Sunday, 23 September 2007

Marcel Marceau R.I.P.

In the course of modern history, mimes have often gotten little respect. People forget that Charlie Chaplin was essentially a mime in his Little Tramp character. And they often forget the brilliance of Marcel Marceau. Perhaps the most famous mime in recent history, Marceau passed yesterday at the age of 84.

Marceau was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, on March 22, 1923. At the beginning of World War II his family were forced to flee their home. He then changed his surname to Marceau. While his father wound up in Auschwitz, Marceau and his brother served in the French underground. He later served as an interpreter in the Free French Forces.

He became interested in mime and acting after seeing Charlie Chaplin. He gave his first large performance in 1944 for the troops upon Paris's liberation. In 1946, he enrolled in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art. He became a member of Jean-Louis Barrault's troupe (Barrault perhaps being most famous for the film Les Enfants du Paradis). It was in 1947 that Marceau created his character, Bip, a man with a battered opera hat who, like Chaplin's Little Tramp, consistently had difficulties with life.

By the Fifties Marcel Marceau was an unqualified success. His Compagnie Marcel Marceau was the world's only mime troupe. And he debuted in North America at Canada's Stratford Festival. Not long after opened at the Phoenix Theatre in New York with his own show. By October 1955 his show had moved to Broadway. He made a successful tour of the United States.

Marceau also appeared on American television. He made his debut on The Dinah Shore Show in 1956, before several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. He appeared frequently on American television from the Sixties to the Seventies, in such shows as Hollywood Palace, The David Frost Show, Laugh In, and The Flip Wilson Show. He made several appearances on The Tonight Show.

Marceau also appeared in several movies. His first big screen appearance was in the documentary La Bague in 1947. He went onto appearing in such films as Pantomimes, Barbarella, and Shanks. It was in a movie that he spoke his only work in his entire career as a performer. In Mel Brooks' Silent Movie he speaks the only word in the entire film, "Non! (that's "No!" for my fellow Anglophones)."

Marcel Marceau also wrote books. He wrote two educational books for children, Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book and Marcel Marceau Counting Book. He also wrote books including his poetry and illustrations. He wrote two books about his most famous character, The Story of Bip, first published in 1976, as well as Bip in a Book, first published in 2001.

Alongside Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau was perhaps the greatest mime in the history of the world. With absolutely no words he could portray a variety of emotional states, from pathos to humour. And, often, as in the case of his skits involving Bip, he could portray both pathos and humour. It is little wonder that he enjoyed the success that he did. Quite simply, anyone who does not appreciate pantomime never saw Marcel Marceau perform.

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