His Life Was Beau­ti­ful

A new bi­og­ra­phy of Holo­caust sur­vivor Mar­cel Man­gel, who trans­formed him­self into the leg­endary mime Mar­cel Marceau, is as po­etic as the man him­self. And al­most as talk­a­tive.

Forward Magazine - - Re­views - By Philip Eil

In 1974, the leg­endary mime Mar­cel Marceau ap­peared in a TV ad­ver­tise­ment for Xerox color copy ma­chines. The ad lasted 90 sec­onds, dur­ing which — as the writer Shawn Wen de­scribes in her re­cent book on Marceau, “A Twenty Minute Si­lence Fol­lowed by Applause” (Sara­bande Books) — the French­man pan­tomimed the ac­tions of a ro­bot, acted out pho­to­copy­ing a piece of pa­per and pre­tended to push the ma­chine around a room. Be­fore the ad’s end, he told view­ers: “Call Mar­cel Marceau. If no one an­swers, it’s me.”

The joke, of course, plays on the fact that Marceau was world-fa­mous for be­ing silent; for per­form­ing up to 300 shows per year across count­less coun­tries; for found­ing the Mar­cel Marceau In­ter­na­tional School of Mi­mod­rama, in Paris, and for, as Wen pointed out in a re­cent in­ter­view, es­sen­tially pro­vid­ing the men­tal im­age we as­so­ciate with the word “mime,” com­plete with sailor’s suit and white face paint. A critic once wrote of Marceau, “He can say more with one eye­brow or one rip­ple of the fin­gers than would-be clones can do with their en­tire bod­ies.”

But de­spite the Xerox-ad joke, Marceau was, in fact, a prodi­gious talker. “Only one guy out-talked me. Mar­cel Marceau,” the oral his­to­rian Studs Terkel said in the book. And Wen pro­vides no short­age of ev­i­dence.

“I’m the Pi­casso of mime,” Marceau said in one chap­ter.

“Does not pan­tomime of­fer the lan­guage of the heart?” he asks in an­other.

In one scene, he ag­gres­sively asks a jour­nal­ist, “Who in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury has been world fa­mous as a soloist in mime?” When the man re­sponds, “You?” Marceau replies, “Ab­so­lutely.... You spoke the truth. What I did as a one-man show through­out the world, no one can do again in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.”

“He’s such a great talker,” Wen said. “He’s so fear­lessly tragic, self-mythol­o­giz­ing, di­dac­tic, some­times con­tra­dic­tory.”

Those traits are on dis­play through­out this small, won­drous book, but in par­tic­u­lar on a page to­ward the end. “By 1993, Marceau had racked up some fif­teen thou­sand per­for­mances in more than one hun­dred coun­tries,” Wen wrote, ex­plain­ing that if Marceau caught the flu while on tour, he would still take the stage. Wen then in­cludes a Marceau quote that at least par­tially ex­plains his tire­less­ness: “The­ater peo­ple, if we are not seen, we don’t ex­ist, we are noth­ing.”

“A Twenty Minute Si­lence Fol­lowed by Applause” is not a tra­di­tional bi­og­ra­phy. At 131 pages, it is as sleek and sinewy as the per­former it de­scribes. And in­stead of lengthy chap­ters, it is filled with short bursts of text that of­ten read like po­ems. This is bi­og­ra­phy as pointil­list es­say. Or as Wen calls it, “a deeply ex­per­i­men­tal, play­ful book” that’s in­ten­tion­ally hard to cat­e­go­rize.

More than a dozen of these mini-chap­ters de­scribe Marceau’s shapeshift­ing per­for­mances as his sig­na­ture char­ac­ter, Bip: Bip the soldier; Bip at a so­ci­ety party; Bip at­tempt­ing sui­cide; Bip play­ing David and Go­liath; Bip as a bull­fighter and ice skater and deep-sea crea­ture. Other chap­ters list items be­long­ing to Marceau — clocks, books, knives, dolls, masks, sil­ver­ware — that were sold at auc­tion in a failed at­tempt to re­coup the nearly 500,000-euro debt he left be­hind af­ter his death in 2007.

These mat­ter-of-fact en­tries are in­ter­spersed with lyri­cal med­i­ta­tions by Wen on the nature of per­for­mance it­self. “The mime re­fash­ions time, sculpt­ing it with a pre­ci­sion in­stru­ment,” she writes. “He can sus­pend it or has­ten it at will. He marches in place for three min­utes and a life­time has passed. In three min­utes, eighty-four years.”

Else­where she writes: “As we watch the mime’s ex­pres­sive form, we lose aware­ness of our own. We for­get to breathe. Thank God our lungs in­flate and de­flate on their own. This is why — at per­for­mance end — we scream, stomp our feet, and throw our hands to­gether. And we vi­o­lently reawaken to our bod­ies.”

