The world-famous mime Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), who died this week at 84, was buried on September 26 in Paris’s historic Père-Lachaise cemetery. The previous Grand Rabbi of France, Algerian-born René-Samuel Sirat, read the Kaddish over Marceau’s grave, reminding the modest crowd—France’s Culture Minister Christine Albanel did not even bother to attend—that Marceau “always defined himself as a citizen of the world, with Jewish roots.”
Indeed, he was born Marcel Mangel to a Polish Jewish family in Strasbourg in 1923. His father Charles Mangel, a butcher and amateur baritone who raised pigeons as a hobby, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was murdered. Young Marcel moved to Limoges and joined the Resistance, specializing in the counterfeiting of identity papers and helping to hide Jewish children from the Nazis. He counterfeited his own identity, choosing the name Marceau from a heroic poem by Victor Hugo in praise of a French Revolutionary general, François-Séverin Marceau.
Retaining his warrior’s name for the rest of his life, Marceau was more of a fighter than the general public—sometimes exasperated by the whimsy of his Chaplinesque flower-carrying character Bip—might perceive. Rabbi Sirat eloquently pointed to Marceau’s wartime experiences as leading him to the art of mime, with its “twin lessons of silence and gestures.” After D-Day, Marceau joined the French Army commanded by Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny, and only became a full-time performer after the Armistice. Interestingly, he chose among his first teachers the exceptional actor—and notorious collaborator with the wartime Nazi occupant—Charles Dullin.
By 1948, Marceau had established his own theater company, and his character Bip was born, named, according to Marceau, after the character Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectation. Bip is recalled for quaintly chasing butterflies and walking against the wind (a routine Michael Jackson admitted to ripping off in order to stage his own meaningless moonwalk). Bip at times expressed an inner violence, as in his early pantomime, “The Murderer,” which Marceau described as inspired by Raskolnikov, the murderer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Marceau also claimed this mimed violence conveyed his own desire to “boot the Germans out of France.” When I myself met Marceau some fifteen years ago for an interview at the Espace Pierre-Cardin in Paris, he already seemed travel-worn, although, until very recently, he adamantly maintained a grueling international schedule of tours, with over 200 annual performances.
In the 1970’s, I saw him perform in Manhattan before unfriendly crowds who expressed their impatience with the slow pace of his act, his reliance on inferior young students who performed a good part of the mime show, and his own form, creaky even then. Years ago, a French journalist challenged him about his “conventional” pantomimes that seemed never to change. Marceau, ever revolutionary in spirit, replied, “Everything is convention, a fine word that hearkens back to the French Revolution and the notion of convening.” In his sources of inspiration, Marceau may eventually be seen as a kind of mute Elie Wiesel, a survivor who distrusted France’s wartime linguistic hypocrisy to the point of expressing his art silently.