August 8, 2002
Silence Speaks Volumes
On the Web page of Marcel Marceau, whose appellation as "the world's greatest mime" is so universal that it seems part of his name, his biography begins in 1946, when he enrolled in a theater arts school in Paris.
Marceau was then 23, and what happened during those past formative years -- though seemingly a biographical blank -- has influenced his career and may be the most dramatic chapter of his life.
In the persona of his trademark "Bip" character, Marceau, 79, is now performing at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
The artist was born Marcel Mangel, the son of a kosher butcher with socialist leanings, in the French city of Strasbourg, hard by the border with Germany.
With the Nazi conquest of France in 1940, he and his older brother, Alain, escaped to the south-central city of Limoges, where the boy studied decorative arts.
The training proved valuable two years later, when the brothers joined the Maquis, the French resistance movement, and Marcel was put to work forging new identity cards for young Frenchmen trying to avoid the German forced labor draft. To hide their own Jewish backgrounds, young Marcel created IDs for his brother and himself, adopting the last name of Marceau, made famous by a general who fought in the French Revolution.
In 1943, at the initiative of a cousin, Marceau joined a ring for smuggling Jewish children out of France and into Switzerland.
"I went disguised as a boy scout leader and took 24 Jewish kids, also in scout uniforms, through the forests to the border, where someone else would take them into Switzerland," Marceau recalls during an interview.
He undertook the perilous journey three times, helping to save more than 70 children.
Marceau moved to Paris following its liberation in 1944, and joined the French army. Because of his knowledge of English, he was attached as a liaison officer to Gen. George Patton's army and there scored his first "professional" success.
"I entertained the GIs in pantomime and my first 'review' was in the U.S. Army paper Stars and Stripes," he says.
At war's end, Marceau returned to his native Strasbourg. "Our house was empty, but all the furniture had been stolen," he recalls. He also learned that his father had been deported in 1944 and murdered in Auschwitz.
The artist later incorporated this experience in one of his most elaborate sketches, "Bip Remembers."
In it, Marceau says, "I go back in memory to my childhood home, how my father took me on a carousel. I show life and death in war. I show Hitler and waves of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns."
"Bip Remembers," not included in his current show, is the only performance in his vast repertoire that consciously draws on his childhood experiences.
"Bip is not a Jewish character," Marceau says. "I respect our history and suffering, and I am sure that the fact I was born a Jew and was in the underground has had an influence. But in my art, I belong to the world, beyond religion, to Jews, Christians and even Muslims."
He expresses whatever religious feelings he has in his "Creation of the World" act, based on Genesis.
"When I was once performing in America, 35 priests came to see 'Creation of the World' and then asked me, "Are you religious?'" Marceau says.
"I answered, 'I do not practice religion, but when I do "Creation of the World," God enters in me.'"
Marceau has performed in Israel three times, the first in 1949 and most recently in 1995. He is currently reading David Shipler's "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," and insists: "We have to find peace."
He is also concerned about a surge of anti-Semitic incidents in his native France, but is certain that "we will overcome it."
He takes confidence from the response of France's young people to the recent presidential bid by extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen.
"The young people came out in the streets in opposition," Marceau says. "I am sure fascism will not succeed in France."
Marceau's face, without Bip's white makeup, has naturally aged, but his body is still taut and agile.
"As time goes on, my art deepens," he says. "I know I will die some day, but until then, I will continue to work with all my power.
"What counts for me now is humanity. We must have peace -- even with Islam -- or we will be destroyed."