But un­ortho­dox as the book is, there is still a re­mark­able bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive at its core. Marceau was born Mar­cel Man­gel, in Stras­bourg, France,

‘Does not pan­tomime of­fer the lan­guage of the heart?’

in 1923. His fa­ther. Wen wrote, was “a Jew, a butcher, a com­mu­nist,” and he died in Auschwitz, “the body taken to the cre­ma­to­rium be­fore his iden­tity was recorded in the log.” Marceau was 16 years old in 1939, when Ger­many in­vaded Poland. “His brother emerged as a leader of the Un­der­ground in Li­mo­ges,” Wen writes. “Mar­cel be­came a forger. With red crayons and black ink, he shaved years off the lives of French chil­dren, too young now to be sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps. He dressed them up as boy scouts and campers and held their hands as they went high into the Alps.”

Af­ter the war, Marceau stud­ied at a hy­per-se­ri­ous school of drama in Paris, where teach­ers “wanted to cre­ate a new po­et­ics of the­ater to sup­plant the deca-

‘I could use words, but words would de­stroy the mys­tery of the il­lu­sion.’

dence and medi­ocrity.” One in­struc­tor was so ob­sessed with the pure ex­pres­sion of bod­ily move­ment that he per­formed in the nude.

Marceau’s tal­ent was vis­i­ble early. In one of the book’s most mem­o­rable scenes, Wen de­scribes his ap­pear­ance on a French tele­vi­sion show, when, per­form­ing for a rapt stu­dio au­di­ence, Marceau pan­tomimes wrestling with a kite on a windy day, then mim­ics a cat, then waits for an el­e­va­tor, takes the stairs, tosses out im­pres­sions of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chap­lin, eats an ap­ple, peels an or­ange and en­joys a bowl of ice cream. (“He takes a spoon­ful, and his smil­ing eyes are shocked with pain, teeth chat­ter­ing from brain freeze,” Wen wrote.) Read­ing Wen’s de­scrip­tions, we see a ge­nius at the height of his pow­ers and un­der­stand his su­per­star­dom.

But as the story pro­gresses, Wen fre­quently com­pli­cates the pic­ture. We learn that Marceau was mar­ried and di­vorced three times, that he had four chil­dren but once ad­mit­ted some­thing: “Fam­ily is not im­por­tant to me. I have no time to be a fam­ily fa­ther.” We learn that he was con­tracted to write a mem­oir in 1965 but never com­pleted it. and that New York City Mayor Rudy Gi­u­liani pro­claimed March 19, 1999, “Mar­cel Marceau Day” in the Big Ap­ple. We learn that he was the sub­ject of a mem­oir by one of his lovers, ti­tled “Mar­cel & Me: A Mem­oir of Love, Lust, and Il­lu­sion” and in­clud­ing the lines “His flesh was as soft as a jel­ly­fish”; “He was all about con­trol,” and “He cherry-picked his women from an abun­dant pool of the young and beau­ti­ful.”

We also see that, de­spite Marceau’s blus­ter, crit­ics even­tu­ally tired of an act that didn’t evolve much. “There is al­ways some­thing rather sad about any per­form­ing artist who fails to re­al­ize that his ca­reer is over, but Mar­cel Marceau is rid­ing on his name and past achieve­ments to such a de­gree that one’s pa­tience and pity is be­gin­ning to run out,” one critic wrote in the late 1990s.

Wen says she was drawn to Marceau, in part, by the di­chotomy in his life story: the fact that a man lost so much in the Holo­caust and went on to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent life con­sumed by his art. “There’s some­thing very po­etic… [and] pow­er­ful about some­one who, af­ter the Sec­ond World War, af­ter see­ing the dev­as­ta­tion that it wrought up close, then chose to live his life by trav­el­ing the world, per­form­ing some­thing that is purely in move­ment... some­thing that tran­scends lan­guage,” she says. “He claims that he can­not tell his fans apart. French, Amer­i­can, Viet­namese — all ci­ti­zens de­fined by their ado­ra­tion for him. He says they laugh and cry at the same mo­ments. With a flick of his fin­gers, he reaches in and pulls out iden­ti­cal sighs.”

At Marceau’s fu­neral in Paris’s famed Pere Lachaise Ceme­tery, the rabbi who led the cer­e­mony re­minded the crowd that Marceau died on Yom Kip­pur, and had se­lected a “creamy white marker carved with the Star of David” to mark his grave.

In the decade since his death, there has yet to be a com­pre­hen­sive bi­og­ra­phy of the world’s most fa­mous mime. And yet this spare, po­etic book feels like a com­plete and suf­fi­cient per­for­mance; the fiery life force con­tained in Marceau’s small body is here. On one page, Wen de­scribes a rou­tine in which Marceau pro­gresses from fe­tus to an el­derly man in the span of mo­ments. On an­other we wit­ness a poignant en­counter at an air­port be­tween Marceau and an el­derly Charlie Chap­lin, whom Marceau idol­ized as a boy. In yet an­other, Wen presents three quotes from Marceau that per­fectly — and para­dox­i­cally — cap­ture the in­ad­e­quacy of words. “I could use words, but to be very hon­est, it’s beau­ti­ful to be a mime,” he said. “Words would de­stroy the mys­tery of the il­lu­sion.”

An­other: “Mime can do things that words can­not.... It de­scribes the meta­phys­i­cal world on the bor­der of the real world.”

And, my fa­vorite: “Mime can’t trans­late lies. For lies, words are ad­e­quate.”

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