“It’s good to shut up sometimes.”
— Marcel Marceau
Marcel Marceau, a French-born performance artist, championed the art of pantomime for his generation. Before his prominence as a mime, however, Marceau took part in the French resistance during World War II. He used his talents to help Jewish children escape German-occupied France and his art to provide moments of humor.
Born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg on March 12, 1923, Marceau’s interest in performing pantomime had early roots: as a boy he enjoyed imitating gestures and behaviors. In March 1944, Marceau’s father was deported to Auschwitz, but a teenaged Marcel and his elder brother, Alain, were able to evade capture. Together they adopted the last name Marceau, in reference to a French Revolutionary general, and decided to help the French Resistance. Marcel used his drawing skills to forge identity cards for Jewish children and the brothers Marceau, dressed as boy scouts, led many to the Swiss frontier.
During this time, Marcel began mime acting in order to keep children quiet while they escaped. Later, his talent with body language and illusion came in handy: Marceau claimed that while fighting with the French Resistance he accidentally ran into a unit of German soldiers and, startled, he imitated an advance guard of a much larger French force, successfully persuading the German soldiers to surrender. At the end of the occupation, Marcel used his art to entertain Jewish children who were living under false names in La Maison de Sevres near Paris.
One of Marceau’s performances was seen by a theatrical historian who persuaded him to enroll in the drama school of Charles Dullin and study with Étienne Decroux. As a mime artist, Marceau was acknowledged without peer. His original exercises all became classics: e.g., The Cage and Walking Against the Wind. His oft-used onstage persona, Bip the Clown, became as intertwined with Marceau’s name as The Little Tramp is with Charlie Chaplin’s. Marceau toured all over the world, won countless awards, became a favorite of Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, and appeared in films like Barbarella and Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. In 1999, New York City even declared March 18 to be “Marcel Marceau Day”.
For Marceau, however, his name’s synonymy with pantomime was bittersweet, as he feared that l’art du silence would be buried along with him. Truthfully, enthusiasm for pantomime has long since lost momentum, although Marceau’s talent went on to inspire many popular performing artists, including Rowan Atkinson and Michael Jackson whose moonwalk was based on Marceau’s “Walking Against the Wind”. Marcel Marceau’s inimitable talent was his ability to express the human condition through his art; and he explains the implication of such a performance: “As we go on in life, torn between light and shadow, encountering injustice, violence, misery, we still have one weapon against despair – to make people laugh through their tears.”