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Silent witness of his time

Michael McDermott probes the prose of Marcel Marceau a man who wordlessly talks to people's souls MARCEL Marceau the name whizzes around most ...

Michael McDermott probes the prose of Marcel Marceau a man who wordlessly talks to people's souls

MARCEL Marceau the name whizzes around most people's minds like an un-knotted balloon. Dead French president? Napoleonic revolutionary? Defected ballet dancer? In table-quiz foursomes this could be the difference between a bottle of Paddy's and a soggy sandwich and tea. Just who the hell is or was Monsieur Marceau? Or is he just like a fictional Clouseau?

A succinct explanation for the unenlightened comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Times: ``Not merely the greatest star mime of the century, but an icon of Western culture.'' Or maybe word of mouth from the thousands of people who have witnessed his talent for over half a century. And so I sought to hear the silent one speak. To examine the equation: Mime = Marceau.

With the fog hovering over Union Square in San Francisco, I make my way towards the decadent Westin St Francis which flanks one side of it. On the 37th floor, Marceau exhibits the physical morning weariness of the night-time performer. Having just sluiced his semi-tranced face, Marceau is still slightly bug-eyed. Sparkling within sunken sockets, his eyes are thatched by wispy eyebrows which appear to be scattered seeds from his tangled mop of bouncy curls. Rivulets of wrinkles are the evident product of 76 years of life.

``The joke now is that many people think it's my son who's playing. They cannot imagine that it is still me with a deeper experience of life.'' And Marceau has been collecting those experiences since feet became his mode of motion.

He was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, and at the age of 13 fled the Nazi occupation with his brother Alain. Masquerading as a boy scout in the French resistance, he tried to smuggle children into Switzerland.

``I was at the frontier. Of course there were moments of danger, but when you are young you have great dreams and cannot imagine that you can die so quickly and that is why I had the courage of youth. I believed in my destiny.''

Even though he hasn't seen Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful, Marceau can relate to its story. ``This film remembers me and the lives we had to bring to the children, making them believe that life can be beautiful still. But this was not the case in countries such as Poland where the children were able to see before their eyes this terrible situation death.''

Having first-hand experience of it in life, Marceau dedicated the rest of his life trying to express ``the tragic moment''.

``Mangel was a French Jewish name and I could have been listed, so I decided to keep the same initials and said my name will be Marceau because he was a general in the French revolution and when Bonaparte did battle in Italy he had his young generals with him and Victor Hugo wrote a poem in admiration of Cyril Marceau.''

His father was unable to flee the barbarity and died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Following the liberation of Paris, Marceau returned there to perform before 2,000 American GIs at the request of General Patton. He began to study theatre at the Sarah Bernhardt theatre and it was there that he met his master of mime Etienne Decroux.

``He was what I would call a grammarian, but all I knew since I was a kid was that I loved Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I imitated Chaplin on the street, creating children's theatre, since I was eight or nine. Decroux was not a performer really and I wanted to create mime theatre.''

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His first professional break came in 1946 when he mimed the famous role of Arlequin in an adaptation of Les Enfants du Paradis at the Theatre du Marigny. Playing opposite Jean Louis Barrault who created Pierrot, a character from the white-faced mime of the previous century proved a resounding success.

In 1949, Marceau left Decroux following a divergence of opinion over the role of mime as science or popular theatre. The birth of Bip, Marceau's most famous character, two years earlier enabled Marceau to follow his dream with an erstwhile companion. Maintaining the white face in recognition of the legacy he inherited, Marceau made Bip contemporary in every other way. Based upon Dickens' Pip in Great Expectations, Marceau shared the same outlook on life and established a mime company that has been on a world tour ever since.

``My first time in Ireland was 1951 and I will remember this all my life because at the end of the show the young children shouted: `Speak. Speak.' They wanted to hear my voice. It took me a certain time to return but I played the Olympia for two weeks, and discovered my love for Irish gardens.

``Later on I met Micheal MacLiammoir when he was at the Gate. He was a great artist who could not only sing the Irish ballads but was a very good theatre designer. He represented for me the Irish spirit. It was a beautiful feeling.''

Sadly, that beautiful feeling is slipping further into the recesses of his mind.

``I wish very much to play in Ireland but what makes it very difficult and I want to be very honest about this because to be honest you have to compromise in life, it's the aspect of the complexity of man I think that many new producers think that since I haven't played in Ireland since the beginning of the Eighties, the new generation doesn't know me any more. Very often they cannot imagine that I am still fit, but my wish would be to go back to Ireland. It has such a great spirit for such a small country and had so many great poets who are still alive in the memory of people.''

