Mute Point

The word "legend" is employed too often by journalists, but a search through a thesaurus yields no word that better describes Marcel Marceau. It's unfortunate that the world's greatest mime is the master of an art that's become regarded as a joke, a favorite target of comedians and vacuous skits.

The reason that mime has come to be held in such contempt is obvious--it's hard to do competently, even harder to do well, and close to impossible to do brilliantly. Most practitioners of the art do it poorly. But deriding Marcel Marceau because of that is like deriding Jimi Hendrix's guitar work because of the Ramones.

Marceau was born in Strasbourg, France, 75 years ago. He took his artistic inspiration from the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, though Chaplin's is the most obvious influence on his own performing style. He studied at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris, and then joined the First French Army and fought in World War II. As well as fighting, he performed before General Patton's troops.

He created his trademark alter ego, Bip the Clown, in 1947.
In the decades that followed, Marceau toured worldwide. His first American tour was in 1955, and he has toured many times since, appearing regularly on TV. He won two Emmy awards for appearances on The Maurice Chevalier Show and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.

His movie roles range from the Jane Fonda vehicle Barbarella to Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, in which he spoke the only word ("No!"). He has also cranked out books of poetry and illustrations, for children and adults.

His latest tour includes this visit to Sun City, arranged by Arizona State University West. Marcel Marceau--50 Years of Genius, the poster says. And, at 2 on a Sunday afternoon, enough people seem to believe it. Given the stigma attached to mime, I had visions of being one of 10 people watching him.

But the Stepford Grandparents are out in force. It takes me a while to get a parking space outside the Sundome. When I get inside, the theater is busy. There are people here who're under 50. There are even young people. But not many.

It seems strange that he didn't get a gig in Phoenix, Tempe or Scottsdale, rather than out here in this waiting room for the next world. But it also makes sense; he's about the same age as the residents here, and can serve as an inspiring example that geriatrics don't have to spend their time slumped on recliners or riding around in golf carts.

At first, it's heartening to think that so many people want to see Marceau. But it soon becomes clear that a good number of them just go and see whatever's on at the Sundome, and they don't worry too much about arriving on time. Even after Marceau has started his performance, they're still arriving, finding their seats, and talking to each other in stage whispers. One of them doesn't understand what Marceau is doing, and so another loudly explains it.

This would be irritating at any show. But, in the presence of someone of Marceau's stature, it feels blasphemous.

If it troubles him, he doesn't show it. His performance never falters at any time during a set that lasts about two hours, including the intermission.

When the spotlight first hits him, it's almost unsettling; he looks completely unchanged from decades ago. He has the familiar head of curly, red-dyed hair--which might be a wig, but looks real. His face is painted white, with black lipstick and eyeliner. He wears white pants, a striped tee shirt and some weird-looking kind of vest. He's long-limbed and leanly muscled.

It's only when you look at him closely that you see his age--the wrinkles on his neck, the corded veins on the backs of his hands. You'd never know it from his movements. My companion says she thinks his hands have lost a little of their fluidity, and she may be right. But that's all he's lost.

I had wondered before the show if he might perform new work, less physically demanding, devised for him to handle easily at this time in his life. It would be understandable if he took such an easy way out, but he doesn't, and it's hard to imagine him ever doing so. The pieces he presents today are his classics, and he performs them as he always has.

Mime is often used as little more than an unchallenging entertainment at European street fairs and children's parties. But you have to see a Marceau performance to understand how this medium could make him famous for half a century. The ignorant may scoff, but Marcel Marceau is one of the greatest actors of the modern theater. He's easily the equal of Chaplin. And, with no voice and no props, he can depict at least as much euphoria and agony as Brando or De Niro. His pieces aren't comedy sketches; they're short plays.

When you remember a Marceau performance, you don't really remember a bare stage. Marceau's brilliance is that he uses his body so convincingly that you don't have to suspend your disbelief--when he leans on an imaginary counter, that counter becomes real; it's just that you can't see it. When he's trying to control an imaginary dog on a leash, his movements tell you what kind of dog it is and what it's doing, precisely how it tugs on the leash and shits where it's not supposed to. (And he doesn't clean up after the dog, so future performers at the Sundome should be warned that there's still some imaginary dog shit lying around the stage.)

When he performs The Bird Keeper, the work of Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind. A man who keeps birds tries to release them, but he can't. They won't fly off his hands, however hard he tries to throw them. As his desperation increases, he finally finds himself in a cage, and, in a horrible moment of acceptance, becomes a bird himself.

The piece is funny and nightmarish. You feel as though you can see the cage that holds him. And what stays with you afterward is the look on the man's face as he realizes what has happened to him.

Equally haunting is Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death, in which Marceau simply depicts this sequence of life--and it lasts five minutes.

But most of the show is far from grim, especially when Marceau becomes Bip the Clown. Just as Chaplin had the Tramp, Marceau has this tragicomic Everyman. As Bip, Marceau is able to make use of his second most powerful tool--the expressiveness of his face. Although the universe conspires against him, Bip is always trying, always optimistic. Whether taming lions or using a dating service, he doesn't expect things to go well, but still hopes. And, when it seems that disaster has been alleviated, the look of glee he shares with the audience is, by itself, enough to raise a laugh.

There's plenty of laughter from the audience today. But it's not evenly distributed. Some people laugh uproariously while others barely smile. Some just don't get it. One member of the audience, though, gets everything.

There's a little girl somewhere behind me. I can't see her, but I can hear her. She laughs at every gesture, the subtle and the obvious. Nobody needs to tell her what Marceau is doing--she can see it. And the absurdity is cracking her up.

When the show ends, Marceau doesn't seem any less hyper than at the beginning. He bows, spreads his arms, blows kisses. Many of the audience members give him a standing ovation. Those who don't may not like him any less than those who do--perhaps they're just too infirm to get out of their seats and applaud the 75-year-old kid on the stage.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham