In stillness, his quiet art speaks

CATCHING UP WITH...MARCEL MARCEAU

More than 50 years after he created `Bip,' Marcel Marceau still sculpts pictures in the air with his body, moving in the poetry of silence -- the slower the better.

January 30, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

Marcel Marceau seems melancholy. But his is a melancholy suffused with resilience. The man who is considered the greatest mime in the world (try to name another!) has a lot on his mind, and though the weight of his thoughts wearies him, he isn't daunted.

For more than five decades, Marceau has been practicing his art in Europe, America, Asia, Africa, Australia. He has performed in movies and before presidents and diplomats, written children's books and been featured endlessly in newspapers and on television. Because of him, mime, an ancient art loved by the Greeks, was revitalized and popularized.

Still, he is not satisfied. Into this age of the information superhighway, SurroundSound, cell phones, video games, Marceau wants to interject ... a little silence. He wants us to understand the purity and passion held by stories told without words, and to hand down his art to a new generation of performers. He wants mime to live forever.

"Everyone has heard of me," he says. "But they have not seen me. You cannot understand the power of mime if you do not see it."

So, at 76, Marceau performs. Last fall, he played for six weeks to sold-out houses in San Francisco. Now for the first time in 20 years, he is in Washington, where he will practice his art at the Ford Theatre through Feb. 13.

"I wonder how the public has changed. I think it is the same. Art is timeless. It is not a la mode," he says.

At the moment, Marceau is conducting an interview in his hotel suite while stretched out in a chair with the insouciance of a cat. He looks pleasantly rumpled in an olive tweed jacket that matches his eyes, woolly vest and cream-colored pants. His face is lined, and his wig is slightly askew. He twists his slight, supple body in the unself-conscious, sensual way of a dancer, leaning first back against the chair, then closer to his visitor.

"Do you have your questions formulated?" he demands, but doesn't wait for an answer. It turns out, in a happy twist, that the mime simply loves to talk.

And talk. And talk.

Marceau speaks of the first time he saw silent screen artist Charlie Chaplin, who inspired him; of eating vegetables and staying fit; of his contempt for television, which relies far too much on explosions and violence; of days gone by when "Hollywood was Hollywood."

The French artist was born in Strasbourg in 1923, and began experimenting with mime by the time he was 7 years old. In 1940, his family moved to southwest France when the Germans invaded the country, and there, Marceau joined the Underground. Among other things, he worked to smuggle children into Switzerland.

In 1944, his father, a Jewish butcher, was deported to Auschwitz and never returned. Marceau then moved to Paris, where he studied under the master mime, Etienne Decroux. Soon after, he enrolled in the First French Army and participated in the German campaign, fighting side by side with Americans. In 1945, he gave his first mime performance for General Patton's 6th Army.

Two years later, he created "Bip," his signature character (The name is a reference to a character in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations.") A sort of white-faced hobo who wears a top hat with a red flower, Bip resembles the 19th-century sad clown, Pierrot. "I wear white face for Pierrot," Marceau explains. "And the red flower is for fragility, vulnerability."

Marceau first performed in America in 1955 and received rave reviews. Back then he was friends with Harpo Marx, Cary Grant, Johnny Carson, Red Skelton, Ginger Rogers. He founded the Compagnie de Mime Marcel Marceau. He was in films including "Barbarella" with Jane Fonda, and he had the only speaking part (one word) in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie." He became a household word.

"People couldn't believe that you could be an actor in silence. That in silence you could create not just the situation, but the thought."

Marceau draws emotional and intellectual nourishment through painting. His art is beautiful and often has dream-like qualities reminiscent of Chagall. In "Bip Flying in Japan Over Mountains," the mime depicts his white-faced alter ego soaring above a landscape painted in moody purples. Other paintings depict Biblical events or people Marceau has known.

Through mime, he says, "I want to go deep into the human spirit. I am moved by people who fight every day. Because people who fight every day are quite something.

"Once a writer said: `You must be very strong to live without illusions.' Life is real. Illusion is poetry. We need poetry.

"Just think of all the creativity in the world -- even through all the genocides. Eighty-five million people were murdered in the last [world] war. In spite of this, think of all the creations that were made. But think if they had lived. Think of the inventions! Cancer, AIDS might be cured."

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