Marcel Marceau

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau (born 1923) has been acknowledged as the world's greatest practitioner of pantomime. He revived this ancient form of acting and created a new school to train young people who aspired to follow his style.

Marcel Marceau was born in Strasbourg, France, on March 22, 1923. His father, Charles, was a butcher and his mother, Ann, née Werzberg, was a native Alsatian. Later the family moved to Lille where his father also raised pigeons on the roof. Marcel remembered in his mature years that he was raised hearing the sound of wing beats. The sound enchanted him; so did silent films. Marceau once commented, "When I was five years old my mother took me to see Charlie Chaplin's moving pictures…. I sat entranced…. It was then that I decided to become a mime." Borrowing his father's pants and using ink to paint on a moustache, he tried to imitate the famous comedian of the silent screen. Soon he began imitating birds, plants, trees, and eventually people. Encouraged by his parents, he turned to a career in the theater. Much later—in 1967—he met Chaplin for the first time, only briefly between planes at Paris' Orly Airport, where they expressed their mutual admiration. He was deeply touched. When parting he brought the old man's hands to his lips and kissed them.

Marceau returned to Alsace, where he entered the Lycée Fustel de Coulanges. But he was unable to complete his training. In 1940, just ahead of the German invaders, he sought refuge in Limoges. There he studied ceramics, and at the age of 17 he won the Masson prize for his enamel work. He also studied oratory with Dorsanne. The war, however, brought personal tragedy. His father was seized by the Germans and died in Auschwitz. Marcel joined his brother in the resistance movement; his activities consisted of making fake ration cards and smuggling children into Switzerland.

When the police began to close in, Marceau fled to Paris where a cousin saved him by placing him in the Maison d'Enfants de Sèvres, an orphanage. There Marceau taught dramatics. In his spare time he also began studying with Charles Dullin in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. He also came under the tutelage of the master of mime, Etienne Decroux, of whom he said, "He was a kind of Christ…. In his class we dedicated our bodies to the discipline of silence." The art of pantomime did not attract many students, and even fewer spectators; in fact, the children of the Maison de Sèvres were his first audience. Small wonder that he came to believe that chiefly the young understood his art. Decroux was his most critical admirer and told him, "Marceau, you are a born mime." He interrupted his studies in December, 1944, to join the French army. In Germany he played in a military theater before troops until he was demobilized in 1946. Immediately he returned to playing minor roles at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater. As a member of the Decroux Company he put on his first mimodrama, "Praxitele and the Golden Fish," which won enough praise to launch his career.

In 1947 Marceau set up his own company at the Theatre de Poche (Pocket Theatre), a tiny hall with only 80 seats. Here he created his own whitefaced clown, Bip, a name he derived from the youngster Pip in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations. Bip's costume consisted of a broken top hat with a red flower and striped pull-over middy to symbolize the gaiety of Paris streets and white pants. Bip first appeared on Marceau's 24th birthday in "Bip and the Street Girl." Pantomime did not attract large audiences at first, and he had to perform in cabarets to earn enough to live on until he won success in 1952 with "Pierrot of Montmartre" in the 1,200 seat Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. By this time Marceau had attained fame beyond the confines of Paris and France. In 1949 his company toured Israel and Holland, in 1951 it played in Berlin, in 1955 the United States and Canada. Beginning in New York, the tour—originally scheduled for two weeks—lasted three months. This enabled him to become famous not just in Europe, but throughout the world. "When I went back to Paris after being a hit on Broadway in 1955, everything changed for me. It was a new, almost frightening experience," he recalled in the New York Times.

Marceau also found himself involved in other media. Television offered him vast audiences; he even won two Emmy Awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and showed himself to be articulate when he was interviewed. Through his work, Marceau obtained a knighthood in the French Legion of Honor, an officer's rank in the National Order of Merit, and a comedy rank in the National Order of Arts and Letters of France. He appeared in six feature films, among them Barbarella (1968), Shanks (1974), in which he played the leading role, and Silent Movie. He also wrote a novel, Pimparello.

