A unique, poetic critical appreciation of Marcel Marceau (1923-2007).
The first few pages of radio producer and artist Wen’s short book look like blank verse, with succinct lines and plenty of white space. As the narrative unfolds into a meditation on the famous French mime, the poetry never leaves, even as Marceau’s inner voice advises, “leave speech behind. The body has its own language: weight, resistance, hesitation, surprise.” Surprises abound within these chapters, many no longer than a paragraph and few extending more than a couple of pages. The first surprise is the author’s ability to convey, in carefully chosen words, the essence and significance of this wordless art, especially when the reader learns that she is a radio producer, perhaps drawn to her subject because radio is the least promising medium for mime. Then there’s the American attitude toward mime in general, a disdain that makes such a fascinating book on one all the more of a wonder. “A journalist asked Marcel Marceau why most Americans hated mime,” writes Wen. “Marceau responded, ‘Because most mimes are lousy.’ ” The author meticulously details what distinguished the artist, the self-proclaimed “Picasso of mime,” in a series of scenes that show the magic of his performances and in annotated catalogs of the collections of artifacts that made the environment he constructed what his daughter called a “world apart” and a “virtual museum.” Wen also tiptoes into his personal life. His first wife “said he would not speak to her for days on end. She called it mental cruelty. He called it rehearsal.” She also traces the arc of his decline, his old age and death, and the apostle he left behind: “They learned to reproduce his gestures faithfully. And when they succeeded in mirroring the master, they began to unravel the art.”
Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.