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Tribute to Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau
(born Marcel Mangel, March 22, 1923, died September 22, 2007)
was a well-known mime artist,
among the most popular representatives of this art form world-wide.


 

To M A R C E L M A R C E A U

Mon Maitre, Mon Ami, My Teacher, My Friend

By Samuel Avital, Founder and Director of Le Centre du Silence Mime School, Boulder, Colorado, USA

It is with great respect and honor that I dedicate these words in this special page of Le Centre du Silence Mime School I founded in 1971 in Boulder, Colorado as Homage, a Kaddish to Marcel Marceau, my teacher and friend over the years since I studied with him in Paris of 1959.

This great French mime master who popularized the beautiful Art of Mime to millions all over the world, and performed for almost seventy years with mastery and excellence beyond definition. This genuine master of silence allowed us to encounter a few glimpses into our lives with impeccable eloquence, and has captured the attention and the heart of millions of people without uttering a word.

Marcel Mangel, whose father was a kosher butcher, was born March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, near the French-German border. The family moved to Lille and later to Limoges. He was 84 when he died Saturday, September 22, 2007 in Paris, exactly on Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition.

The inner meaning of leaving this world on Yom Kippur is very significant in the Hebrew Tradition, and an ominous sacred sign that his soul joins the assembly of the Justs of the world in the Garden of Eden, who, by their simplicity of being and invisibility, sustain and brighten our world with hope, light, joy and genuine kindness, and assists us with a conscious intention to dare to transform our broken characters into a better, healthy and balanced way of being, and thus, restore ourselves and the entire world.

The President of France Nicolas Sarkozy said Sunday in a statement. "France loses one of its most eminent ambassadors," Indeed, a great artist and ambassadeur of poetry in action, with a human élan of sensitivity, as Marceau himself, used to say, “the musicality of movement,” and his silent eloquence that spoke to all human hearts everywhere beyond the limited spoken language.

I used to see his performances every night in Theatre de L’Ambigu (that is no more), not far from where I lived in Boulevard Magenta in Paris.

One day I had a great surprise when I passed by the back stage of the historical Theatre L’ambigu. Marceau was leaning gently on the door, pensive, with his contemplative deep eyes expression and with his trickster smile. I stopped for a moment, leaned by the same doorstep, as if saying silently; I am here, to be, and to listen, including myself in his “private” contemplation.

We stayed still a while in silence, and then, from nowhere, he asked me with such a serious tone: “Samuel, where was God during the Holocaust?” I opened my two big eyes and looked at him while his gentle hand was still in the asking position of that question reverberating in the air, I never knew that question, and to me? He asks that screaming question? Did he really expect an “answer” from me?

My first thought was to gently whisper, “Baruch Dayan Ha-emet” (Blessed be the Judge of Truth) and said to him, that this mystery will be explored by many humans, and it is actually the kind of question that needs no answer! It is a great and wondrous human quest for justice and bewilderment. A sincere and innocent defiant question, to consciousness itself, to the God who signed with us the Sinai contract, when we accepted the Torah by saying “We will do and we will hear”, and thus, to be our guardian during our long and purifying exile among the nations of this earth.

He saw that I was touched by that wondrous question and immediately said, are you coming tonight to the performance? Yes, I said, and he went in for another Mime performance that night. That question haunted me for many years, and any pretentious “answer” can be an insult to human intelligence.

In our tradition when we come to an impasse where we cannot answer any question, after exploring it from every angle possible, we say: TEIKU, meaning that has to wait for now, until the Prophet Eliyahu will come and help us find the “answer.” Maybe, when that time comes, we will evolve and use our consciousness and intelligence fully. We will be able to find that “answer.” For now we say, TEIKU.

As far as I remember, I never had any conversation with Marceau on mundane matters, or gossip, only lofty, meaningful and practical subjects that rise up, to explore when we had a time to dwell deeply into that, and always will end with a good humor, being seriously funny. He was a living question mark, probing and exploring the deeper dimensions of being, and how to express that with our beautiful art of silence - mime. He was a great silent Lighthouse.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Marcel Marceau as "the master" who possessed the rare gift of "being able to communicate with each and every one beyond the barriers of language." Those who knew him a little more closely, his students, friends and colleagues can testify about his generosity and patience in his relations with them.

