Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Legendary Marcel Marceau stands out in magical world of mime in his lifetime and even long after

By Nancy T. Lu

Of the many great performing artists who made an impact on their audience, the late Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) was a virtual giant. To watch him on the stage – with face painted white, lips colored red and eyes emphasized with black lines – was to love every moment of his performance.

No spectator could sit unmoved by the showmanship of this compleat artist. He harnessed his face, arms, legs and entire body to articulate a poetic idea or gem of thought. The depth of his perception of humanity was remarkable.

Laughter filled the hall wherever the great French mime performed. He made an adorable Bip clumsily trying to keep his balance on ice during a first attempt to skate. Or he affected the hilarious mannerisms of a train passenger struggling to keep his bearing and his suitcase on an overhead rack in a swaying train.

As a man on the verge of suicide, he considered taking poison but ended up relishing the drink. He eyed the rope as another possibility but ended up swinging his cord like a baton. As a samurai, he thought he could handle a sword but found himself having a hard time keeping the weapon from rising strangely by itself out of his scabbard.

Marcel Marceau sought not only to amuse his audience but also to give them some food for thought. Behind the veneer of foolishness and ludicrousness was always a suggestion of wisdom. He tended to philosophize a bit in his eloquent acts. 

Writer Nancy T. Lu meets Marcel Marceau in Taipei.

Every time Marcel Marceau came to Taipei years ago, he was prepared to bare his heart and soul. He readily warmed the hearts of his countless fans. Every pantomime in his program gave away his deep understanding of life and living.

The unforgettable storyteller turned heart eater in “Le mangeur de coeur” to reveal his insight of humanity. The mime with a title literally translated as “Heart Eater” told the story of a man who was searching for love. He decided to kill and eat hearts to find what he was looking for.

The character picked for his first victim was an evil man. The taste of the man’s heart did not appeal to him. For his second victim, he chose to devour the heart of a woman who had jilted him. The taste was much better but not quite what he was after. For his third try, he selected the heart of a child. The man found himself transformed into a child. He gave his own heart to the child so that the victim would live. As a result, life was snuffed out of the heart eater. 

According to Marcel Marceau himself, the mime called for a certain maturity in the performer. It required a lot of thinking. 


The mime artist needed a lot of experience to enter into the realm of fantasy. Marcel played a great deal with symbols. His acts were not always to be taken at face value. For this reason, he was fond of stories involving metamorphosis. His themes were often derived from literature. He incorporated ideas drawn from his readings into his works.

In “The Saber of the Samurai,” which was staged in Taipei, Marceau worked on the theme that the saber did not always mean the wielder was on the winning side.

Marceau revealed that he was fond of playing with mask changes. The transformation kept the audience wondering which was the real face. He frequently threw ideas to his spectators for them to reflect on. The scenarios raised unanswered questions. The conclusions were left to his mime fans.

Marceau confessed he turned to Chinese inspiration occasionally. In fact, he did not have a shortage of Chinese stories to tell. Marceau, for example, narrated a Taoist tale about a potbellied merchant who hired a coolie to take him and his heavy purchase to his destination. In return, he promised to give the coolie a big tip and three gems of wisdom.

Along the way, the poor coolie paused to catch his breath. The man finally gave his first advice: “It is more difficult to tell the truth than to lie.”

The trip continued. After a while, the coolie stopped again and asked for the second advice. The maxim he got went like this: “A man who is warned is worth two.”

Shortly the rickshaw driver asked about the contents of the package. He was told it contained “fine and precious things.”

After bringing the man to his destination and lugging the load with great difficulty up to the top floor of a building, the fellow was told the third and final advice: “If somebody tells you to carry a heavy load and promises to pay you a fat fee, do not believe him.”

Of the wisdom of age, Marceau remarked: “The older one grows, the better one becomes.”

Mime has a special affinity to Asian theater whether Chinese or Japanese, according to the legendary French mime. The masks and the movements in Japanese theater fascinated him. So did the movements in the Chinese opera. Even the “tai chi” motions are comparable to mime, he observed. Of special interest to him were the hand movements in the air.

Marceau’s program usually required the support of two assistants, often graduates of the three-year course at l’Ecole de Mimedrame Marcel Marceau in Paris. They helped create illusions with their hands. During his time, some 80 students from 20 different countries went for training at his school. Classical and modern dance, fencing, wielding a dagger as well as a baton were all part of the training. The mime students also mastered acrobatic skills. The main lessons though were naturally in the mime discipline taught by Marcel Marceau himself.

Every protégé of Marceau studied how to articulate his feelings, how to gracefully maintain balance, how to translate opposing forces like the Chinese yin and yang, how to dramatize contrasts, reminiscences as well as internal echoes of his life, how to let the virtuosity of his body and the sensitivity of his soul burst forth.

Marcel Marceau showed the art of a great mime through his portrayal of facets of humanity. Bip, a clown first presented by him in the Theatre de Poche in Paris in 1947, came to life on the international stage. “Bip Plays David and Goliath” and “Bip Commits Suicide” were numbers in his well-loved repertoire.

Marceau proved at his best when metamorphosing from one character to another. In “David and Goliath,” Bip emerged from one side of a screen as a puny David with his slingshot. He disappeared behind the screen only to make his reentry from the other side of the screen as a rough and brawny Goliath. His body language spoke out loud and clear in a world of silence. The shifts sometimes happened so fast. As a result, spectators began to believe that there were indeed two characters.

A 12-year-old fan once wrote Marcel Marceau in Paris after he fell ill and was operated on. The girl’s letter stood out in a pile of 500 mails from fans, all wishing him speedy recovery. She wrote: “I want Bip to live.” In the letter, she inserted a US$20 bill. Marceau, renowned for his emotion-filled acts, was greatly touched by the gesture.

 The aging Marceau once confessed his fear of flying. But his unforgettable visits to Taipei did not stop due to the overwhelming public clamor for his mime. Memories of Bip the Clown, wearing a hat with a quivering rose and standing like a ballet dancer before his adoring public, linger. He shone there on the stage with head held high. His arms moved with studied grace. Each time he made those graceful steps forward like a trained dancer, he was just beginning to sweep his admiring audience into the emotion-packed world of mime.

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