Silent Witness to the Lives of Men

Marcel Marceau At the Shubert Theater Through April 20

ASMALL laughing boy bounces a ball past an anonymous statue on a pedestal, then hurries off on a scooter. Two elderly women on a park bench gossip relentlessly at each other, pausing only to draw breath. A nanny waddles past, pushing a baby carriage and cooing at the unseen inhabitant, while an agonized dog-owner watches his best friend lift its leg over the ankles of a policeman. Gradually the park begins to throb with activity: a priest, a balloon man, a pair of lovers, a mother dragging two children at the end of either arm. More than a dozen characters seem to people the stage, although there is only one man up there. He is all of them. He is Marcel Marceau.

"The art of mime" says Marceau, "is the portrayal of the human being in its most secret yearnings. By identifying itself with the elements which surround us, the art of the mime makes visible the invisible and concrete the abstract." Halfway between dancing and the theater, mime is an art of illusion relying on Man's fundamental and oldest method of communication. The raw material used--the human being himself--is never confined by objects and leaps speechlessly over the wall of language, the deceptions of words. Reaching out towards an all-embracing definition of the human being, mime is universal, the art which speaks to and for Everyman.

Brought up on the greatest artists of the silent screen--Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon--Marcel Marceau was enchanted at an early age by the challenge of imitating the animate as well as the inanimate. He calls Chaplin his greatest inspiration: "To be capable of expressing a wealth of emotion in one look, one gesture, to be able to interpret the slightest nuance of the soul--was not that a prodigious ambition?"

At 52, Marceau must have surpassed all his childhood ambitions. His show is a pure delight, so beautiful it hurts, hypnotizing entire audiences sketch after sketch, show after show. Mobilizing every muscle in that gracefully compact body--down to the muscle that bends a thumb backwards at the joint to form a right angle of it--he becomes a vital embodiment of emotions that possess an intensity and beauty one rarely recognizes in the human form, no matter how present. In his famous pantomime, The Creation of the World, expressing the inexpressible for a fleeting moment he relates visually the most ineffable of all mysteries. Flocks of birds, fish, space, the breeze in the trees, Man exploring the powers of his own self pour out from the fluid manipulation of one body. The simple sketch becomes a meditation conveying the wonder, the joy and the pathos of human existence.

THE SECOND HALF of the show is devoted to Bip, Marceau's alter ego and trademark for the past 25 years. In a worn out high silk hat topped by a flower, his eyes and arched eyebrows darkened, his mouth a red gash, Bip is "the silent witness of the lives of men, struggling against one handicap or another, with joys and sorrows as their daily companions." Born out of the tradition of the nineteenth century which created Pierrot during the French Revolution, Bip is the nostalgic dreamer, arousing pity and empathy as he is confronted by each successive disaster, yet spurred on again and again by the enlightening force of hope. Forever chasing some distant ideal, following some foolish dream, Bip unabashedly exposes yearnings in ourselves which perhaps we try to hide behind a shield of cynicism. Marceau says of Bip, now more than a quarter of a century old, "I see him before me, fully matured, winking his eye at me near that ancient street lamp, no longer just an active witness, but a true personification of the great passion of men on earth."

Behind the tragi-comic white mask, Marceau winks at a spellbound audience, at himself, at the whole of humanity. He is a magical and magnetic artist, in the face of whose genius we can merely laugh, cry and be struck dumb.