It isn’t easy to turn a biography into poetry. But Shawn Wen does exactly that with her portrait of mime artist Marcel Marceau, who introduced the world to this wordless art form.
Wen, a radio producer and multimedia artist, has written her first book with the kind of poetic zeal that suits an artist who practically created silent cinema on stage. Her lyrical essay pirouettes from Marceau’s rescue of children during the Holocaust to his education at Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art in Paris to his acclaimed role playing Bip. But his life wasn’t all heroics and gloss. Wen is quick to include Marceau’s regrets, too.
The research here is impressive. Wen mined interviews, reviews and archived performances, even cataloguing his possessions made public after his death in 2007 . Translating Marceau’s backstory is one thing, but evoking his mime performances on the page is an incredibly difficult feat that the author accomplishes successfully.
Wen breaks up her short chapters on Marceau’s upbringing, education and career with many scenes of the mime character Bip. We get a taste of Bip fighting bulls, wooing women in the crowd, mimicking a sea creature. Marceau’s genius still deserves to be seen, but Wen’s evocative writing invites us into the audience to watch the powdered face arch into emotional heights, the body sway against unseen wind.
“The mime refashions time,” Wen writes, “sculpting it with a precision instrument. He can suspend it or hasten it at will. He marches in place for three minutes and a lifetime has passed.”
If the empty stage is a world without laws, as Wen suggests, then Marceau saw the beauty and the tragedy in the invisible. He became the mayor of his lawless universe. He breathed personalities into his characters who rocketed mime into worldwide attention in the 1970s and 1980s. What was once a European attraction soon gave rise to mime troupes and shows across the United States. Marceau was on top of the world, but still he couldn’t keep his masked grin on his real face.
Wen characterizes Marceau as a tormented artist who didn’t express himself vocally to his three ex-wives and who was constantly absent from his four children. He could tell stories with his body but couldn’t speak openly with his loved ones. He silent-cried. His wives didn’t know how to access a part of him that he opened only in front of audiences. And the work wore on him, too. “The mime keeps count in heartbeats and breaths,” Wen writes. “After decades, he is weathered.”
By framing Marceau’s life as a lyrical ode, we aren’t bogged down by dates and key accomplishments. We get just a passing tour of his commitment to saving Jewish kids in the Holocaust by dressing them up as campers and marching them out of Nazi-occupied France into Switzerland. She only briefly notes his relationship with Michael Jackson, who reportedly borrowed Marceau’s footwork to create his moonwalk. (“Michael has the soul of a mime,” said Marceau, as if they were two brothers separated by oceans and time.)
We are instead let into the life of an artist whose movements became the language of his art. As Wen writes, “The body is boneless, loose/like elastic, the form/of anything that vibrates or throbs.”
We learn that Marceau was a “life-sized marionette, tumbling for our amusement.” When death comes, Wen writes, “proteins shatter, a pile of shards in a dustpan, loose pebbles in a kaleidoscope.” Her writing acts almost as a prayer in response to losing another star in a sky that dims with each passing guru.
Where the book lags is in the listings of items found in Marceau’s home, from silverware to books. These details break the momentum of Wen’s prose and should have been scaled back instead of being peppered between Marceau’s feats.
We also don’t get much perspective on how mime has influenced artists today, but that could be an entirely other volume, probably triple the length of this brief book. Don’t come to Wen expecting a primer on mime and where it’s headed and how it’s been overlooked by theater or comedy scenes. That’s not her intention.
With “A Twenty Minutes Silence Followed by Applause,” Wen offers an invigorating and memorable paean to Marceau’s talent and tragedies, wrapped in a melodic critique that is unafraid to show the pain of an artist who sometimes felt trapped in a box.
David Silverberg is a freelance journalist who writes for BBC News, Vice and Ars Technica.
By Shawn Wen
Sarabande. 136 pp. $15.95