At some point during my first job, I learned that many of my co-workers had a great aversion to mimes and clowns, describing them as “scary,” “creepy,” and “weird.” Over the years, I’ve found that this distaste is common; something about mimes and clowns disturbs the contemporary American mind — perhaps the combination of sophisticated modern sensibilities and some association with unpleasant childhood memories.
Not my mind. I loved Marcel Marceau’s act.
When I was a student, probably in high school (I don’t think I wrote these things down, alas), our French class went on a couple of excursions. One of them was to see Marcel Marceau. Afterward, when I understood who he was and what he was known for, it struck me that French language students had gone off to see a French performer whose act did not include a single spoken word. It wasn’t like attending a Eugéne Ionesco play performed in French by French-speaking actors, as we also did, or having Jacques Yvart come to our school to sing in French. We were not going to benefit from hearing French spoken. Instead, I believe we took advantage of an opportunity to experience a French icon.
And we did. Marcel Marceau was marvelous. He did not need speech to convey a change in character or emotion. His facial expression, posture, movements, and body language proved that spoken language is not necessary to communicate. A middle-aged Frenchman, a Jewish survivor of Nazi occupation, spoke eloquently to a group of teenage WASPs without saying a word.
The skit I remember best depicted a series of failed suicide attempts — by gas, by hanging, etc. Always something went wrong, and silently the character went about the grim business of trying every means possible. With the crass lack of thought that is perhaps natural to youth, we, along with the adults, laughed at each of the hapless character’s futile attempts to end his life. While we may not have recognized it at the time, the humor lay in the irony — a failure at life, a failure at death. As one obituary said, “Marceau likened his character to a modern-day Don Quixote, ‘alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty.'”
Marceau, like those who inspired him, including Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was no failure. He could not save his father from Auschwitz, but he did what he could to save Jewish men by forging documents and children by taking them to Switzerland. More than 30 years after World War II, his performance gifted me with the appreciation for bringing “poetry to silence” that I still have today, another 30 years later.
When I hear mimes and clowns disparaged, I remain silent. Now that silence is in honor of Marcel Marceau, a great mime and man whose artistic and humanitarian legacy needs no defense from me. It speaks for itself.