/ 23 September 2007

French mime artist Marcel Marceau dies

The world’s best-known mime artist, Marcel Marceau, has died aged 84, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s office said on Sunday.

For decades, Marceau epitomised his silent art, eliciting laughter and tears from audiences around the globe. His comic and tragic sketches appeal on a universal level, with each audience interpreting his performance in its own way.

”Mime, like music, knows neither borders nor nationalities,” he once said. ”If laughter and tears are the characteristics of humanity, all cultures are steeped in our discipline.”

On stage, he charmed with his deft silent movements, a white-faced figure in white harlequin suit, striped jersey and battered top hat.

Off stage, with the costume and the pancake make-up removed, Marceau was a slim, agile Frenchman whose eloquent description and explanations complemented his mute mastery of the art of mime.

In mime, Marceau said, gestures express the essence of the soul’s most secret aspiration. ”To mime the wind, one becomes a tempest. To mime a fish, you throw yourself into the sea.”

Marceau created the figure of Bip, the melancholy, engaging clown with a limp red flower in his hat.

He traced his ancestry back through United States silent-film greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the clowns of the Commedia dell’Arte, a centuries-old European tradition, and to the stylised gestures of Chinese opera and the Noh plays of Japan.

Marceau was born in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg on March 22 1923. He was brought up in Lille, where his father was a butcher. When World War II came, his father was taken hostage and later killed by the invading Nazis, and in 1944 Marcel joined his elder brother in the Resistance.

He later joined the French army and served with occupation forces in Germany at the end of the war.

He began to study acting in 1946 under Charles Dullin and the great mime teacher Etienne Decroux, who also taught Jean-Louis Barrault.

It was in Marcel Carne’s famous 1947 film starring Barrault, Les Enfants du Paradis, that Marceau, who played Arlequin, first became known as a mime artist.

He formed his own mime company in 1948, and the troupe was soon touring other European countries, presenting mime dramas. The company failed financially in 1959, but was revived as a school, the Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame, in 1984.

A veteran of dozens of films, one of his best-remembered roles was a speaking cameo in Silent Movie, made by American director Mel Brooks. — Reuters