Marcel Marceau, Renowned Mime, Dies at 84

Today’s NY Times brought sad news in the form of an obituary, Marcel Marceau, Renowned Mime, Dies at 84.

Looking back, I realize he was the only major artist whose performances I personally attended in the three cities in which I have lived most of my life — as a teenager in Albuquerque, New Mexico; as an undergraduate in Los Angeles, California; and as an adult in New York, New York. Those performances spanned almost forty years: from the early 60’s to the late 90’s, when I last saw him perform at Hunter College in New York.

His performances were unique in their artistry and in the silence. There were no words, no music, but a series of pieces, each prefaced by an assistant who displayed a card containing the name of the piece. The silence was absolute, as each of us in the audience watched this master at work.

Marceau was the best mime of his generation, and, with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, was one of the three greatest mimes of the twentieth century.

Buster Keaton was the most physical in his artistry. It is amazing he survived to an old age. As noted in his Wikipedia article:

Keaton’s silents are characterized by very clever visual gags and technical trickery. He had a battery of comedy writers, including Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk; during the railroad-water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck and did not realize it until years afterward.

Charlie Chaplin was the most famous. Indeed, he was the first “celebrity” created by the film industry to achieve truly global fame. I read his autobiography many years ago and recall well his recounting of a train trip from New York to Los Angeles during his first visit to the United States (he began his career in England). As the train arrived in a small town he saw hundreds of people waiting at the station, and was amazed to learn they were there just to see him. [1]

In my view his most memorable performance was in The Great Dictator, a movie I first saw over forty years ago. [2] As described in the Wikipedia article:

His first dialogue picture, The Great Dictator (1940), was an act of defiance against German dictator Adolf Hitler and Nazism, filmed and released in the United States one year before it abandoned its policy of isolationism to enter World War II. Chaplin played the role of a Nazi-like dictator “Adenoid Hynkel,” Dictator of Tomania, clearly modeled on Hitler (even down to the toothbrush mustache).

The most memorable scene from that film began with Hynkel alone in his office. Noticing a globe nearby, he picked it up, and found it was a baloon. There followed an enchanting interval, in complete silence, in which he toyed with the baloon. Yet we all know the real terror in that scene, as the real Hitler made Germany into his own toy, using all the power of a modern nation-state to make it into the weapon of mass destruction that he employed to seek the extermination of Jews in the fires of Moloch.

Marceau was, I think, the greatest in his mastery of the art of mime. I remember in particular his piece, “The Mask,” about a mask-maker who puts on one mask and then another, and you could see his expression change from happiness to terror as he moved his hand down his face.

One of his greatest pieces was, as described in the Wikipedia article, “his summation of the ages of man in the famous Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death, one critic said, ‘He accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.'”

I noted in his obituary that he was Jewish — his father died in Auschwitz, in the flames foretold by Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.” This reminded me of a prayer that was said by thousands of Jews across the world just this past Saturday, on Yom Kippur (from Sacred Pilgrimage:A Guide to Jewish Practices on Death and Mourning):

Rabbi Alvin Fine´s beautiful and inspiring prayer in Gates of Repentance reminds us that:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey…
A sacred pilgrimage to live everlasting.

And life is a journey…
Until, looking backward or ahead
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.

Marcel Marceau — May His Memory Be a Blessing.
Charlie Chaplin — May His Memory Be a Blessing.
Buster Keaton — May His Memory Be a Blessing.

Notes:

1. I personally witnessed the power of world-wide celebrity over thirty years ago. While walking on 42nd Street in New York City I saw a small crowd across the street. Within seconds it had grown to hundreds, for at the center of the crowd was Muhammad Ali.

I witnessed this power again, though on a smaller scale, in late 2003. While walking with my wife and son to a synagogue on Friday evening in Jerusalem, I recognized the man in front of us was Prof. Allan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School. Sensing that he seemed lost, my son, then a student in Jerusalem, volunteered to help him find his way. Within seconds, others in the area also recognized Prof. Dershowitz, and headed towards him.

2. During my first visit to New York City in March, 1963, In less than a week I saw the following films: “The Great Dictator, “Tom Jones,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” and “Jules and Jim” (one of my all-time favorites). The richness of the film culture, as well as many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Museum, were among the reasons I vowed to myself during that week that I would try to live in New York City for at least five years before I turned thirty. I kept that vow, living in NYC for over twenty years starting in 1966; I moved to the suburb of Chappaqua, forty miles to the north, in 1987.

My first exposure to great painting was at the Frick. Just after entering, I turned to the left and first viewed a painting by Johannes Vermeer, “Officer and a Laughing Girl,” only to see its companion, “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” a few feet away to the right as I turned the corner. Further on, in the West Gallery — one of the highlights of Western Art — I first saw, “Mistress and Maid.” See Virtual Tour and Paintings in the Frick for images of the paintings that can be found in this extraordinary room.

During a visit to the Frick early one Sunday a few months back to attend a special exhibit of paintings on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art, I first made my way to the West Gallery, and had the great good fortune to be the only person in the room, save for a guard, for about twenty minutes.

Vermeer remains my favorite painter to this day. Thirty-five of his paintings survived to delight us. Eight can be found in New York (three at the Frick, and five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art); sadly, “The Concert, was stolen in 1990 and has not yet been recovered. (You can find images of all of them in the Wikipedia article.) See also Vermeer Paintings in the Frick Collection for images of the paintings in the Frick Collection.

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