A Universal Language

In a highly articulate world such as the world of theatre--where modern techniques of acting and staging have made communication between performers and audience almost limitless in possibilities--it is at once astonishing, and yet perfectly logical, that we should find a sudden revival of interest in one of the oldest spectacular arts in existence: The Art of Silence. This Art--called Mime--is as ancient as civilization, and yet is one of the least practiced and most difficult of dramatic forms. It has always had its interpreters, but since the days of the pantomimists of the Commedia dell'Arte, and later, the great 19th century French mime, Deburau, there have been few who have devoted themselves exclusively to its study and performance. It has been employed as an adjunct, more or less, to the arts of acting and dance, for great actors and great ballet dancers must know the Art of Mime to round out those areas of silence which occur in every play or every ballet that has a story.

Astonishing, yes, that in the last ten years the group of pantomimists who have not been afraid to give over an entire evening in the theatre to acting with gesture alone has been growing rapidly. But it seems to me also to be highly logical. Mime is a universal art. It speaks in a speechless tongue that is immediately comprehensible to everyone. It knows no language barriers. The possibility of misunderstanding does not exist. In a troubled world, where men are working constantly to determine some common ground of understanding, it follows that the theatre--always the reflector of the times--should be influenced to reactivate this medium of universal symbols.

When my manager, Ronald A. Wilford, brought me to the United States in 1955 for my first appearance on this continent, he advised me that in the majority of instances I would be introducing an art form that might be totally unfamiliar to most of my audience. The pantomimist was a "rara avis" here--but I soon discovered from talking with many people who visited me backstage that this was only because most of them had been unfamiliar with the term. What they had not realized was that here in America they had seen some of the greatest pantomimists of the century--Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy...those superb artists who created in the silent movie era, without benefit of the spoken word, a whole world of human prototypes in humorous, pathetic, tragic or hilarious situations in life--with which their audiences identified themselves.

"Bip"--my alter ego--who was born 27 years ago, was introduced to the American public on my first tour here. He has been called the "Little Tramp's Younger Brother." Physically, there is no resemblance. Bip has his adventures and misadventures with everything from butterflies to untameable lions to dance-hall girls, in white-face, wearing a striped pullover and culotte, and a worse-for-wear opera hat topped with a red flower. But basically he and the Little Tramp--like the great Jean-Louis Barrault's Baptiste, and Keaton's Sailor and Laurel's Sad One--are blood brothers.

American audiences responded to Bip. They understood him. They like him. That is why I came back in 1958, 1960, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973 and now again, with more of his adventures, as well as some new pantomimes. It is with real joy that I come, because--in the past few years--the United States has been the scene of significant activity in the Art of Mime.

Mime is the form of dramatic expression that appears to me as being closest to man. It is a complete art in the sense that it tends toward an all-embracing definition of the human being. A mime can come closest to identification with both human being and inanimate objects, and can express the most carefully hidden feelings. He does this through a series of symbols, subject to certain aesthetic rules, but through which the component parts of reality are broken down and stylized. Thus, his audience recognizes familiar gestures, can feel itself in water, space density, surrounded by all the natural objects this human being on the state creates with the aid of silence and fiction. It is an art of illusion, but it does not permit any trickery. The gestures must be pure, true and comprehensible. The Greek dramatist Lucian wrote: "The mime who is guilty of a false gesture commits a solecism with the hand."

Thus our art is not alone physical even though it appears to be an art of action. The reason for the action must come from the soul.

Marcel Marceau, the 1974 Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecturer at Harvard, is appearing in Boston this week.