Sunday, September 23, 2007

The sound of silence

Quietly -- as quiet as the performances of his long career -- comes the news that Marcel Marceau has died. The legendary mime passed on Saturday in Paris, at the age of 84.

In his long time on the public stage, Marceau demonstrated his ability to shout, laugh and cry with the sound of silence -- to be able, as French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Sunday, "to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language."

A career of expressive silence began shortly before the end of the noisy tumult and horror of World War II. When Paris was liberated, Marceau enrolled in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art, studying with the renowned mime Etienne Decroux.

It was on the stage of the provocative Left Bank avant-garde Théâtre de Poche where Marceau, a student of the silent-film work of Chaplin and Keaton, perfected the everyman persona that would become his enduring trademark. Marceau's on-stage persona, Bip -- his melancholic alter ago in white face paint, soft shoes and a hat adorned with a red flower -- came to signify the essence of mime as an art form for generations.

Pain was never far from Marceau in his youth. Once a figure with the French Resistance who saw his family uprooted by the Nazis, Marceau discovered at the age of 20 that his father was imprisoned at Auschwitz; he died there in 1944. But Marceau used the agonies of impressionable youth as a foundation for expressing the universal truths of life, growth, love and death.

"I have a feeling that I did for mime what (Andres) Segovia did for the guitar, what (Pablo) Casals did for the cello," he once told The Associated Press.

To his credit, Marceau validated the idea of work as joy, and made clear the importance of living life without stopping. "If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on," he told The AP in an interview in 2003. "You have to keep working."

He'll be sorely missed. In an age of 24/7 noise, a time of loud and relentless bombast from all corners, Marceau's gift of statements in silence can't be overestimated. A harlequin for our time, for all time, passes from the scene, his quiet eloquence speaking volumes. "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" he once said.

Yes. If only we bothered to listen.

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