Mime Sublime and a zany ‘family’ tree: Etienne Decroux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau. Lindsay Kemp, Joel Grey and Liza Minelli

Etienne Decroux:  was born in 1898 in Paris. He studied at Jacque Copeau’s Ecole du Vieux-Colombier, where he experimented with what was to become his life’s work- corporeal mime. As a student of Charles Dullin in 1923, he began to redefine mime. His early ‘statuary mime’ was reminiscent of Rodin’s sculpture. Later he developed what contemporary dancers call ‘isolation of movement’, and he was interested in how the centre of gravity could shift in balance. His emphasis was not on silence but on a true art of dramatic movement. He could be considered the father of what today is called ‘physical theatre’. His work had a strong effect upon Jean-Louis Barrault, with whom he appeared in ‘Les Enfants’ and Marcel Marceau.

Jean-Louis Barrault: was born in 1910. He was an actor, director and mime artist. His training in mime enabled him to portray the 19th century mime, Jean-Gaspard Deburau, in Marcel Carne’s 1945 classic film, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, shot when France was still occupied by the Nazis. His wife was the famous French actress, Madeleine Renaud. He remains in the French consciousness as one of the greatest actors of the Twentieth century.

‘ Les Enfants du Paradis':

Marcel Marceau: was born Marcel Mangel in1923 in Strasbourg, France to a Jewish family. His father was a kosher butcher. When France entered World War II, Marcel, then 16, fled with his family to Limoges. In 1944 Marcel’s father was captured and deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was killed. His mother survived. Marcel and his older brother, Alain adopted the name ‘Marceau’ during the German occupation of France. The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges, where they saved many children from the race laws and concentration camps. Marcel started miming as a way of keeping children quiet as they were escaping to neutral Switzerland.

After demobilization in 1946, Marcel enrolled as a student in Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris, where he studied with Joshua Smith and Etienne Decroux. After his studies, he joined Jean-Louis Barrault’s company and was cast as Arlequin in pantomime. In 1947 Marceau created ‘Bip the Clown’ and was first played at the Theatre de Poche (Pocket Theatre). As Bip. he wore a striped pullover and a battered silk opera hat adorned with a flower. Bip had misadventures with everything from butterflies to lions. Some of his finest pieces had titles like,’The Cage’, Walking against the Wind’,’The Mask Maker’, ‘Youth, Maturity, Old age and Death’.

I first met Marceau after his performance in Paris in the summer of 1963. Suddenly the door of his dressing room opened and two gypsies emerged- Perhaps, in retrospect, they were Spanish Flamenco dancers. While rendered speechless, Marceau suddenly strode out chatting to them-  not in French. Then he spotted me. In perfect English he said, ‘Well, little one, I do like your face’. I babbled something. He replied,’Would you like to study with me?’ I yearned to say ‘yes’, but  I immediately thought it impossible, because even as he spoke, I had run out of money as part of a  parental plot  to force me home. I have regretted this decision my entire life. Never say No to an offer like that.

Hungry in Paris 1963: Mercedita and I were so hungry in Paris that our mouths were covered in sores. We were sleeping in a run down student hostel which served us cold coffee for breakfast in a cereal bowl. We walked around the corner to a little bar in order to smell hot bread. When the owner realised that we had no money , he was generous and kind. With the words, ‘Don’t tell my wife’, he took out two liquor glasses and filled them with creme de menthe. I couldn’t even look at it, but I tried to smile, all the while knowing that I was definitely going to steal a loaf of bread very soon.

Marcel Marceau performs:

Lindsay Kemp: You have met Lindsay before on my website. He and Charlie Chaplin are the two great English mimes and draw upon the French tradition. Lindsay was born in South Shields in 1938, and he currently works and performs in Italy, the home of the commendia dell’arte. Here Lindsay performs ‘Salieri’, (Mozart’s jealous contemporary).

And recently as The Devil in Histoire Du Soldat:

Charlie Chaplin in the Lion’s cage:

Joel Grey was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932 to a theatre family. Although Lindsay and he are influenced by Vaudeville, these stunning performances choreographed by Bob Fosse contain so much ‘business’ from the art of mime.

And with Liza Minelli: Both have ‘painted’ faces. Etienne Decroux would be pleased with this brilliant performance of physical theatre:

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