Marcel Marceau, the great French mime who for seven decades mastered silence and brought new life to an ancient art form, has died. He was 84. Marceau died Saturday in Paris, French news media reported, citing his former assistant Emmanuel Vacca. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Sunday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Marceau as “the master,” saying he had the rare gift of “being able to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language.”
Active until late in his life, Marceau toured the world for more than half a century, giving more than 15,000 performances. Each included several pieces featuring Bip, the beloved character he created early in his career. Annette Bercut Lust, author of “From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond,” said that Marceau’s mentor, French mime master Etienne Decroux, “reinvented the art of mime to revive modern theater and the actor’s art” whereas Marceau “popularized that art and brought it to the whole world.”
Starting as a child mimic of Charlie Chaplin, Marceau by the age of 30 had become the single person to embody the ancient art of mime. He also took mime in new directions.
One of the secrets of his success, some critics said, was Marceau’s ability to incorporate cinematic techniques into his stories. He could, as former Los Angeles Times critic Dan Sullivan wrote, present a montage of fleeting moments defining a character’s “age, sex, class, even clothing” that audiences who’d been raised seeing the movies could easily follow.
To be a mime, Marceau noted, one must be a sculptor, a painter, a writer, a poet and a musician. And one must also have incredible physical stamina and talent. “It’s not dance,” he said. “It’s not slapstick. It is essence and restraint.”
“The art of mime is an art of metamorphosis,” the told a New York Times reporter some years ago. “It’s not stronger than words. You cannot say in mime what you can say better in words. You have to make a choice. Mime is beyond words. It is the art of the essential.”
Marceau said he continued with his heavy touring schedule because, unlike a singer whose voice can be recorded and listened to on records, “mimes are masters of silence, soon forgotten if they don’t appear on stage regularly.”