Paris: Marcel Marceau died this past weekend in Paris. He was 84 and had been anticipating his death at least since July 1997, when he spent an evening on the terrace of a palace near Salzburg talking about his concern that when he passed the art of mime might die with him. He had a right to be concerned.
His name became synonymous with his art. In the 1950s and 1960s, Marceau elevated this finely nuanced silent form of art, L'art du silence, as he called it, to a form of mass entertainment. He won an Emmy for his performance on the Max Lieberman Show, and appeared with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. In 1976, he made a cameo appearance in Mel Brooks's "Silent Movie." When Brooks asks him, in subtitle, if he is willing to appear in the film, Marceau provides the only soundtrack line in the movie, a tart, distinctly French flavored, "Non!"
In the summer of 1997, Marceau came to Salzburg for a single performance and was scheduled as part of the public events preceding the major operatic and orchestral productions that would follow in the month ahead.
Marcel was somewhat annoyed, as I learned from his agent, that the festival had booked him in the small festival hall, that seats 900, rather than the sprawling Grosses Festspielhaus that accommodates more than three times that number, but he performed brilliantly that evening.
Dressed in his signature striped suit with his battered silk opera hat and single red rose, suggesting the fragility of human existence, he was buffeted by the invisible vicissitudes of life in "Walking against the Wind."
He explored the full range of human emotions in "The Mask Maker" and took us through the stages of human life in "Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death," a performance that had once left an awed critic to observe that Marceau accomplished in "less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes." The small festival hall was at most two-thirds full.
After the performance, Marceau withdrew to Schloss Leopoldskron, a rococo palace on the outskirts of Salzburg that had once belonged to the Festival founder Max Reinhardt.
Silent on stage, Marcel was a natural raconteur. Sitting on the palace terrace on a warm summer evening with several bottles of wine, he mused late into the night about his art and his career.
He claimed he had learned the power of illusion on a sun drenched afternoon toward the end of World War II while fighting with the French Résistance. He and a companion had entered a clearing and suddenly found themselves face-to-face with a unit of German soldiers. Startled, Marceau acted as if he was the advance guard of a larger French force and demanded the German surrender.
As Marcel related the incident, he suddenly sprang to his feet and struck a predatory pose. The night air filled with menace and, an instant later, triumph. Though it was well past midnight, I still see the helmets of the surrendering Germans glinting in that sunlight meadow.
Mostly, though, Marcel spoke that evening about the fragility of his art. He observed that "ars long, vita brevis" was a verity that did not apply to "l'art du silence." Unlike novels or plays or operas, which could be printed, recorded, preserved, the art of mime was a transitory and ephemeral art. It existed only in the moment. And more unsettling still, essentially in one man, Marcel Marceau.
For Marceau, this was not a point of artistic conceit but of pragmatic concern. If the man and the art form were essentially one, he said, then when the man died the art form died with him, and with it his own legacy. He had therefore established a school of mime in Paris to mentor protégés, and had scripted "The Bowler Hat," a multi-character theatrical "mimodrama," that was to premier in Munich that autumn.
Marcel also talked about a system of notation he was developing for mime, similar to music notation, that could be "read" by performers in future. When asked why a video of a mime performance would not suffice, he mused in response: Would a video tape of a performance of Beethoven 9th Symphony suffice for musicians in the future?
Marceau worked relentlessly in the intervening decade to secure the future of the art of silence. "The Bowler Hat" went on to performances in Paris, London, Tokyo, New York and elsewhere. Marceau himself held triumphant comeback tours to packed houses and extended engagements in Europe and America, but he never succeeded in finding a successor who commanded the stage the way he did. Now he is dead and a part of his art has died with him.