and Dostoevsky. I say Dickens primarily because my character Bip, the white hero who struggles with the invisible on the stage, was influenced by Pip in Great Expectations. But there is something more. I have a love for Dickens as a writer, apart from his value to me as a mime. Dickens is very visual, his work is very, very good for the theatre or for films. For instance, I did A Christmas Carol, in which I portrayed 20 different characters—all the characters around Scrooge. This was very interesting because I used real sets and played all the characters myself. It was a sort of film. If I did it on stage, I would need an entire cast. This is why mime is not only one man alone like Marceau. You can have a company. You can create mimodramas. As a matter of fact, I had a company for 12 years and I put on mimodramas, and certainly through my tours around the world I have influenced a whole generation. There are some mime companies today who do mimodramas, and I think this is a different way of showing literature—the world of Dickens, the world of Chekhov, of Gogol. But the love of Dickens had an influence not only on my work; he had a big influence on Chaplin, who is also a great mime. Maclean’s: Do you think there is a great similarity between yourself and the characters Chaplin portrayed?
Marceau: Yes, we create a feeling in the same emotional way. But there’s also a big difference because Chaplin of course has another costume—he is Chaplin—and he is surrounded by a real world with real cops, with a whole Victorian society — even when he did Modern Times, for instance, or The Gold Rush. But of course Chaplin is very much influenced by Dickens especially in his early films like Easy Street depicting the slums of London. There you really have a feeling that it’s a description of a Dickens novel.
Maclean’s: But on a more fundamental level, you both represent the modern clown. Marceau: Yes, you are right. We both think that mime can express feelings with-
out words. I would include another mime, Buster Keaton, even Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and all the actors of silent films. If movies had not existed there would have been great mimes in the theatre. Maclean’s: Why did you choose mime? Marceau: Well, I think I chose mime as one chooses to be a musician. When I was a kid those great actors like Chaplin made me laugh and cry and expressed their feel-
I think we must understand that art has nothing to do with reality
ings to the whole world without speaking one word. I said why not recreate it in the theatre? And of course in the theatre it’s very difficult because not only do you have no sets, as I said before, and no characters; you also have to create an invisible world and make it visible without one word. It’s really pure creation I think. And then I was aware that there was in the past a great tradition of mime in France, during the 19th century, the Romantic period. Pierrot, Columbine, Harlequin, all the characters who come from the Commedia dell’arte have influenced even our time, the modern theatre. This is why I decided that there was no reason that this art that was once admired by the Greeks and the Romans should not exist in the present and even in the future, especially in such a visual time as ours—the time of electronics, the time of the affiche (poster), the time of the movies. The eye has become a fantastic me-
dium and people understand even what is not said.
Maclean’s: Do you feel that people are becoming mistrustful of language?
Marceau: Well, this is sentimental. I think people have always been mistrustful of language because there have always been lies within truth. I think that if you look at the past, in politics, for example, you see that people have been misled by words. This has existed since ancient history. But I think that the idea of mime comes more from a unique need of today’s public. Our world is so speedy. You can go to another country in two or three hours, even in one hour—journeys which once would have taken days. All nationalities, borders, have become more elastic. Yet there is great understanding among all the people in the world—all the races—and this is why mime has become very important as a means of communication.
Maclean’s: Mime is a bridge between different nationalities?
Marceau: Absolutely. In the theatre, in life, if people don’t know how to use sign language, they cannot communicate. But in the theatre, we have the choice to recreate our sign language and everybody understands. I have played in 65 countries and in every country people laugh and cry for the same reasons.
Maclean’s: How do you perform mime? Do you agree that it’s based on a tension, whether it’s tension of your arm on an imaginary wall, or the tension of the anguished man behind the smiling facade?
Marceau: Yes, without tension you cannot create solidity. Because when you create a world, making the invisible visible, characters, objects, people . . . you have to have what we call in French un point d’appui, a holding point in space where you can grip. The dancer uses illusion through the leap in the air, or maybe on the floor too in slow motion. But it’s the physical technique of dance which gives the art of dance its beauty, and it’s the physical technique of mime which gives mime its beauty. Maclean’s: Your description of two opposing forces sounds as though it is derivedfrom an Eastern philosophy.
Marceau: Yes, the Yin and the Yang of the Chinese, the Zen philosophy, absolutely. The Chinese say that all life is ruled by antagonistic forces. Every word has its contrast: black-white, light-shadow, darkbright, sun-moon, you see, and when the child is born and comes out from the womb of his mother, when he cries and stretches out, it is exactly from this moment that life could not exist without the contrast of tirerpousser, the Yin and the Yang, the push and the pull. Without it nothing could exist because we would float in space. There would be no magnetism, no pulling forces. But in our short lives, because we are living so ephemerally, the miracle of man is to think that he is immortal, and in his short life he can create beauty, he can create immortality. This is why civilization has been created and this is why life is worth living.
Maclean’s: How do you view the inevitability of your own death?
Marceau: Well, I think this is something which we have to overcome of course. When you are young you don’t think that you could die one day, even if you know it. It is a very abstract image. When you’re middle-aged you begin to think about it. When you are a creator you can think about it but you have to think more about creation. I think people like Picasso, even when they are 80, still cling to life. When they stop creating, they feel death is coming. You will sometimes see old people begin to die when they stop working. I think that you cannot live without working or without being active.