Annette Lust, the author of "From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond," said that, Marceau's mentor, French mime master Etienne Decroux, "reinvented the art of mime to revive modern theater and the actor's art," whereas Mr. Marceau "popularized that art and brought it to the whole world."

When the Germans invaded France during World War II, Marceau's father was taken to Auschwitz, where he died in 1944. Marceau was 21.

In one of his performances he introduced me to his older brother, Alain, who changed the family name to Marceau - after Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, an 18th century French general - and both brothers became part of the French underground.

Marceau was talented for forging documents to help young Jewish men avoid the Nazi concentration camps, and he also helped many children across the border to neutral Switzerland. Toward the end of the war, he joined the Free French Forces, fighting alongside U.S. troops under Gen. George Patton.

Studying with Marceau was very intimidating in the beginning, until you begun to understand the scope of this beautiful art of the essence of human expression, dedication, devotion and focused heart, were the traits I needed to learn and master this artistic craft with Marceau, and all this without expecting any results. Just practice, explore, enjoy and if the knees sometime are tired, it was always a gift to rest and contemplate.

His endorsement to my first book “Mime WorkBook” on November 20, 1971 was:

"Somewhere in Colorado, in a beautiful town called Denver, there is a community of young people directed by the very talented Samuel Avital. I think that his work is important. He brings awareness to the soul of people, and gives the young dedicated artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement." Marcel Marceau, BIP. Nov 20, 1971 - See Photo

When he endorsed my second book “Mime and Beyond: The Silent Outcry” in March 22, 1980 on his birthday celebration together at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado, he wrote me in French:

”Mon cher Samuel, Les mots seront toujours pauvres a coté de notre silence, mais ils ouvrent les portes a notre esprit silencieux. De tout Coeur.” Marcel Marceau, BIP. Denver, Colorado 1980

Translation:

“My dear Samuel, words will be always poor besides our silence, but they will open doors…to our silent spirit. With all heart.” Marcel Marceau, BIP. Denver, Colorado 1980 - See Photo


Marcel & Samuel - 1980

Last time I saw his performance was in The Denver Center for The Performing Arts, Wed, April 9th, 2003. He was frail, but that evening, he gave a great performance with more than 15 minutes of ovations. There were many young people from various schools, the audience was elated by his poetic humanity, and you forgot that he was in his 80’s, with the same grace and mastery of eloquence, and as the same energetic delivery, the same way I knew him in his performances Paris, when he was younger in age.

Once in a performance I saw in the Theatre de Poche in Montparnasse in Paris, I was seated (by accident?) in a seat where “Marcel Marceau’s name was carved. He was amused and smiling when I related to him this anecdote.

"Mime, like music, knows neither borders nor nationalities," I remember he once said. "If laughter and tears are the characteristics of humanity, all cultures are steeped in our discipline."

From time to time, Marceau, will ask me probing questions, live or via personal correspondence, on specific events of our tumultuous time on the Kabbalah, and he knew I came from a Kabbalistic Sephardic lineage from Spain and Morocco, and he enjoyed lively conversations of this great body of knowledge and wisdom of our Hebrew tradition.

The truth is that I am both sad and happy that during the writing of these reminiscences, knowing within myself, he left us a great legacy, and he lives in our knowing that we learned from him a great deal while he was present here with us.

My heart is full with respect and great good memories of him and his generous way of being and teaching. May his memory be blessed.

I remember when he performed “The Creation of the World” as an angel who descended on earth, and landed in a bar, where people were drinking and loud music, and must deals with the material entrapments, and the wicked ways of humans here. Now, he becomes that angel, returning back to the source of all souls, via the same ladder.

Rest well, Beloved Grand Maitre, your memory will live within me, and those beings you touched and entertained with such a great eloquence and gentle humanity.

May your soul rest in peace, in the source of all souls, within the sacred bundle of life.

