from A Body Later On

Shawn Wen
Marcel Marceau

On the need for the school 

On his second tour of America, Marcel Marceau found street mimes trapped in imaginary boxes on every corner. 

A journalist asked Marcel Marceau what he thought of the copycats. 
Marceau responded, “It’s better than mugging people.”  

A journalist asked Marcel Marceau why most Americans hate mime. 
Marceau responded, “That’s because most mimes are lousy.”  

Marcel Marceau said, “A great artist in mime has pupils with whom he works regularly, often throughout his whole life, and who in turn carry on the traditions they have learned from their master. But sometimes, when the mime gets old and dies, and his pupils have become very few, the art fades into obscurity. We have to wait for a great new artist to arrive to carry on the tradition and add his own work of advancement.” 

The Marcel Marceau International School of Mimodrama no longer exists. The building still stands on rue René Boulanger. A dance studio expanded into the performance space. 

Marcel Marceau said, “I knew I would die one day. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he was the only mime in existence.’” 

He lobbied the French government for ten years to build a mime school. Thirteen times, he asked for an audience with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. 

He said, “Either France will give me a subsidy or I will go to America. France owes this to me.” 

Two American universities offered to fund the mime school. In 1978, France gave him two hundred thousand dollars. 

He said, “If it had been done in America, it would have been two million. I would have said yes, but I am a masochist.” 

Marcel Marceau gave interviews on the history of mime, the importance of mime. He appeared on talk shows. He wrote chapters and forewords to books. He recorded an album. His crusade, his obsession, was to prove that mime was an art form unto itself. He tired of the questions: Why didn’t you go into traditional theater? Why didn’t you go into dance? 

He said, “Mime needs perfection. When you’re in a play, fifty percent is the genius of the actor, fifty percent is the genius of the author. When a mime is not perfect, you see nothing.” 


On giants 

“David and Goliath.” He is at once the boy and the giant. His transitions are so seamless, you almost believe they appear onstage at the same time. 

Director: Marcel, it’s beautiful. 
Marceau: I made two or three mistakes but fortunately you didn’t see them.  

“Bip Goes on a Date,” but his love interest is a giantess. But but but. You know loveliness and size cannot coexist. He dances with an invisible ghost twice his height. 

There’s a moment when you think the love story between the amazon and the waif stands a chance. But she grows and grows, her massive body crowding him out of his own apartment. 

Next act. 


On new mimes 

Marcel Marceau had sympathy for Michael Jackson. He saw in Michael Jackson something of himself. 

“Michael has the soul of a mime,” he said.  

What is this soul of a mime? What is this soul that belonged to Marcel Marceau and to Michael Jackson and to all actors who stand onstage making gestures? 

“The soul of a mime is a complex one, part child and part artist, part clown and part tragic figure.” 

“I’ve seen Michael on TV for years, and I think that he is a poet. But now he is in the tradition of French poets like Verlaine and Rimbaud because his subject is the lost childhood.” 

On December 4, 1995, Michael Jackson was promoting his HBO special at the Beacon Auditorium. His career was at its pinnacle. 

More than ten years before, he modeled the moonwalk after Marceau’s “Walking against the Wind.” And ever since, he has been turning his focus, ever so slowly, away from the voice and toward the body. Two days later, he would collapse from exhaustion. But that night he faced the reporters. 

One yelled, “Are you still married?” 

Another, “Say hello!” 

Michael Jackson gave them all the same response: silence. 

Instead, he brought out a mime to speak for him. 

Marceau announced, “For the first time, the King of Mime would work with the King of Pop.” 

They were two men on stage with whitened faces and agile bodies. Held under a beam of bright light, Michael Jackson performed the invisible box routine. A metaphor for both their lives. 

The journalist Neal Strauss agreed with Marceau. He also thought that Michael Jackson was transforming into a mime. He wrote: “After Mr. Jackson’s collapse, a medical technician said there was so much make-up on his face that medics had to lift his shirt to check his complexion.” 

“Marcel Marceau is honored by those who draw on the Marcel Marceau style of mime to create their own work,” said Marcel Marceau. 


Shawn Wen is a writer, radio producer, and multimedia artist. Her book A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause is forthcoming with Sarabande Books. Her writing has appeared in The New InquirySeneca Review, the White Review, and the anthology City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis (Faber and Faber, 2015). Her radio work has broadcast on This American Life, Freakonomics Radio, and Marketplace. Her video work has screened at the Museum of Modern Art, the Camden International Film Festival, and the Carpenter Center.