Marceau truly became a worldwide figure, eventually giving 18,000 performances in over a hundred countries. Marceau's original mime company disbanded in 1964, but in the 1980s a subsidy from the French government enabled him to form a new company, with graduates from his Paris mime school. The latter was founded in 1978, and instructed students in the art of mime. Among the often-sophisticated plots Marceau used in his performances were adaptations of Gogol's The Overcoat and Kafka's The Trial. He acknowledged owing a great deal to the silent comics, including Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Marceau summed up his career in the New York Times by commenting, "The art of mime is an art of metamorphosis…. [Y]ou cannot say in mime what you can say better in words. You have to make a choice. It is the art of the essential. And you cannot lie. You have to show the truth."

Further Reading

Biographies of Marceau in English include Ben Martin's Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime (1979); and in French Guy and Jeanne Verrient-Lefert's Marcel Marceau ou l'aventure du silence (Descléand De Brouwer, 1974) which consists of a very long interview with Marceau; There is also information in Pierre Ricky's Jeu Silencieux (edition de l'Amicole, 1970), a study of pantomime. Critical evaluations of him can be found in the New York Times (September 18th, 1955); New Yorker (October 15th, 1955); Horizon (April, 1978); People (February 12th, 1979); and New York Times (December 2nd, 1993). □

views updated

Marceau, Marcel

Born Marcel Mangel, March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France; died September 22, 2007, in Cahors, France. Mime. For more than 50 years, Marcel Marceau graced the stage with his silent presence, bringing the art of mime back into popularity for audiences in his home country of France and abroad. He toured the world, giving an average of 200 shows per year for a total of more than 15,000 performances before his retirement in 2005.

In addition to being a world-famous performer, Marceau was also the creator of the International School of Mime in Paris, where he taught. Appearing in a number of movies, he was always a silent character, with the exception of his cameo in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, in which he is the only character to have a spoken line. During the 1970s, Marceau appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. He had an extensive repertoire, but the best recognized of his characters was Bip, his Don Quixote-like innocent whose adventures were popular on stages in the United States and Europe.

The son of Jewish parents Charles and Anne Man-gel, Marceau had a love of physical theater from the time he was a boy. He was captivated by Charlie Chaplin’s work, and he would mimic Chaplin’s moves and costuming in the streets of Strasbourg. During World War II, Marceau changed his name upon moving to Paris, hiding his Jewish identity from the Gestapo and French police. He and his brother joined the French Resistance, and Marceau discovered that his talent for art allowed him to forge papers for Jewish children. In 1944, he joined the French Army, and, due to his skill at speaking English, he worked as a liaison to the American troops. His first public performance as a mime was in front of an audience of 3,000 American soldiers. The performance was reviewed well by Stars and Stripes.

After the war, Marceau attended Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art, studying under the mime Étienne Decroux. Marceau had intended to become a spoken-word actor, but he was told he was a natural mime. Marceau joined Jean-Louis Barrault’s theater company to work with Barrault, also a noted mime, and, after a few years, Marceau was doing well enough to form his own theater company.

Although his skills were valued in France, it was not until his first tour in the United States that he gained international renown. From 1955 to 1956, Marceau performed at an Off-Broadway theater in a show that was so successful, it was moved to Broadway. Marceau “should be snared with one of his own imaginary butterly nets and trapped inside the proscenium of an American theater for the entire season, and perhaps for the rest of his natural life,” wrote a critic of the original New York performance, quoted in the New York Times.

For Marceau, being a mime was not only being an actor, but a sculptor, a writer, a painter, and a musician. “It’s not dance,” he said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not slapstick. It is essence and restraint.” Marceau was an expert at representing all of those aspects. “He was the theater company all wrapped up in one person,” Billy the Mime, a student of Marceau’s, told People. “He was the director, the writer, the actor—he even made the sets appear.”

