On a sunny hotel room morning in Washington, Marcel Marceau the mime is miming a whole generation pointing at himself.
He throws out both his arms, his eyes flare, his jaw drops with epiphany and he rises half out of his chair, miming a boundless crowd, all the arms, eyes and jaws, as he exclaims: "A whole new generation is discovering . . . pantomime!"
"Viola ," he keeps saying, this 57-year-old Frenchman who is most of the history of mime as we know it in America.
"In America," he says, "nothing is done at the normal level. It is either bing! [he throws open his arms and radiates like the sun] or it is bong [he slumps tiny and dejected]. Everything is either hit or flop."
And Marcel Marceau, of course, has been a hit ever since he arrived to play a few weeks off Broadway in 1955, and stayed for six months, winding up at the City Center, with guest appearances on TV with Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan.
Remember? The guy in whiteface, Bip with the rose in his hat, out there all by himself pretending to walk into the wind, play tung of war, catch a butterfly, climb stairs?
"The man who sold tickets said 'Marcel! There is a line waiting to buy tickets this long.'"
Marcel launches another pointing forefinger into the air, this time peering down the remembered line of people outside the theater.
"He said: 'Are you crazy to go away after six months with a line like this? After New York, I went out to Hollywood, and in the audience were Charles Laughton, Harpo Marx, Charles Boyer, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper, all of Hollywood, and this was when it was still Hollywood. And I was only 30 years old!
"In the '50s I did TV specials, in the '60s the flower children discovered me, and in the '70s and '80s the mime craze erupted in America. In a few years I want to come back with a whole mime company and show America a whole new Marcel Marceau. I want mime to live as a tradition as long as ballet has lived, as long as theater has lived!"
The conversation began with the interviewer hoping that Marceau would define himself in terms of the long tradition of mime: the ancient Greek mime known as hypothesis ; the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus ordering mimists to have sex on stage; the Commedia dell'Arte of 16th-century Italy; the Harlequin of 18th-century England's John Rich, of whom Garrick wrote: "He gives the power of speech to every limb."
What a history! There was the "dumb show" tradition that survives in the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. There was Joseph Grimaldi in the 19th centure, forefather of all circus clowns. And, in early 19th-century France there was the great Pierrot of Jean Gaspard Deburau, that mute figure pining away with his hands over his heart -- Deburau being the character depicted in the cult-class movie "The Children of Paradise," which was made by, among other, Etienne Decroux, who was Marceau's teacher.
"Mime has no tradition," Marceau says. "We know nothing about Deburau, except what Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault [who stars in the movie] invented. We know what costume he wore, but that is all. I never saw a Pierrot. The last ones died of old age around 1918. I never saw them. The pantomime du style , the walking against the wind, the dice game, going upstairs, that was entirely invented by myself."
How he loves to talk, this man who never says a word on stage. It's hard to even fit a question into his tumultuous spiel on the history of mime, or the lack of history of mime, depending on how you look at it, and Marceau can look at it a number of different ways, calling it "classical" and "modern" in the same breath, then going on to talk about that, too.
"Excuse me, but I have my thread in my mind I cannot break, I must say this," he says, pinching fingers together to show the thread that he doesn't want his questioner to break.
Meanwhile, his 29-year-old wife, Anne, dressed like him in off-beige, tries to tell him that he must go, there are people waiting. He pays no attention whatsoever.
Marceau has a school in Paris, and a 250-year-old farmhouse in the country nearby. He has two children. He speaks five languages. He has won two Emmys and countless other awards. He has appeared in six feature films and 20 shorts. He paints professionally. He has written and illustrated books including "The Story of Bip."
He comes from a Jewish and socialist family in Strasbourg. His father, butcher, died at Auschwitz. Marceau was a courier in the French underground. Late in the war he was in Paris, and went to study acting with, among others, Etienne Decroux, who in the 1920s had worked to recreate a tradition of mime.
"Decroux tried to imagine what the Greeks and Romans would have played. He worked with the statuary mime, the walking in one place, because of the great Roman and Greek statues. He was influenced by everything: German expressinism, the Ballets Ruses, Rodin. He and the others he worked with were like Isadora Duncan. But has Isadora Duncan invented everything? No! She went back to the Romans and Greeks to imagine the tradition of barefoot dancing.
"Even when I started, actors still had contempt for mime," he says, glancing to the side with a rubbery grimace of contempt. "It was an exercise for them, the mime corporelle , all the muscles working. Decroux used to teach us nude."
"Of course," says Marceau, spreading his hands across his abdomen to mime a bikini. He goes on: "We studied the counterpoint, contrepois , creating the weight of the objects which are not there, I lean against."
By the late '40s he had created the character of Bip, the hapless everyman who slips on every banana peel on the sidewalk of life, and he had started his own mime troupe.
"To educate my public, I had to show what a mime could do with his body, and so I did the pantomime du style . I was considered very avantguarde."
Except by the audience of the Ed Sullivan show, which assumed he was working in some iron-clad tradition in which mimists always did the walking into the wind, climbing the stairs and so on, the way circus tigers always jump through rings of fire.
Wrong, says Marceau. Besides claiming there's no tradition, he says major influences on him were not so much other mimists as "Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Slapstick. Danny Kae. Ben Blue."
Also, he isn't just initiating a man walking into the wind. There's a style, a savor to it.
"Of course! Rostropovich once said to me: 'I want a picture of you holding a violoncelle .' How do you say? A Cello. And when I did it for him, he said, 'Now I realize what your art is!' Because you see he held the cello like a woodcutter." Here Marceau imitates Rostropovich hunched over, sawing away at the cello.
"While I do it like this!" He sits up, fingers flaring, elbows cocked, his face glowing with that terrific naive hopefulness that Bip projects on stage -- an attitude that suggests that the cello may well blow up any second, and Bip will once again be disappointed.
"I developed a complete art in my style. I have taken a complete art of all cultures we have, the Indian culture, African culture, European culture, and it has become my form, the Marceau form. In the art of mime you go deep into the universal human situation. The young people now will derive from Decroux and Marceau, but they have no new concept.Marceau has created concept. Doing the butterfly . . ."
He flexes a slow hand into the air, watching it.
"This is a concept. The Chinese do the butterfly too, but with a net, I do it . . ."
And he does it, just that one hand fluttering in the morning sunlight, does it as he'll be doing it all week at the Kennedy Center opera house.
"I have influenced the Polish, the Czechs! Marceau has influenced . . ."
His wife is moving into a low hover over her seat, miming a very impatient woman. (She teaches mime at his school in Paris.)
He pays no attention: ". . . the Russian clowns! Bip will stand like Chaplin!"