In the darkened hush of a theater, a tiny, lithe figure--alone against a black backdrop, his face a chalk mask, his figure clothed in sailor-style whites--is coaxing Creation from the void.

Let there be light!--the figure crouches and watches in awe as an imaginary orb burns its way up in the sky. Then there is Eve--two hands remove a rib--and the Serpent!--one arm undulates out and then back toward Eve's frightened visage. Finally Adam and his wife are banished from Eden; the white-clad figure steps slowly upstage and pauses in tragic, noiseless repose, Eve's comforting arm slung around Adam's neck.

Marcel Marceau, 76, is practicing his art as he has on five continents for 52 years. He lives, and as long as he lives, mime lives with him.

Beyond that, who can tell? Marceau began performing at a time when Charlie Chaplin was still a draw at the Saturday matinee. We are now in an era that has surpassed silence--worse, that has forgotten its purpose.

Onstage, Marceau is an ageless wonder, his whitened face an instrument that can play a thousand emotional notes, his movements resonant with subtlety and expressive grace. In creating such memorable illusions as a man walking against the wind, climbing stairs or trapped behind bars, Marceau rejuvenated an art as old as the ancient Greeks, as popular at one time as TV cartoons are today. With his signature character, Bip, a quixotic hobo tilting against the windmills of life, Marceau became the sine qua non of modern pantomine.

But for all his success, it is also true that Marceau remains the only recognizable mime the past half-century has produced. Silence? As entertainment? It seems oddly out of place in our infinitely cacophonous culture of cellular phones and split-screen talk shows. Mime is an art that fires the imagination; modern entertainment seems to be more about numbing the senses. In an age of exploding asteroids and celluloid dinosaurs, what could seem more futile than conjuring up imaginary images in the dark?

It is not a small question. But Marcel Marceau is happy to answer all the big questions--and any of the little ones, too. He has spent a lifetime refashioning mime in his image, and will spend the rest of his years ensuring that his legacy endures. (He will be at Ford's Theatre for a three-week engagement starting Tuesday, his first appearance in Washington in 20 years.)

"Silence--it is wonderful," he says over the course of a four-hour conversation. The mime, it turns out, is very fond of talking. "You think that silence is nothing. But I've discovered that silence touches people just like music. You can create a kind of magnetic field just by the breathing of the audience. . . . You have these waves, sound waves, that go through the air. These are the same waves that allow you to see my thoughts, to see the weight of my soul."

Let Him Tell You

His soul, it still has weight. The muscles are no longer as supple, the strength not what it once was, but the essence of Marceau remains vibrant. Some critics even argue that his art has been distilled by experience and therefore has improved over time. "The great French mime is a poet of space, an emperor of the air, as lissome on stage as ever," wrote the San Francisco Examiner of his three-week run in California last summer. "Marceau was zen before zen was cool." The engagement was such a success that he returned in the fall for another three weeks.

"It is a measure of his silent genius that imagination and illusion still speak so potently through his artistry," New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote last March. "Mr. Marceau remains a model, not a fossil."

The mime brandishes these notices like a one-man billboard and spends a good deal of time rather poignantly reciting his other rave reviews. "Marceau is the essence of theater!" he enthuses, quoting the San Francisco Chronicle. "The essence! A miracle, they said! 'Marcel Marceau is a miracle.' "

He doesn't stop there: " 'Marcel Marceau is the shortest distance between two points.' " He pauses, with a broad smile; he loves that one. The same critic--whoever it was--thought Marceau should have stayed in town longer than his scheduled two-week run. "They said--'Two weeks? Rrrrrridiculous. Two years!' " He laughs, delighted.

It is the day after his performance and Marceau is trying to order lunch at an elegant Japanese restaurant in the downtown hotel where he is staying, but his enthusiasm prolongs the task. He is wizened and thin, wearing a wool blazer over an off-white shirt with snap-style buttons. A tiny red rosette, the Legion of Honor, peeks from a lapel.

