Marcel Marceau, whose lithe gestures and pliant facial expressions revived the art of mime and brought poetry to silence, died in Paris last Saturday. He was 84.
Wearing white face paint, soft shoes and a battered hat topped with a red flower, Marceau, notably through his famed personage Bip, played the entire range of human emotions onstage for more than 50 years, never uttering a word. Offstage, however, he was famously chatty. “Never get a mime talking. He won’t stop,” he once said.
A French Jew, Marceau escaped deportation during World War II – unlike his father, who died at Auschwitz – and worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children.
He performed tirelessly around the world until late in life, never losing his agility, never going out of style. In one of his most poignant and philosophical acts, “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death,” he wordlessly showed the passing of an entire life in just minutes.
“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?” he once said.
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, France. His father introduced his son to the world of music and theatre at an early age. The boy adored the silent film stars of the era: Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx brothers.
When the Germans marched into eastern France, he and his family were given just hours to pack their bags. He fled to southwest France and changed his last name to Marceau to hide his Jewish origins. With his brother Alain, Marceau became active in the French Resistance.
In 1944, Marceau’s father was sent to Auschwitz, where he died. Later, he reflected on his father’s death: “Yes, I cried for him.” But he also thought of all the others killed: “Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug,” he told reporters in 2000. “That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another.”
When Paris was liberated, Marcel’s life as a performer began. He enrolled in Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art, studying with the renowned mime Etienne Decroux.
On a tiny stage at the Theatre de Poche, a smoke-filled Left Bank cabaret, he sought to perfect the style of mime that would become his trademark. Bip – Marceau’s on-stage persona – was born.
Marceau once said that Bip was his creator’s alter ego, a sad-faced double whose eyes lit up with child-like wonder as he discovered the world. Bip was a direct descendant of the 19th century harlequin, but his clownish gestures, Marceau said, were inspired by Chaplin and Keaton.
Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, “alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.”
Dressed in a white sailor suit, a top hat – a red rose perched on top – Bip chased butterflies and flirted at cocktail parties. He went to war and ran a matrimonial service. Single-handedly, Marceau revived the art of mime.
In the past decades, he has taken Bip to from Mexico to China to Australia. He’s also made film appearances. The most famous was Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. He had the only speaking line, “Non!”
As he aged, Marceau kept on performing at the same level, never losing the agility that made him famous. On top of his Legion of Honor and his countless honorary degrees, he was invited to be a United Nations goodwill ambassador for a 2002 conference on aging.
“If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on,” he told The AP in an interview in 2003. “You have to keep working.”