In Monsieur Marceau, her stunning collaboration with illustrator Gérard DuBois, Leda Schubert puts into words the life of one of the world’s most gifted silent performers, Marcel Marceau.
For over 50 years, Marceau (1923-2007) dazzled audiences everywhere as a mime of unparalleled skill. YouTube devotees may still catch in action the man who taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk and brought to international acclaim a white-faced, hapless adventurer named “Bip.” But here alongside his artistry, which DuBois captures in arrestingly evocative oils, Schubert also highlights Marceau’s early history, revealing how during World War II he used his miming skills and, at great personal risk, led hundreds of Jewish children to safety in Switzerland. Witnessing such a dynamic story brought to life on the page, we were eager to learn about Schubert’s connection to this universally beloved figure.
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What’s your attraction to Marcel Marceau?
My senior year in college, I took a class in mime with a Swiss mime, Jan Kessler, and it was a wonderful experience. So I already had some mime in my background, and I believe I saw Marceau once when I was younger. When he died, my agent sent me a note asking if I was interested in writing about him, and I’ve never taken anyone else’s idea. Usually it has to come from me, but in this case, I thought that sounded kind of intriguing, and when I read about Marceau, I just learned so many things that I never would have known. I didn’t know he was Jewish. I didn’t know he had basically been a hero in World War II using the mime skills he had developed as a young child. The more I researched, the more fascinating he became. So that was the germ of it.
Which aspect of his incredible biography are you most drawn to?
There’s so much! I guess his imagination, his ability to use his imagination and his skills to transform both viewers and people around the world. His was a universal language; he brought people together to understand the whole range of human emotions—not to mention his WWII heroics and his incredible artistic vision. That’s a hard question!
I also had no idea Marceau was Jewish. Was he open about this after the war?
He was interviewed numerous times, and yes, people certainly knew, because in interviews from quite a while ago he did talk about that. But he never talked on stage, except for one time, so it wasn’t something they would have known unless they were following his story. The same is true of his participation in the French Resistance, which was not widely known.
You note that Marceau says a mime must have incredible stamina and talent. I marvel at how strong and flexible his facial muscles must have been.
Mime is considered one of the most difficult of the performing arts. When I talked with Rob Mermin, who started Circus Smirkus and had studied with Marceau, he demonstrated for me the movements of his fingers that Marcel made him practice thousands of times to articulate every joint and muscle in the fingers. You know, I never could have done it; it was impossible: the kinds of flowing movements, the way Marceau walked against the wind, the strength to lean that far and to hold yourself with so few muscles touching the ground—everything that he did took phenomenal effort, but it seemed easy for him because he practiced and practiced.
Can you imagine his warm-up routines?!
I know, and he did this when he was 80!
So what do you think of Gérard DuBois’s illustrations?
Gérard’s a Frenchman living in Montréal, so he knows the landscape, the characters and the world. His illustrations range to the surreal, and there’s a surreal illustration in the book, so I am absolutely thrilled. I love the texture and the kind of sculptural feeling that he gets; his figures and composition seem almost three-dimensional to me. The first illustration I saw was Marceau smelling the rose, and I showed it to everyone I knew. I was and still am absolutely thrilled. I didn’t know how anybody could illustrate this book. I mean the words themselves are all describing things that aren’t there, so how do you illustrate that? I sort of imagined someone doing ghostly outlines. How he did it, I don’t know.
What do you think it was in Marceau’s performance that kept audiences hooked?
I would guess his emotional truth and concentration and movements: his ability to take the essence of what it means to be human and to transfer it into his body on such a stage, so that he could do a brief mime of being born to dying and capture the entire life cycle in so few movements.
What do you think of picture-book biography as a genre?
I think it’s a great, burgeoning field. And it’s a challenge to write, to find the trajectory of a person’s life and put it on the page in a way that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Figuring out what moments will carry your story is very challenging. You have to do it honestly; you can’t just pick and choose the things that fit your story and leave out everything else. Nobody has an exemplary life; everybody has something you can find.
That’s why it’s such a challenge to write well, and that’s why it appeals to me. I like doing hard things. If it’s easy, why do it? I think biographies can help readers see what’s possible in the world.
And what do you hope your readers take from this?
Follow your bliss. Do something that you’re passionate about. Be courageous. Care.