TIM WALKER looks back at a memorable meeting with the great mime artist.
Of all the people in all the world, mine artists must seem like the least promising subjects for an interview. Marcel Marceau was, however, a joy to talk to. And just to behold.
It was the summer of 1990 and the scene was the restaurant at the Ritz in London, where the head waiter was clearly no respecter of persons. Marceau didn’t have a tie and the dress code was the dress code. “I think I have the solution,” he said, after pondering the problem. “I shall mime a tie.”
The head waiter was not amused and Marceau, looking a bit like the dejected clown he so often portrayed on stage, retreated to his suite and returned with the required neckwear. I observed how he walked and moved his hands and was struck how, even in conversation, every movement was perfectly judged. He seemed to have got so used to communicating with his entire body that it had become second nature to him.
“You must know that I am slightly deaf,” he informed me, unpromisingly, after the waiter had taken our orders. “It’s likely that you will ask me a lot of questions that I will be unable to hear.”
The deafness turned out to be selective. Questions about his one-man show at Sadler’s Wells in London, whispered even, got through immediately. Questions about his private life, shouted even, drew a blank time after time.
Marceau was on his third marriage and fourth child by the time we met, but it was his courage during the war that interested me more. As a Jewish youngster on the run in occupied France, he had worked with the Resistance and was credited with helping innumerable children flee the Nazis. His fluency in English and German eventually landed him a job as a liaison officer with George Patton’s Third Army.
I persisted and spoke ever louder, but he eventually said to me very quietly: “It was all a very long time ago and I did what anyone who loves life and his fellow human beings would have done, and, seriously, a lot of people risked a lot more – and achieved much greater things – than I did during that time of madness.”
Marceau saw mime as a natural extension of acting after he’d trained at the Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art, in Paris. “Mime is truth,” he said. “Words are fundamentally untrustworthy. Just look at the kind of people that use words the most – politicians, journalists…”
He grinned, impishly. Marceau was then 67 and had come to have a pretty realistic opinion of members of my trade. He had been mercilessly lampooned in a lot of newspaper interviews. Rowan Atkinson had also had a go at mime artists in a sketch in the satirical television series Not the Nine 0’Clock News. “Mime is my life so of course I take it seriously,” Marceau said. “I may be a wealthy man now, but I did not ever expect to be one when I began 40 years ago. It looked then as if I would be going against the tide all my life. Nobody can therefore ever doubt my commitment.”
Marceau took no wine with his lunch and told me he exercised every day. He looked good for his age. “It is my work that keeps me young,” he said. “For me, it is the elixir of youth.”
He had in the past been more concerned about the health and longevity of mime as an art form. He’d gone on record as saying that while opera would survive the death of any opera singer – no matter how illustrious – he wasn’t sure if mime wouldn’t eventually be buried with him.
The eponymous school for mime he founded in Paris had, however, given him grounds for hope. “There are some very talented mime artists around,” he said. “Mime is too great an art to die.”
Mime did, of course, survive Marceau’s death 17 years later at the age of 84, but it’s fair to say there was never another Marcel Marceau.