Marcel Marceau’s career reflects his travels: immense. His popularity is almost universal. He is known in Kathmandu as well as in Umtata. Attending one of his shows produces such an emotion that the audience never forgets him, and there are few venues in which he does not perform, and the halls are always packed, however. Nothing, not even television or cinema can describe or replace the perpetually renewed magic of the “live” mime Marceau.
Causerie with Jean-Pierre JUMEZ

JPJ: Marcel Marceau, French-speaking international mime. When did you start spreading the good word around the world?

Marcel Marceau: I went abroad for the first time in 1951. It was in Holland. I was then invited to the Berlin Festival, which was the first step, in some way, along the career we know.

JPJ: You are “this cry held at the centre of the soul and that Bip, for 40 years, has been sending out to men of all races, of all religions, over unnecessary borders”. Did you need an international success?

MM: An artist must go beyond borders. Only actors do not do so, for reasons of linguistic communication. However, thanks to subtitling, cinema can travel. But in other fields, we hardly imagine an artist who does not cross our borders, especially as regards music. Performing abroad means facing world trends on a daily basis. I hear the excitement and laughter of audiences all over the world merging into one nationality. Every night, I saw 2,000 lives, and no one, I mean no one, has ever interrupted or disturbed me by whistling or showing impatience. Travelling is continuously giving, of course, but it is also taking. You have to look, you have to listen, you have to understand and you have to take…

JPJ: Is there much to take elsewhere, in the art of mime? Do mimics vary from country to country?

MM: No. The expression of pain or joy is the same everywhere, which shows the purity of mime. There is no code. Only conventional signs give way to variations: nodding to signify yes and no, hand signs, shrugging of the shoulders, etc., but emotion knows no boundaries.

JPJ: Is the art of mime French-speaking?

MM: I come from a well-established tradition. Etienne Decroux was my teacher. But what happens in Paris is not necessarily French. Paris can be a confluence of ideas, from which artists draw, thus finding their true nature.

JPJ: But have you drawn from elsewhere? The capuera of Bahia, Chinese pantomimes confronting two wrestlers in the dark…

MM: Yes, especially in Japanese Noh theatre. I think we must take the mountain and the sea deep within ourselves, which corresponds to the Zen philosophy, which explains nothing, and which speaks only of mastering the body and mind, which affirms nothing: life is a flowing river.

JPJ: Do you have other sources of external inspiration?

MM: Cinema and theatre. In cinema, of course, Charlie Chaplin.

JPJ: Speaking of cinema, don’t you think that we are now “mediatizing” arts, especially music, which is increasingly using vinyl media and other more or less compact materials, and this at the expense of living art and direct communication? Finally, isn’t mime one of the last manifestations of living art that can’t be boxed? Thanks to you, will we continue to build cathedrals, sorry, theatres?

MM: In no way do I intend to despise what you call “boxing”. You know, we’d like to have Nijinsky’s movies, Chopin’s records, or Etienne Decroux’s videos. It is clear that these media are irreplaceable means of preservation, but cannot be substitutes…. My artistic life is done live on a daily basis, and I like it that way…

JPJ: … and, apparently, your audience too. You are, in the world; one of the most famous French stars.


MM: However, when a screen star makes a film, it simultaneously reaches millions of viewers. When I present a show, I only speak to a thousand or two thousand people at a time.

JPJ: When you accept tours abroad, do you make “political” choices? Do you perform in any country and at any time?

MM: When boycotting a country, it must be understood that it is its people who are being boycotted, unless such people don’t have access to the halls, as may be the case in South Africa…

JPJ: … Whereas you did perform there!

MM: Yes, but by presenting performances for the black audience…

JPJ: … Separately?

MM: Separately, in Cape Town and Durban. And then, there are moments of violence that we cannot accept. Remember that a tour is more or less an official trip. To go to a country experiencing a bloody dictatorship is to risk endorsing the regime, or simply to see this tour “recovered”.

JPJ: You were seen in Hanoi; in the early 1970s. The war was raging.

MM: I did not go to South Vietnam, which would not have granted me the visa anyway.

JPJ: Your tours had a significant result and many students rushed to Paris…

MM: Yes: in 1977, the Paris City Hall subsidized the Ecole internationale de mime (International School of mime), where I welcome students of 20 nationalities.

JPJ: Don’t you fear these young people are just epigones, who will remain under your wings? Don’t the great masters only produce great students?

MM: No. You have to start from a base acquired outside. You can’t learn everything by yourself. It is of course up to the student to progress by standing on his own. For my part, as I said earlier, I had great teachers.

JPJ: What do we learn at your school?

MM: The mime covers the essential components of the stage: dance, theatre, body expression… A mime can do everything!

JPJ: Except talking or singing!

MM: We are evolving in a two-dimensional world, which highlights the missing dimension…

JPJ: … Eternal litotes, in a way?

MM: Yes, or, if you like, the scream of silence.

JPJ: And yet, if I may say so, silence has no scream…

MM: Exactly, the man in the desert describes the sea better than the fisherman…

JPJ: How do you recruit your students?

MM: Some send videos, but the majority take the entrance exams in June and September.

JPJ: It is certainly difficult, indeed, for an inhabitant of the antipodes to come for the exam.

MM: You know, when you really desire something…

JPJ: Do these students come to acquire a basic training that will allow them to move on to other fields such as cinema or musical comedy, or will they in turn play pantomime?

MM: When you spend three years of your life, three precious years, studying an art, it is not to divert from it afterwards.

JPJ: Do you perpetuate yourself through this school?

MM: It is certain that if I had not opened it, my art would only live with me and would disappear, even if, thanks to cinema and video, I can now write my art.

JPJ: Marcel Marceau, you have always managed to preserve an impressive shape. But, everyone knows that you had a health problem in Moscow some time ago. Is it all these trips that caused these troubles?

MM: Not at all! I suffered from a stomach ulcer, which caused me two surgeries. I am totally over it now, and I would even say, in better shape than before.

JPJ: But don’t you think it is this perpetually turbulent life that caused you this trouble?

MM: I don’t think so. I believe it is rather the result of my perpetual anguish, anguish due to what I see, what I feel in this world. Injustice, misfortune, loneliness, get my stomach all knotted up.

JPJ: The reason why, indeed, you ulcerate. In May and June, you will be in Japan, in July and August, you will tour South America, in September and October, Australia will welcome you. What about the time differences in all this?

MM: My body is simply accustomed, after 35 years of constant travel. I remember being delayed by a plane breakdown in Bahrain on my way to Australia. I arrived on the day of the first performance, while several days of beats had been scheduled. The organizers had cancelled the first performances. I asked them to restore them and everything went very well. You know, as I do, that people who live their art daily, performers, some painters, actors, often enjoy an astonishing longevity. Look in the field of guitar, André Ségovia who, at 95, gave recitals all over the world. Not to talk of Rubinstein, of Picasso…

JPJ: … and Léopold Stokovsky who, at age 80, declared sadly after his divorce: “From now on, I’ll only have temporary adventures.”… Nevertheless, over the years, don’t you tend to eliminate acts that are too acrobatic or tiring?

MM: On the contrary, with age, remember that you gain experience and know how to use your strengths better. I have about a hundred acts in my repertoire.  It’s even small, if we consider the repertoire of a musician or an actor. And that’s huge compared to the clown Grog who, all his life, presented only one act! But what an act! In fact, the more I advance, the further away the goal becomes.

“One eye on the hall, the other on the stage”, said Diderot. Marcel Marceau offers his show in all latitudes. The audience which, disposes of it, constantly clamours for it. Long live living art!