Offstage, seeing the star without makeup, there is no avoiding the obvious: Marceau is old. He wears an unattractive sand-colored wig; long wisps of gray hair stick out from underneath. His face is deeply creased, and a hearing aid does not entirely compensate for his hearing loss--the price, he says, of too many years of air travel. But the dusty gray eyes are lively, the mind is sharp, and when the artist is on point, it is impossible to dislodge him.

"I couldn't have better press if I had asked for it. The Los Angeles Times called me 'an icon of Renaissance culture,' " he goes on. "I have been in this country 30 times. And every time the critics have celebrated my coming. I brought silence to the theater, and I was immediately understood by the critics. They called me 'the magician of the invisible.' David Copperfield saw my show, and he said I make the invisible visible--because he makes the visible invisible!" Two tufted eyebrows go up: "Yes? The invisible becomes visible?"

Yes, Marcel, yes. Might as well let him proceed, since it's pointless to attempt otherwise. "To do what I did around the world since 1950--to go to five continents and teach an art that has existed since ancient Greece--it is known because of me, you'll excuse me for saying so"--he interrupts himself and forges on. "The influence of my work is in Russia, Poland, North America, Latin America. There are derivations of my work--there is a theater of movement, a festival of mime. There is mime in dance. Contemporary dance has elements of mime."

After a time it becomes clear that Marceau is not really bragging; he is preaching. His tone is not boastful, it is instructive, cajoling, as if he needs to convince everyone he meets, one by one, of his accomplishments, to convert each potential acolyte to his way of interpreting the world.

He's already dedicated his life to this quest, so why stop now? He has sacrificed two marriages in the process, and torpedoed any semblance of a normal life. Marceau spent 30 years traveling the world, at times performing 300 days a year. Even now he performs up to 150 days a year around the globe, everywhere from opera houses to college campuses, and teaches at the International School for Mimodrama in Paris, which he founded.

For the better part of a century, anyway, Marcel Marceau defined mime.

Why does he still feel compelled to prove it? Why still perform? He nods at the question. Sets down his napkin. "I will tell you," he says deliberately. "It is to not be forgotten. If I no longer performed, no one would recognize me. As time goes on, I am surprised to see a whole generation that doesn't know me. They will talk of Marcel Marceau like Nijinsky.

"Now I'm in San Francisco for the first time since 1984. That means I have touched, perhaps, three generations." He pauses, and his eyes are dancing. "Do you imagine? Incredible."

Bip and Beyond

He was born Marcel Mangel, the younger of two sons in a traditional Jewish family in Strasbourg in northern France. His father, a butcher, was deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz and killed. But Marceau dwells as little as possible on this traumatic part of his life. Instead he explains how at age 10 he was already the incipient actor, organizing friends and neighbors for plays, writing dramas that were staged at summer camp. He would imitate Chaplin's Little Tramp, a defining influence on the young thespian.

During the war the Mangel family fled south to a part of France that was eventually overrun by Germany. Joining the Resistance as a teenager and taking the nom de guerre Marceau after a Napoleonic general, he forged identification papers and helped children cross the Alps into Switzerland. In 1944 he joined de Gaulle's Free French Forces and fought alongside the U.S. Army until the end of the war.

But mime was already in his plans. December 1945 marked Marceau's first public pantomime show, for around 3,000 GIs, a performance exuberantly reviewed in Stars and Stripes. He enrolled in an esteemed drama school in Paris, where he studied with the mime master Etienne Decroux, who encouraged Marceau to pursue his unique gift instead of traditional acting. Marceau joined a theater company formed by actor Jean-Louis Barrault and was immediately cast as the harlequin-faced title character of "Baptiste." (Barrault had played the same part in one of France's most memorable films, "Les Enfants du Paradis.") Soon after, Marceau created Bip (named after Pip in "Great Expectations"), an alter ego that allowed him to explore situational comedy and dramatic pathos. By 1948 he was successful enough to start his own company of mimes, creating and performing full-length "mimodramas," produced mostly with his own money.