The only words that spring to mind are `sold out' and `shame'. For those beholden to the box office, to wait for the consistently superlative-laden reviews in the States would have meant to miss a ticket. There is no italicised note at the end of this article plugging a show; therefore, for Irish theatre to ignore Marceau should cause all and sundry to pause for thought and take a necessary break from our back-slapping forays to nowhere.

The sole connection he maintains with Ireland is through Jonathan Lambert, son of the puppeteer Eugene. As a student of Marceau's he collaborated with him on Soliloquy of Three Lost Souls, a sketch in his show.

``It is very apt to a city like San Francisco with so many beggars. One could liken the situation to England at the end of the 19th century as captured by Dickens stories.''

Despite mime having always been in the slipstream of theatre, Marceau still sees a significant role for the medium.

``Mime is a witness of its time. Albert Camus said that a journalist is a historian of the moment, of his time. Mime has to be a writer, to speak silently to the soul of people. When you do this you leave an open door for their own imagination.

``Mime really goes to the roots of theatre creativity. It is even like dance in a certain way, not merely abstraction in corporal mime but in the mime drama field. I want to prove to the public that the art of silence is talking to the soul of people with the magic of music and silence.

``Film deals with reality of life but in theatre you can have symbolic characters. You can transpose. People will believe what you show and that is what makes theatre the great art of illusion. I make the visible invisible and the invisible visible.''

IS IT on the sofa beside him. His eloquence is hope. And the silence for seepage that ensues aids thought through this world of sound. Marceau and Bip have learned together. There is no box of chocolates for everyone.

Now Marceau's shows have become deeper, leaving more space for retrospection and introspection. He performs The Trial, playing the solemnity of the judge, the petulance of the prosecutor and the grovelling of the defence whilst balancing the scales of justice to perfection. The Public Garden showed Marceau seamlessly slipping into the guises of several old stalwarts from such a scene: the ball-hopping boy; the nattering park-benchers; the pram-pushing mother; the hobbling man; the entwined lovers.

The Sculptor shows the plight of the musing perfectionist who blindly strives for the unattainable and refuses to accept anything less. The Maskmaker is probably his most profound and symbolic piece. The palm brush of his hand over his face reveals a new identity.

``We all put a mask on our life and we are left in solitude. It is not the solitude of despair but the solitude of life, and I wanted to show symbolically the agony of all the masks.''

There are numerous other pieces which Marceau has being performing in his tour throughout the US, which continues this year in Washington DC. Evocative pantomimes of style and Bip that have been his trademark. His half-century of work has not only earned him unanimous praise but France's highest honour: L'Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, two Emmy awards and an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.

Marceau has also starred beside Jane Fonda in Barbarella and uttered the only word (``No'') in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie. He even played 17 different characters in First Class and inspired Michael Jackson's famous Moonwalk.

Jackson, together with entertainment stars such as Placido Domingo and Dustin Hoffman, has become a board member of the Marcel Marceau Foundation for the Advancement of Mime which opened in New York last year with Mayor Giuliani declaring March 18 ``Marcel Marceau Day''.

And so it is time to put my equation to him. Does Mime = Marceau?

He assures me that the post-Marceau era ``has already started''. His legacy is vibrant and being passed on. ``I teach people not to imitate but to learn the grammar, to become authors and create their own numbers and stories. This is why when they leave the school, they learn the art of Marceau by learning how to become a deep mime in comedy and tragedy and this is why the legacy has started. Our school is 21 years old already.

``The day I will stop playing myself, the company will go on. The influence creates evolution. It is not about being modern.''

But now is a time for remembrance for Marceau, one which allows him ``go deeper'' into his art form. And suddenly Bip is beside me. Bip as the child-like butterfly collector. ``He runs after butterflies, his dreams, and one day he kills one and just before he dies it does one flap of his wings.''

Marceau mesmerically motions with his lithe hands, thumbs entwined whilst fingers flutter. The wing stops and the heart does too. This is the most simple and beautiful encapsulation of life and death I have ever seen. The ideal embracement of mortality. Words cannot and should not be found in his presence.

Marceau is not alone pure genius but a life-affirming gush of warmth and humanity. I step outside into Union Square. The fog has lifted and the sun is shining.

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