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This past March 22 marks the 100th year of Marcel Marceau’s birth. In terms of the art of miming, he is THE mime of the modern era. The definitive article. He wanted to be a mime after being inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous “Little Fellow” after seeing one of Chaplin’s films at age five.
Born Marcel Mangel on 22 March 1923 in Strasbourg, France, Marceau and his family are Jewish. Charles, his father, was from Poland and was a kosher butcher. When the Nazis invaded France, Marcel left with his family to Limoges when he was 17. He was invited to the French Jewish Resistance (Organisation Juive de Combat-OJC) by his cousin Georges Loinger. The OJC’s task was to rescue Jews from the Holocaust; they helped to rescue thousands of Jewish adults and children during the war. To hide his identity from the Nazis during their occupation of France, Marcel and his older brother Alain changed their last name from Mangel to Marceau, referring to a general of the French Revolution named François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers. His father was sent to Auschwitz and was killed. His mother survived.
A student of mime, Marceau “practiced” his skill by showing the Jewish children and adults how to hide in silence whenever they stayed in a town. After the liberation of France in 1944, Marceau joined the French army. He became a liaison officer under General Patton’s Third Army due to his fluency in English, French, and German.
After the war, he enrolled in the Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art. Soon after, he joined Jean-Louis Barrault’s company and was cast as Arlequin in Baptiste, a pantomime. He achieved major acclaim after presenting his first “mimodrama” called Praxitele and the Golden Fish.
It was in 1947 that he cemented his immortality as he created his world-famous famous persona: Bip the Clown. Bip faced many adventures such as dealing with lions, trains, ships, butterflies, and so on. Bip can do anything! Marceau even created the classic mime exercises that people today take ignorantly for granted: The Cage, Walking Against the Wind ,The Mask Maker, and In The Park just to name a few. Marceau indulged in satire and life’s challenges. His mimodrama Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death is best described as a masterpiece of art.
Marceau became world-renown when he did a US tour in 1955 and 1956. Instead of performing for the intellectual minority, he made his art and Bip accessible to the common audience with major success. He would usually have sold-out shows and continued touring around the world until 2006!
Marceau was also an actor. He played Professor Bing in 1968’s Barbarella. He portrayed a deaf and mute puppeteer and an old man in the surreal horror film Shanks. Most famously, he made a brief cameo as Bip in Mel Brooks’ 1976 comedy Silent Movie: Bip used irony as the only one speaking the one word in this silent film despite his silent repertoire!
Marceau died on 22 September 2007 at the age of 84. At his burial ceremony, two classical pieces were played as Marceau would use them in elegant performances: Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21, Second Movement” and the sarabande of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5.” In a 1987 interview from CBS, Marceau describes his techniques as “the art of silence.” He was THE master of his craft and hopefully, there are more mimes like him today.