Marcel Marceau: The Sound of Silence

October 22, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The art of mime, and Marcel Marceau. Spencer Michels begins our look.

SPENCER MICHELS: The artist is Marcel Marceau, the world’s best known pantomimist, who at 76 is still performing his silent roles, here during a recent run at San Francisco’s Theater on the Square. This is Marceau as Bip, the character described by one critic as “torn on the battlefield of life between comedy and tragedy.” Bip is Marceau’s most famous and familiar creation. Here he is as a porcelain salesman, climbing to the top shelves to satisfy a customer, who then breaks a large pot, and costs poor Bip his job. Like Marceau, Bip is no youngster. He was created in 1947 in Paris, just three years after Marceau began studying drama and mime. Marceau was born Marcel Mangel to a Jewish family in Strasbourg, France, in 1923. During World War II, his father was deported to Auschwiz, and never seen again. Charlie Chaplin, in silent films like “The Gold Rush,” was an early hero for the young mime. In fact, Bip is modeled partly on chaplain’s Little Tramp, and on other early film stars like Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. Marcel Marceau’s first big triumph came in this country in 1955, even before he was well known to the French. His repertoire includes 100 sketches. In “Le Petit Cafe” he plays a much- harassed waiter.

MARCEL MARCEAU: Everything is forgotten so quickly, and this is why it’s so important to have tradition.

SPENCER MICHELS: Marceau is a passionate advocate for the art of mime, which he helped revive. He runs his own school in Paris, and on the road visits classes like this one at SanFrancisco’s High School of the Arts.

MARCEL MARCEAU: Everything is technique.

SPENCER MICHELS: He gave these young dance students and their teachers a taste of that technique.

MARCEL MARCEAU: Courage would be this. (demonstrating) And what would be revolt? It would be… you see immediately the force of the attitude. This is why we say mime is art of attitude, dance art of movement.

SPOKESPERSON: He’s able to grab you and connect you to that place so that you see what he sees, and you feel what he feels. I think that’s power and that’s like art at its best.

SPENCER MICHELS: Marceau has influenced a generation of performers, including Michael Jackson, who acknowledges his famous 1983 Moonwalk video was inspired by the master of mime. Like Michael Jackson, Marcel Marceau is known to audiences throughout the world. He still performs 200 times a year, and will be on stage in Washington, D.C., in January.

RAY SUAREZ: Elizabeth Farnsworth spoke to Marcel Marceau last week on the stage of Theater on the Square in San Francisco.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, Marcel Marceau.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about “Mask Maker,” the last part of that wonderful sketch. Tell what’s happening from your point of view when he can’t get off the smiling mask.

MARCEL MARCEAU: Well, I think that it’s symbolic, you know, because the man is trapped in a laughing mask he cannot take off. He plays this mask like we play with characters, being funny, being sad, being hilarious, you know? And the laughing mask, when that doesn’t take off, he’s crying and all that, but the public is laughing because it looks terrible and funny at the same time. And in the end is revealed the solitude of man — the moment of truth, also, when man is himself left in a certain solitude. It’s not sad for me, because solitude is not sad, because it’s a deep reflection about life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought of this watching this program. It’s certainly very entertaining at times and very funny and enjoyable, but it’s deeply philosophical. One critic from the “LA Times” said that your art is actually metaphysical. Do you think it is?

MARCEL MARCEAU: Absolutely. But on the other way, it’s not so intellectual.


MARCEL MARCEAU: Because I like to reveal to the essence of the weight of our soul, the inside of ourselves and this is why I think that I like to show them that of our feelings. In that sense, even simple people understand it. It has to be very clear.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that the philosophical underpinning that is so evident in what you do, is strong partly because it’s such an old art, it has such deep roots?

MARCEL MARCEAU: Yes. It has deep roots because maybe it’s old as long as man have existed. It had a great tradition in the past in Greece and it went to Rome, which became Italy, and went to France with the white-face Poirot, it was pantomime from the Greek word. And then it ended in films as Chaplin, Keaton and because they were mimes, and not because there were no sounds. But I think that the art is revived today through grammar; without the grammar, an art cannot exist.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean grammar in this sense?

MARCEL MARCEAU: Grammar means that all the gesture movements, what the Indians called the moudras, you see — hand for the scene, for fish, for birds, for saber — when I do this, you see nothing, when I do you see the saber. When I do this, you can’t see. (demonstrating) But it’s not just movement, it’s behind any movement, the feeling, the musicality and this is why very often musicians say do you sing inside? I say, “How did you feel it?” The stream of silence when I do…then a musician will tell me like Hughie Manouen, who died unfortunately, told me that it’s the spirit of sound. I tried to bring complete silence in the theater because I think it would show that revealing with the body, the essence of life, like walking in the wind in the beginning, like struggling with push and be pushed — like the struggle between life and death will show the best in silence, the depths of ourselves, because we all are silent in certain moments — writers before writing, singers before singing, athletes before sports. Concentration is the most important medium and then when I go into grays I call it la sacralisation — I don’t know the word in English.


MARCEL MARCEAU: Yes. When the movement is… a priest asked me, “Marcel Marceau, are you religious?” I said, “I don’t practice really, but when I do the creation of the world, God enters in me — the feeling of the best of man can be revealed through the best. It comes from cosmic world, maybe from the Godly world, you see, of God. But it’s important to go deep in the roots of ourselves, and from the silence, there’s music.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What difference has age made to your art?

MARCEL MARCEAU: Well, age has helped me to go deeper. I think that with age, I cover more the experience of my life. (pantomime segment)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you hope your legacy will be? Is it the teaching that you’re doing, the continuation of the art?

MARCEL MARCEAU: The understanding of the teaching; the grammar is there, but grammar and movement alone are not enough. What is important is that they understand why the gesture is there, the motivation for the attitude, and this is why I have created the grammar, the conventions of character, for sadness, for anger, for every feeling — the way you have to adjust, like music, like words, not one word too much, not one gesture which is over them. I think also that this time it has become accepted as a universal language and very important for every art form — for dance, for music, for speaking, you know? And it’s part of American culture now, and I think that it’s beautiful to feel that you have brought, that I could have brought something in the art field who show really the depth of our outcry, and of making people laugh and cry without words — like Chaplin did, Keaton.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Marcel Marceau, thank you very much for being with us.