Maclean’s: What are your goals?
Marceau: At this point my goal is to continue to be on stage and to have a company. If I have, let’s say, 20 more years of health I will create a company. But you never know what is going to happen of course—the unexpected can always happen—but you have to have a feeling that you are immortal. Ifyou do not have a feeling that you are immortal, you can give up today.
Maclean’s: But you’ve obviously reached a plateau. You’ve put mime in a position in the world that it’s never been in before—it’s become a universal language. Where would you go from there?
Marceau: You wonder what will happen to mime when I die? I say you have to be very philosophical about it and very objective. For instance, the Eastern people have taught us that death does not have to be a catastrophe. You have to believe that millions of people will live through you and that you are part of millions. It’s very hard to accept, but it’s the only way to survive. We are exactly like leaves or flowers. They decay and there are new flowers coming out. They are different flowers, but they are flowers. Men and women die and there are other men and women coming and then they are immortal because there will always be men and women and humanity will survive, and survive even if the specific personality of somebody is gone. If you don’t accept this philosophy, then you prepare yourself for a very pessimistic life. But what is fantastic is that there has always been just one Mozart, one Beethoven, one Bach. This makes it so fantastic that through one individual creator all men recognize their own life, and this is why Mozart or Leonardo da Vinci, all the great artists, the scientists—Einstein even—they all live in us, and this is why for me they still live.
Maclean’s: Is being a social critic as important to you as being an artist?
Marceau: Yes, yes. You have to be a social critic in the sense that you must be involved in your time and voice your convictions when you create. This is why some of my themes are political. For example, The Cage is the problem of man and freedom; The Trial is a problem of man and routine, men just doing their job with no
interest in creating; The Soldier is a cry against war; The Tree, a new pantomime I have, is an association between life of a man and life of a tree; The Creation Of The World is all the mystery of the life which has been given to us. And so you are involved in political aspects, in philosophical aspects, in symbols of your life. You see that without society, without the people around you, without the world, the theatre
If I discovered the mystery of my life maybe then it would be time to finish it
would not exist. The great French actor, Louis Jouvet said that men invented the theatre to discover the mystery of life. Maclean’s: Have you discovered the mystery of your life?
Marceau: I don’t think so. I would think that if I had discovered the mystery of my life, maybe it would be time to finish it. The marvel of life is that the further you go, the further you aim.
Maclean’s: Would you like to work more in films?
Marceau: I have done many films, but they’re mostly short ones. A Christmas Carol, which we talked about earlier, was 50 minutes long. I have filmed part of my work, and that will be important in 20 years when my character will no longer be able to be what he is now. I think every artist should protect his life this way if he can, if he has something to say, of course. Maclean’s: Do you feel a need to leave
somethingas a person, not simply as an artist? Marceau: If I didn’t have that need maybe I would not be an actor or a creator. A creator always has the ambition to leave something; maybe he succeeds, maybe not. He does not know what will happen after his death. But the aspect of what 1 do on stage is so unique. Only the theatre—not film— can give this poetic feeling of magic. I think that like a magician on film, mime looks like a trick, whereas in the theatre the public knows that it’s pure illusion and there is no trick.
Maclean’s: Is mime the most important thing in your life?
Marceau: Well, I am not only a mime. I am also a painter. I have done a children’s book, The Story Of Bip, which I illustrated. 1 did 22 illustrations for it in both watercolor and black and white. But it is not my first book. 1 also wrote La Ballade de Paris du Monde—a collectors’ item of watercolors and poems. I have done two books of lithography and 1 am planning exhibitions of paintings in Germany, France and the United States. You know Ingres, the great 19th-century painter and pencil drawer, had a hobby he liked: he loved to play the violin, like Jack Benny, or like Einstein. And we say in French, son violon d’Ingres. It’s an expression which is not known in English.
Maclean’s: What could painting give you that pantomime doesn’t?
Marceau: Oh, well, for instance, a concrete image of what I cannot give on stage. Angels, for instance, flying in the sky. You can sometimes paint the impossible. Maclean’s: Bringing your work up to date, you recently made a film. Silent Movie, with Mel Brooks, in which you were the only character in the film who spoke.
Marceau: Mel Brooks wanted to make a joke because that is Mel. He said every actor who normally speaks will be silent— and the only person who will say “no” because he doesn’t want to play in that film is Marcel Marceau, who never talks on stage. He didn’t want to engage me as a mime because he said the fun of this film is that the people who perform the mime are really not mimes, even if they are talented. For instance Sid Caesar, who is not a classical mime as I am, is very talented, but in another style. Marty Feldman has a gift for mime, too. But the fun was to show Marceau as Bip appearing as the only one who was not interested in making the film.
I made another film called Shanks, directed by Bill Castle, which unfortunately was not a commercial success. It was a surrealistic film dealing with the fantastique, using pantomime. It’s shown in film clubs now but it’s not very commercial. My object now is to create a national mime centre in France where mimes from all over the world can enroll and create. The government has helped me with a subsidy— which is not strong enough—so now I am involved in a project to create a world mime centre this year, including a school and a company,