But Marceau really broke through to a broad acceptance in New York in 1955 on his first North American tour, where he was embraced by critics and audiences alike. That success instantly raised his profile in France, and on his return Marceau received rave reviews and an enthusiastic reception, achieving a renown that launched his worldwide career.

His solo work has been a collection of light vignettes--Bip the lion tamer, Bip travels by train, Bip looks for a job--as well as more profound statements, such as his moving rendition of Creation, or a poetic three-minute interpretation of Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death. He has created close to 100 pantomimes in these styles and constantly adds new material, such as "Bip Remembers," a look back on the violence of the 20th century that he will perform in Washington. Marceau has also created 26 full-length mimodramas for a full cast, such as "The Overcoat," based on a story by Gogol about a man who works all his life for a fur coat, only to have it stolen.

All of this has placed Marceau's distinctive stamp on the art, a link in a historic chain that had its European heyday in the Italian commedia dell'arte of the Renaissance and extended to the floppy-capped French character Pierrot in the 19th century. Marceau is convinced, despite his lack of obvious successors, that mime will become a popular form again.

"I think mimodrama will go into the 21st century on film. I think people will accept film with just images and music. Circuses will be on film." He nods at a skeptical look from his interviewer. "No one thought you could stay onstage for two hours with just a black curtain and no talking. But now critics say it's the essence of theater."

Tracing a Legacy Rustle and crack. Marceau is turning pages in a picture book of his life, published recently in France. Here is the handsome, angular face at 20, in profile; here is a magnificent Marceau posing--bare-chested--in front of a mime class in the 1940s, his mentor Decroux in the background. There is Marcel the child with some friends at summer camp. And pictures of the stars who have paid homage over the years--Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum lounging backstage after performances. President Carter hosting him at the White House. Testimonials from Michael Jackson, among many others. There are drawings by Marceau--the death of Pierrot in clown costume, the birth of Bip in striped shirt and oversize hat with a flower--and by others.

The memories are all here, and still there are more; Marceau chats on, entirely indefatigable. At a performance on a Midwestern campus not long ago, he finished the piece "Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death" only to hear a single voice begin singing "Happy Birthday," the song slowly swelling to include the entire theater. ("It's the only time I've ever cried onstage," he says. He recounts the one and only time he crossed paths with his idol, Chaplin, at an airport in France: Marceau, trailed by photographers, kissed Chaplin's hand. The master, surrounded by his 10 children, had tears in his eyes. He recounts a performance in Buenos Aires in the years after the military dictatorship there, with the audience crying and clapping rhythmically after Bip's account of the century's violence.

"It's the same everywhere," Marceau says. "People understand right away. They laugh at the right moments, they react the same. People are the same; even in different cultures. . . . Any art, whatever it is, people are susceptible to it. Painting, sculpture, theater, cinema--" He trails off. "People come because they see things they don't see elsewhere."

When he is not performing, Marceau spends his time in a rambling, 300-year-old house outside Paris, filled with mementos of his travels. He paints and occasionally writes children's books. He teaches at the pantomime school in Paris, where students and graduates put on his mimodramas. His four children--two daughters in their twenties, two sons in their forties--visit occasionally. He says he isn't lonely.

"I have enough imagination to never be bored," he says. "I never suffer from solitude. The force of my work is to evoke the solitude that everyone feels."

In the past decade Marceau's classical brand of mime has been challenged and rejected by a new generation--the new pantomime includes such elements as talking (!), multimedia props and a more psychologically oriented performance. But Marceau is convinced that his own contribution to the genre will endure; for the moment, anyway, none of these mimes has made his way into the popular culture.

Instead, what concerns Marceau obsessively is the way he will be remembered. What happens when his strength finally gives out? During the countless hours he has spent on airplanes, the artist stares out the window at the clouds and thinks. "It makes you realize how you are one tiny, lost point in the immensity of space," he says. In those moments, he asks himself, "Will it last? Does it last?"

Up in his hotel suite, Marceau sighs heavily. "I have been so active, but I feel like I haven't done anything," he says. "It's a paradox. And yet I believe I've traced something that will remain."