This morning I received word that one of world's great theatrical artists, and a personal hero of mine, Marcel Marceau, had died at the age of 84. In memory I am reposting a blog entry I wrote some three years ago shortly after I saw him for what would be the first and only time outside his film and television appearances. Marceau was a giant in the field of mime, so much so, that anyone working in the form had to define their work in relation to him. The following entry is slightly modified from its previous appearance.
Meeting Marcel Marceau
Friday, September 17th 2004:
Earlier this year I had the time to participate in a mime workshop given at MIT as part of their January session. It was mostly for newbies, but I learned a few new illusions, offered some fruits of my own knowledge and experience, and had some fun. I stayed in touch with a number of the participants and so when the opportunity came to go as a group to see Marcel Marceau and La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame at the American Repertory Theatre, I joined them again.
I had never seen Marceau live before this. I had seen brief film clips of performances and many photographs-- mostly from Ben Martin's Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime taken from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These had allowed me to study his form very intently-- even the photographs allowed me to closely observe his immobilities, isolations, and use of fixed points.
After what sounded like a heavy wooden staff being banged upon the stage from behind the curtain, the curtain rose to one of Marceau's students in a fanciful costume and a banner announcing the first act: "The Creation of the World." The lights lowered and she disappeared. When the lights rose again, the 81 year old Marceau was in plié, his hands crossed, his mouth held open like a mask from ancient Greek drama, frozen and eternal like the face of God as his hands enacted the seven days of creation as described in chapter one of Genesis. Then he told the tale of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and their expulsion from Eden in the second chapter. I had seen parts of it reinterpreted by Axel Jodorowsky in Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Santa Sangre (both Jodorowskys had worked with Marceau.) Seated in the second row, I could see every subtlety of Marceau's technique. I could also see that his movements, while graceful and controlled were also that of an old man. However, his age gave this piece even more power. I had seen a similar intense focus and power in the movements of an aged body when working with Bill Barnum, only two years Marceau's junior, the seeming contradiction seemed fitting.
Marceau performed nearly an hour's worth of solo material with just short breaks as the members of his company unfurled banners announcing each piece. The Bip pieces were, of course, very influenced by Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character-- but there is a huge different between a mime on film, interacting with props, a set, and other actors and a mime on stage who creates the illusion of all these things.
After an intermission, La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame took the stage for three ensemble pieces. The first, "The Wandering Monk", is based on a Japanese ghost story, and the story telling conventions were a little obscure to me but the movements were wonderful and evoked both the corporeal work of Étienne Decroux as well as karate kata. "The Masquerade Ball" was pretty straight forward plot-wise and contained some balletic and acrobatic moments, but my favorite was "The Tiger" which was based on a Chinese tale-- it has comic and dramatic elements represented in mime and Chinese martial arts-- perhaps less corporeal in the sense of Decroux-- but wonderful none the less. The evening's show ended with perhaps five curtain calls and the audience emptied out.
Thanks to one of my MIMEtype friends (what else would mime troupe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology call itself?) we had arrangements to meet Marceau after the show. Since there were too many of us to visit his dressing room so we were reseated in the first two rows of the theater as Marceau emerged from behind the curtain, still dressed as Bip. After thanking us, he told us how glad he was that we saw the Compagnie, as he wished people to know that the world of mime is something far more than white face, Marcel Marceau, and Bip. He spoke of his debt to his "Master", Étienne Decroux, as well as to his own gifts. He then outlined the eclectic training of his students at his school in mime, acting, dance, and fencing. After taking another bow, he returned to the dressing room. We slipped to one of the side lobbies to talk about the show we just saw, the technique, etc. After an hour or so, Marceau emerged, dressed in tweed and argyle, his once dark curly hair turned blond with age (I had noticed that he was wearing a stylized wig, meant to affect the locks of his younger years.) Though he asked that we take no photographs he was happy to spend a few minutes with us, shaking hands with us one by one, as he asked us our names and signed our programs or anything else we had with us-- always with a short note-- sometimes asking for the spelling. When he reached me, I pulled out my copy of the Ben Martin book. Marceau smiled and flipped through it, asking if it is still in print. I told him that I didn't know as I had found mine at a used bookstore-- I have built up a small library on mime by scouring the used stores. I mentioned that my teachers had been students of Decroux as well. He smiled again, asked me my name and signed with a little illustration of a flower on the title page: