PARIS (Reuters) - Marcel Marceau, the world’s best-known mime artist who for decades moved audiences across the globe without uttering a single word, has died aged 84.
The Frenchman’s extensive tours and appearances on camera brought his silent art to people around the world. His comic and tragic sketches appealed on a universal level, with each audience interpreting his performance in its own way.
“Mime, like music, knows neither borders nor nationalities,” he once said. “If laughter and tears are the characteristics of humanity, all cultures are steeped in our discipline.”
On stage, he charmed with his deft silent movements, a white-faced figure with a striped jersey and battered top hat.
Off stage, with the costume and the pancake makeup removed, Marceau was a slim, agile man whose eloquent description and explanation complemented his mute mastery of mime.
In mime, Marceau said, gestures express the essence of the soul’s most secret aspiration. “To mime the wind, one becomes a tempest. To mime a fish, you throw yourself into the sea.”
He created the figure of Bip, the melancholy, engaging clown with a limp red flower in his hat, 60 years ago this year.
“The mime artist Marceau will forever be the character of Bip,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a statement confirming the performer’s death.
“He became one of the best-known French artists in the world. His students and the showbusiness world will miss him.”
The exact cause of his death was not immediately known.
Marceau traced his ancestry back through Hollywood silent film greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the clowns of the Commedia dell’Arte, a centuries-old European tradition, and to the stylized gestures of Chinese opera and Japan’s Noh plays.
Marceau was born in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg on March 22, 1923. He was brought up in Lille, where his father was a butcher. When World War Two came, his father was taken hostage and later killed by the invading Nazis and in 1944 Marcel joined his elder brother in the Resistance.
He later joined the French Army and served with occupation forces in Germany at the end of the war.
He began to study acting in 1946 under Charles Dullin and the great mime teacher Etienne Decroux, who also taught Jean-Louis Barrault.
It was in Marcel Carne’s famous 1947 film starring Barrault, “Les Enfants du Paradis”, that Marceau, who played Arlequin, first became known as a mime artist.
He formed his own mime company in 1948, and the troupe was soon touring other European countries, presenting mime dramas. The company failed financially in 1959, but was revived as a school, the Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame, in 1984.
A veteran of dozens of films, one of his best remembered roles was a speaking cameo in “Silent Movie”, made by American director Mel Brooks.
For Marceau, mime had a philosophical and political level.
One of his most famous sketches was “The Cage”, in which he struggled to escape through an invisible ring of barriers, only to find that one cage succeeds another and there is no escape.
In Czechoslovakia before the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, he recalled that audiences understood it as an allegory about capitalism. After the invasion, they saw in it an image of themselves under Russian domination.
“I am a progressive, a man who deals for peace, and who has struggled for enlightenment in the world. I am not just an entertainer,” he said.
“I want to be a man who will represent as an active witness my time, and who wants to say, without words, my feelings about the world.”