Marcel Marceau Mimes the Progression of Human Life, From Birth to Death, in 4 Minutes

What do you think of when you hear the word “mime.”

A cheeky, stripe-shirt­ed, invis­i­ble lad­der-climb­ing pub­lic nui­sance?

The soli­tary prac­ti­tion­er Dustin Hoff­man word­less­ly top­pled in the 1982 film Toot­sie?

Or Mar­cel Marceau?

Ah ha, and what does the name “Mar­cel Marceau” bring to mind?

The cheeky, stripe shirt­ed, but­ter­fly chas­ing Bip (who maybe caus­es you to cringe a lit­tle, despite his creator’s rep­u­ta­tion as a great artist)?

I was sur­prised to learn that he was a for­mer French Resis­tance fight­er, whose first review was print­ed in Stars and Stripes after he accept­ed an Amer­i­can general’s spur of the moment invi­ta­tion to per­form for 3,000 GIs in 1945 Frank­furt.

The film above doc­u­ments a 1965 per­for­mance of his most cel­e­brat­ed piece, Youth, Matu­ri­ty, Old Age, and Death, giv­en at 42, the exact mid­point of his life. In four abstract min­utes, he pro­gress­es through the sev­en ages of man, rely­ing on nuances of gait and pos­ture to con­vey each stage.

He per­formed it count­less times through­out his extra­or­di­nary career, nev­er stray­ing from his own pre­cise­ly ren­dered chore­og­ra­phy. The play­ing area is just a few feet in diam­e­ter.

Observe the 1975 per­for­mance that film­mak­er John Barnes cap­tured for his series Mar­cel Marceau’s Art of Silence, below. Noth­ing left to chance there, from the tim­ing of the small­est abdom­i­nal iso­la­tions to the angle of his head in the final tableau.

Time’s effects may have pro­vid­ed the sub­ject for the piece, but its peren­ni­al­ly lithe author claimed not to con­cern him­self with age, telling the New York Times in 1993 that his focus was on “life-force and cre­ation.”

Lat­er in the same inter­view, he reflect­ed:

When I start­ed, I hunt­ed but­ter­flies. Lat­er, I began to remem­ber the war and I began to dig deep­er, into mis­ery, into soli­tude, into the fight of human souls against robots.

This would seem to sup­port the the­o­ry that matu­ri­ty is a side effect of age.

His alter ego Bip’s lega­cy may be the infer­nal invis­i­ble ropes and glass cages that are a mime’s stock in trade, but dis­till­ing human expe­ri­ence to its purest expres­sion was the basis of Marceau’s silent art.

In a recent appre­ci­a­tion pub­lished in the Paris Review, author Mave Fel­lowes con­sid­ers the many stages of Marceau, from the for­ma­tive effects of child­hood encoun­ters with Char­lie Chap­lin films to his death at 84:

He feels his advanc­ing age and fears that the art of mime will die with him. It’s a tran­si­to­ry, ephemer­al art, he explains, as it exists only in the moment. As an old man, he works hard­er than ever, per­form­ing three hun­dred times a year, teach­ing four hours a day. He is named the UN Ambas­sador for Aging. Five nights a week he smears the white paint over his face, draws in the red bud at the cen­ter of his lips, fol­lows the line of his eye­lid with a black pen­cil. And then takes to the stage, his side­burns frayed, his hair dyed chest­nut and combed for­ward, look­ing like a toupee.

His body is as elas­tic as ever, but the old suit of Bip hangs loose on him now. Beneath the whitened jaw­line is a bag­gy, sinewy neck. With each con­tor­tion of his face, the white paint reveals deep lines. At the end of his show, he folds in a deep bow and the knobs of his spine show above the low cut of Bip’s Bre­ton top.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Édith Piaf’s Mov­ing Per­for­mance of ‘La Vie en Rose’ on French TV, 1954

David Bowie Launch­es His Act­ing Career in the Avant-Garde Play Pier­rot in Turquoise (1967)

Klaus Nomi: The Bril­liant Per­for­mance of a Dying Man

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. In col­lege, she earned a hun­dred dol­lars for appear­ing as a mime before a con­ven­tion of hun­gover glass­ware sales­men, an expe­ri­ence briefly recalled in her mem­oir, Job Hop­per. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday


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