In the words of Harper’s Magazine, Marcel Marceau died quietly last weekend.
Those of you who never saw him perform really missed out. These days, mimes are the butt of jokes, imagined in mock deadly serious shadow wars with clowns as though the two entertainment professions were crime families fighting over territory. Usually, the mimes are the bad guys. I’ve only ever seen one other mime in my life, which underscores the fact that it has really been something of a dying art for decades.
Marcel referred to the art of the mime as “l’art du silence”, and he performed it exquisitely well. I don’t remember who said it, but a critic at one of his performance was moved to say that he accomplished in two minutes what most novelists cannot accomplish in volumes. I was quite young when I saw his live performance, but what I recall of it tended to support that claim. He performed a routine called “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death” that day, and it was only a few years later after I’d had some more time to mature (perhaps ironically) that I realized the incredible talent and artistic vision that was necessary to that poignant expression of the vagaries of our existence. Jokes are made about mimes walking into the wind, but Marcel Marceau used the act of portraying a man walking into the wind to express the difficulties of life, and the uniquely human struggle against them.
He has basically been dying since the late ’90s, and left this world at the age of 84, concerned that his art would in effect die with him. It may not in fact be dead yet, but without some stunning talents to pick up where he left off it’s entirely possible it may all be downhill from here, until it really does die.
In the last ten years, I’ve thought a few times about the fact that I’d like to see him perform again — and realized that the chance of that, at his advanced age, was somewhere between slim and none. Now, it’s truly none, and that’s a sobering thought. When I saw him years — decades (he said, suddenly feeling old) — ago, it was with my father. Maybe by the time I get around to deciding to have kids, there’ll be someone new out there reinventing the art.
There’ll surely be no replacing him in the memories of those who have seen him perform.