Your humble student,

Samuel Avital

Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Wed, Sept 26, 2007

PS:

See some of the photos with me taken over the years, some of them never before published.


Some other details about his work and life from the French and US press

I read about Marceau recently and from various performance programs I have:

Active until late in his life, Mr. Marceau toured the world for more than half a century, giving more than 15,000 performances. Each included several pieces featuring Bip, the beloved character he created early in his career.

Starting as a child mimic of Charlie Chaplin, Mr. Marceau by the age of 30 had become the single person to embody the ancient art of mime. He also took mime in new directions.

Through the years, Mr. Marceau created dozens of adventures for Bip, the dreamy little poet, whose white face, ill-fitting striped shirt, too-long pants and smashed hat topped with a jaunty red carnation are perhaps the most familiar image of mime today.

In addition to Bip's adventures, Mr. Marceau created many other "mimodramas," including Gogol's "The Overcoat," the story of a Russian clerk who works for a decade to buy an overcoat only to lose it to theft. Innumerable solo sketches, such as "The Creation of the World" and, among his most revered works, one that showed the four stages of life - youth, maturity, old age and death.

To be a mime, Marceau noted, one must be a sculptor, a painter, a writer, a poet and a musician. And one must also have incredible physical stamina and talent. "It's not dance," he said. "It's not slapstick. It is essence and restraint."

Besides his performing, Mr. Marceau dedicated himself to being the muse for those who would follow him, including students who studied at L'Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris, which he opened in 1978.

And he delighted in those who simply emulated him well, such as Michael Jackson, who developed his famed "moon walk" after seeing Mr. Marceau's "walk against the wind" routine.

But Mr. Marceau also lamented that some of his less talented imitators had given mime a bad name.

He especially rued the street mimes that worked popular tourist attractions such as San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. "People think, 'Oh my God, not again!' when they see them and miss the fact that mime, done well, is like nothing else," Mr. Marceau told the Los Angeles Times in 1989.

Mr. Marceau was a garrulous man offstage and never tired of recounting his life story or explaining the importance of mime - hoping he would not be the last to carry on its tradition.

Mr. Marceau appeared in numerous films, including "Barbarella" with Jane Fonda. His most famous appearance was perhaps in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie," in which, as a joke, he spoke the only word in the script: "No."

In 1946, Mr. Marceau began his studies in Paris at the School of Dramatic Art in the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre as a student of Charles Dullin. He hoped to become an actor, but when he encountered Decroux, who proclaimed him a "born mime," Mr. Marceau changed his life's course. "I was good at it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1973. "And then it began to possess me."

In 1947, Mr. Marceau created Bip, named after Dickens' Pip in "Great Expectations" but also inspired by Chaplin and the clown Pierrot. Mr. Marceau saw Bip as a Don Quixote character "who staggers with the windmills of life" and sent him on adventures ranging from taming a lion to getting stuck in an elevator.

His first appearance in the United States was in 1955 in New York City, where he would return frequently over the years.

Mr. Marceau often told the tale of having encountered his idol, Chaplin, in an airport. Chaplin, by then an old man, seemed to recognize his young adulator, so Mr. Marceau built up his nerve and went over to introduce himself.

He delighted Chaplin by doing a turn on the Little Tramp, and then Chaplin returned the flattery by imitating Mr. Marceau's imitation.

When they parted, Mr. Marceau grabbed Chaplin's hand and kissed it, which brought tears to Chaplin's eyes.

By age 80, Mr. Marceau had cut back his traveling schedule from 300 performances a year to a mere 150 - still a remarkable schedule for a performer of any age.

"If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on," he once remarked in 2003. "You have to keep working."

He had two sons by his first marriage, to Huguette Mallet, which ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Ella Jaroszewicz, also ended in divorce. He had two daughters by his third wife, Anne Sicco, whom he later divorced.

"Samuel brings awareness to the soul of people and gives the artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement."

 

- Marcel Marceau, BIP 1961

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LCDS is an independent school for self-discovery through the human Arts.  The school offers seminars and workshops teaching the concepts of Theater, Mime, and Movement.