By Hannah Cook
Marcel Marceau was born in 1923 in a village near Strasbourg, France. Marceau stated that he was fascinated by the art of mime for “as long as he can remember.” During his early childhood he was found imitating people he saw in his daily life. He idolized and was inspired by great silent screen actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He was self-taught until 1946 when he enrolled under the great master of mime, Etienne Decroux, in Sarah Bernhardt’s Theatre in Paris. Marceau’s aim was to always make his audience see, feel and hear the invisible, but he also wanted to reach out to children and to draw them into theaters. Marceau said he wanted to do this to help educate them in “the universality of culture.” After practicing mime for years, Marceau eventually created a school to teach others the art of pantomime. Though at first his main goal was to teach mime, his school became much more than that. The Marcel Marceau Paris International School of Mimodrama taught many subjects other than pantomime, such as classical and modern dance, juggling, fencing, acrobatics and jazz. Marceau eventually stated that, “What matters is that the visual theater is alive.”
In his days of practice, Marceau brought forth a small revival in the art of pantomime, an art that many would consider to be a lost art that seemed to be irrelevant. Marceau was a master interpreter of one of the oldest, least practiced of performing arts — the art of gesture. Lewis Funke of the New York Times wrote that Marceau “needs not a word to convey anything in the range of human experience.” Many compliments are spread of Marceau and his perfected practice of pantomime through his time of performing, as well as many years after. Walter Kerr, drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that “Marcel Marceau is the sort of theatrical gift that one really deserves. To ask for such perfection would be presumptuous; you can only stare at it, believe it and be thankful. The fellow is, in case I forgot to say it, superb.” The great mime came to America after success at his home theater, Ambigu Theatre, in Paris with his entire Compagnie de Mime. He also had international success in Europe, Latin America, India, and Israel.
Though it may seem like a lost art, pantomime is still very much alive around the globe today — even in small towns in Utah. Gregg Goldston is a popular mime from Utah. After watching a performance by Marcel Marceau, Goldston said he walked out with his mouth open. He said he “was really fascinated.” A lot of hard work and practice goes into the art of pantomime. Though many of Marceau’s acts included comedy, especially his most popular act of “Bip,” Goldston said “mime is movement not just clowning, mime is derived from acting, and mime is a lot more expressive than dance and takes extreme concentration.”
Other pantomimists, such as Joe Pitti, worked with Marceau and were inspired by him. Pitti said in a 1990 interview with the Davis County Clipper that mime was his first love, and that “mime gave me the spark to communicate.” He was part of the Davis County School District’s Artist-in-Residence program and worked with children to teach them the art of mime and “to get them to laugh at themselves.”
Though the art of pantomime may seem to be irrelevant in today’s world, it is a topic that should still be recognized for its importance in history. This art form is still being taught and recognized globally in forms such as pantomime schools, as well as schools hosting performers of the arts. Marcel Marceau performed for the University of Utah on multiple occasions, in part due to his importance in the history of pantomime and his love for the art. Schools, such as the University of Utah, being able to bring well-known guests to perform for the student body and public creates a way to enlighten a student’s experience at the university with an internationally renowned art form.
Hannah Cook is a senior at the University of Utah. She is studying communication with an emphasis in strategic communication.
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“Mime Artist Performs at Learning Center,” Park Record, March 23, 1978, 28.
Judy Jensen, “Mimes the Word,” Davis County Clipper, April 4, 1990, 3.
Riding, Alan. “OFFSTAGE WITH: Marcel Marceau; Sounding a Legacy of Silence,” New York Times, December 2, 1993, 1.