Public Comment

Commentary: Marceau, the Pantomimist—Not Mime

By R.G.Davis
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Before Marcel Marceau’s body is buried and evaporates from public view, I thought to make note here in a short commentary that Marceau was a pantomime (pantomimist) and Charlie Chaplin was a mime – despite what AP, UPI and theater folk say about Marceau.  

I wrote an essay in 1962 published in a theater magazine about the difference between mime and pantomime. Nevertheless, for some it doesn’t matter; they are as confused or in denial as ever. Linguistic accuracy is not a strong factor in American culture; consider the dyslexic mentality of what we now call “activists.” I just talked to a young person who said, “I’m very political.” I asked what do you mean by that? She said, “An anarchist, I guess.” Oh, you mean you read Kropotkin, Tolstoy and others? No answer. Many young Americans now say they are anarchists, which I interpret as meaning, “No one tells me what the f… to do.” We used to call these folks liberals, hippies, or dropouts. In the ’60s the New Left were Marxists, not in any communist party. Trotskyites were socialists, different from social democrats; Communists were in political parties, later called Stalinist parties; while Maoists made up Marxist-Leninist parties and the latter certainly made sure they were not mistaken for CPUSA members.  

The mimes and pantomimes can be mixed up as everyone understands when they see the SF Mime Troupe do musical comedy, which is neither mime nor pantomime since the change of management, writers and directors now produces musical comedy with liberal messages such as “call your elected officials.”  

Distinctions are important even though people who drink soft drinks with “high fructose corn syrup” consider it a full sugar, —it is not, and your local nutritionist will say (like Sally Fallon), “Research indicates that it is the fructose, not the glucose, moiety of sugar that is the most harmful…” Some researchers even observe that it ruins teeth, disrupts the body’s functions and causes disease. Postmodernists consider labeling a suspect category. However anti- GMO folks don’t. Those who ingest “high fructose corn syrup” (probably GMO) in their soft drinks and don’t care about labels, nutrition and disease because they are anarchists, best be watched carefully lest they burden the medical care system.  

Mime produces different results from pantomime. Pantomime works with “nothing there” live on stage not in film— 

it doesn’t make sense in film. Mime works in film. Chaplin used real props, manipulating them in different ways. Marceau used no props, manipulating his body and his face (with white makeup) in different ways. Just because silent movie performers didn’t speak didn’t make them mimes or pantomimes, and just because it says Mime Troupe doesn’t mean they do mime or pantomime, as the writer-director-lead actor said we do “Political musical comedy.” 

The wonders of Marceau. If people can remember, who saw him live on stage, was that he was French with accordion music between the skits along with his sign carrier Pierre Verry who offered wonderful static poses, a sign with signifiers or a mimetic abstract pose illustrating the essence of the next bit. Marceau worked in white face with pedal-pusher pants, a stripped shirt, and certainly one of the elements of his sentimental success was that he was as French as Edith Piaf or Maurice Chevalier.  

The distinction between mime and pantomime is not a sticky intellectual academic effort. They produce different results. Modern dance by Martha Graham was not ballet. Mime produced Jean Louis Barrault and Charlie Chaplin, pantomime produced Marceau and Shields—the latter used to mock people on SF streets. Some lump them as “white faced clowns” but Fellini’s Clowns didn’t do pantomime, they used props and were mimetic.  

Labels, an aspect of biology ever since Linnaeus, identified different species of plants with Latin names is a bother, but, any reasonable gardener knows the benefit of specific ID’s lest they put the wrong species in the wrong soil. By using common names one can easily eat the wrong mushroom, plant the wrong tree in the wrong soil or eat the wrong clam.  

Our political arena doesn’t help, either in Latin or in English, since confusion is rampant. Trying to make a distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans one has to remember they all voted for the military budget (except one or two locals). Militarizing US foreign policy is likely to continue for both parties, as democracy being delivered by weapons, is part of “support our troops” and American patriotism, but not so for the Palestinians, Iranians or the Venezuelans.  

Marceau’s performance inspired many to become Pantomimes, I too was inspired by him, but went back to his teacher and became a Mime.