The death recently of the legendary mime Marcel Marceau seems to have gone unnoticed in these parts. This should not surprise us. A nation obsessed solely with the identity of the next Indian Idol winner can scarcely be expected to register the sounds of silence.
It is famously told of Marceau that the only word he ever uttered in performance was non (French for “no”), in a 1976 film called Silent Movie. But to define mime in terms of wordlessness is to completely miss the point. Mime is one of the most demanding forms of theatre possible, where all kinds of props, including the human voice, are dispensed with. The mime artist is marooned on a stage stripped bare of everything. Out of this nothingness, he must create the illusion of art.
For most people, mime is something which happens at amusement parks and fairs, where cartoon characters and clowns stomp about the place shaking hands with children or wiggling their ears. But serious mime can also be disquieting to watch. The phantom make-up of the mime artist, the wordlessness, the mechanical movements all seem to suggest a being which is somehow not quite human.
There is also a kind of infinite sadness about the mime which troubles us. It is the sadness of the clown who has to make people laugh for a living, but who cannot laugh himself.
Marceau’s most famous creation was Bip, a white-faced clown in a striped jumper and a battered opera hat. The name was apparently inspired by Pip, the protagonist of Dickens’s Great Expectations, and like Pip, Bip is a career underdog and ne’er-do-well. But he is also variously indebted to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx and Marceau’s contemporary Jacques Tati. While the tramp/clown figure figured extensively in silent era movies, Marceau’s genius was to recreate him in the far more demanding setting of the theatre stage. The ‘Bip Pantomimes’, as they were called, redefined the limits of narrative: ‘Night after night after night, going up and down an invisible escalator… attempting suicide; personifying all seven sins; and acting out the creation of the world, from amoeba to man, in 10 minutes.’ Bip the failed dreamer, who fantasises about being a circus star, a lover like Don Juan, a matador — passing from comic to tragic in the blink of an eye.
A story is told of Marceau meeting the illusionist David Copperfield on an airplane, who said: ‘You make the invisible visible, and I make the visible invisible.’ I would like to think that for once, Marceau said oui.