From our files: An interview with Marcel Marceau

In 1974, the Monitor interviewed the preeminent French mime, who died Saturday.

From the April 4, 1974 edition of the Monitor.

A torrent of information poured from the small man who was almost lost in the big armchair. It seemed as though Marcel Marceau might be making up, in private, for all those communicatively silent hours onstage, by letting words tumble over themselves proving that he can talk, not only in his native French, but fluently in English too.

"When you are the link with the public who would like to know what I think about life, I have to be outspoken. And I have to do in one hour what I do in a lifetime," he explained.

Marceau is bringing to the US an all new show - "all my shows are new" - but it will feature Bip the Clown, the character Marceau made his alter ego. Why choose a clown figure? "Theatre is a reflection of life ... And life is sometimes bad theater," he pointed out. "In the theater we try to be honest. We make a statement for people – to expand the mysteries of life, they must go to the theater." Then he went on to recall that theater was, first of all, an expansion of religious observances, and it has always remained tied to mankind's inner dreams. "I chose," he returned to the question, "a clown because in a circus they have been a reflection of slapstick. In a clown we see what we do that makes us laugh and cry. I kept the white face, the tradition of the Pierrot. My clown became a romantic and stylized figure. I wanted to be an abstract and concrete figure, a symbol of humanity."

And now a film

In his first American film, "Shanks," to be released before long, Marceau has been widely touted as "talking." But he himself pooh-poohs that. "I say maybe eight words," he remarked with deep scorn. "You don't miss the words. It is a confrontation between life and death. Very exciting. The great problem of humanity is life and death. Every person dreams of becoming invisible one day. The want to be immortal, to survive the struggle is in the film."

As he talked, his arms and legs were never still. It was as if his speech alone could not communicate. He spoke of "the reality and the dream," and his eyes went somber. He said "I brought my poetry to it." and the eyes lit up again. The mime and the dancer was remembering the disciplines demanded by the film, and his body responded although he remained seated. He finished his reference to it by adding in an offhand manner, "For the first time I am seen as an actor."

That might seem to be a questionable statement, since Bip and the other characters and roles Marceau assumes are all acting – acting perhaps in its most refined sense. But here he differentiated between what the regular run of actors do – taking on a personality written for them – and what he does, projecting his own ideas and convictions through the personality he has originated.

Mime is often called the most difficult of the performing arts – and even Marceau – mime extraordinary, considers it in the class of ballet, itself a skill needed long training and great precision. Mime partakes of ballet or at least of dance, in its disciplines. As the Frenchman demonstrates every time he is on a stage the mimist's entire body does the talking.

He is aware

Marceau is well aware of this position at the top of the mime hierarchy. He says of his contribution to the arts – a contribution that made the 20th century aware of a forgotten form - "I am a company in myself. My repertoire has become a bible for all mimes in the world. What we [Marceau uses the editorial we to mean I] have done is for a hundred years at least. Nobody has done it before...I have created a complete grammar of mime."

There are many mimes, he added who have used "the grammar we have invented." He pointed out that "no written tradition had been left." Mime, he recalled, goes back to the beginnings of theatrical history. He spoke of the 17th-century fair-theaters, and traditions about 18th-century mime, but emphasizes that no one knows just how mimes of those days performed. The "grammar" had to be rewritten.

As a very young would-be performer, Marceau studied with Etienne Decroux in Paris. "When I studied with Decroux we were three pupils. When I became..." he hesitated, then added, "famous – I don't like that word – everybody want to study with Decroux because I had." Thinking back toward those early days, he recalled, " There was not one mime in the U.S when I come in '56. Now there are lots of mimes here." He spoke of the National Theater of the Deaf. Its artistic director he said, "was my pupil." And among the other mimes, well or lesser-known, he added, "Some have been pupils of mine, or pupils of pupils. Some have taken Kabuki style, some Marceau style."

Talk-show fame

And then Marceau, speaking quietly and wonderingly, underlined a 20th-century fact of life that rarely fails to astonish even the most knowledgeable performed. " I wouldn't imagine," he said, "I would become famous in America for my talk shows." He was not referring to the television special in which he demonstrated his art. He meant the many guest appearances he made on the shows of well-known host. "I played in Philadelphia, " he said, "and maybe 3,000 people saw. I speak on a talk show for 20 minutes, and millions every night see me."

Marceau, having reclaimed from obscurity the art of mime, is also well aware of history. "I have all my work filmed,' he disclosed. "It's available." Thus future generation, even those who come after the ones Marceau contemplates teaching – when he lets up on his present rugged performance schedule – will still have his filmed work as mentor.

Meanwhile he would like to make a film - "a film which belongs to me, which I would direct," His mimodramas(or little mimed dramas) have already become as famous as his name: "Death Before Dawn," "Praxitele and the Golden Fish" and "Candide." And he has two books on the market, the Marcel Marceau Counting Book, and the Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book.

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