Marceau wrote and designed a number of shows, from Creation, which depicted the Biblical tale of the beginning of the world and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death, a performance of the ages of man, from embryo to death. His easily recognizable and highly imitated Walking Against the Wind is said to have been the inspiration for pop singer Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” dance move. A contributor to the Times of London credited Marceau’s precedent for the high success of Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean. Marceau’s impact on theater and the art of mime in particular were discussed by Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times: “Mr. Marceau remains a model, not a fossil. Anyone who has never seen the staples of the repertory with which Mr. Marceau has toured the United States since 1955 should beat a path [to his performances.]”

Despite the silence of his profession, Marceau was always eager to share tales, and he was active as an ambassador of sorts for the French government. In 1970, he was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for cultural affairs. In fact, off stage, Marceau was known for his chattiness. “Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop,” he was quoted on as having quipped. In addition to the Lé-gion d’Honneur, Marceau was awarded numerous degrees, and, due to his continued activity as he aged, he was invited to be an ambassador for a 2002 United Nations conference on aging.

Upon receiving word of Marceau’s death, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France remarked, as quoted in the New York Times, “France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors.” Marceau died at his home in Cahors, France, to where he had retired in 2005. He is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Michel and Baptiste, and two daughters from his third marriage, Camille and Aurélia. Sources: CNN. com, (September 25, 2007); Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2007, p. B9; New York Times, September 24, 2007, p. A25; People, October 8, 2007, p. 87; Times (London), September 24, 2007.

—Alana Joli Abbott

views updated


MARCEAU, MARCEL (1923– ), French mime. Marceau was born in Strasbourg, the son of a butcher who was executed by the Nazis during World War ii. Marceau worked for the French underground, helping Jewish children to cross the border into Switzerland. In 1944, he entered Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art and studied with Etienne Decroux (1898–1991). He made his début as Harlequin in Jean-Louis Barrault's production of Baptiste in 1947. That same year he formed his own company and created his famous character "Bip," a flour-faced clown always in conflict with the physical world. He wrote The Story of Bip, which was published in 1976, and celebrated Bip's 50th anniversary in 1997. Marceau, who is the best-known exponent of modern mime, toured either as a solo artist or with a small company in many parts of the world. In his U.S. tours in 1955–56 and 2000 he also made many television appearances. His silent eloquence and unique synthesis of corporeal mime with 19th century pantomime captured the public's imagination wherever he appeared. Most of Marceau's programs consisted of small sketches featuring "Bip," but in 1951 he created an extended drama, The Overcoat, based on the novel by Gogol. He also made a number of films. In 1971 he collaborated with the Hamburg Ballet on a version of Candide. Marceau described mime as "the art of expressing feelings by attitudes and not a means of expressing words through gestures." In 1998, French President Jacques Chirac named Marceau a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit. He was elected a member of the Academies of Fine Arts in Berlin and Munich, the Academie of Beaux Arts in France, and the Institut de France.

add. bibliography:

Y. Karsh, Portraits of Greatness (1959), 124; B. Martin, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime (1979).

[Selma Jeanne Cohen /

Amnon Shiloah (2nd ed.)]

views updated

Marcel Marceau (märsĕl´ märsō´), 1923–2007, French mime, b. Strasbourg as Marcel Mangel. Marceau studied under Charles Dullin and master mime Étienne Decroux in Paris. He gained renown in 1947 with the creation of Bip, a silent, sad, white-faced clown with a battered stovepipe hat decorated with a limp red flower. Almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of the art of mime in modern times, he performed an average of 200 shows a year, most of them outside France. Marceau and his Compagnie de Mimodrame (est. 1949) appeared frequently in the United States from 1955 to 2000. In 1978 he founded the Ecole de mimodrame de Paris, which has trained hundreds of performers. Marceau appeared in more than a dozen films, including Un jardin public (1955), and also made lithographs and wrote children's books.

See his Bip in a Book (2002, with B. Goldstone); G. Mendoza, The Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book (1970).

views updated

Marceau, Marcel (1923– ) French mime artist. His best-known creation was Bip, a sad, white-faced clown with a tall, battered hat. Marceau made several films, including Un Jardin Public (1955), and made a memorable appearance in Silent Movie (1976).