Interview with Marcel Marceau

Bernard Bragg found this unpublished 1978 interview with his mentor, Marcel Marceau, the world-famous French mime who recently passed away, and forwarded it to me because it was our common love for Marceau and the art of mime that brought us together thirty-two years ago. Bernard studied with the French master in Paris in 1956, while I “studied” literally at Marceau’s feet from 1962 to the mid-1990’s — I estimate I saw approximately 75 live shows by Marceau, sitting in the front row and memorizing every move by the great mime. I took the liberty of making a few editorial changes to the interview. Marceau was one of history’s greatest mimes, and here are his thoughts about our very own great mime, Bernard Bragg.

— Dr. Michael Schwartz, Esq.
Law Professor, Syracuse University

Interview with French Mime Marcel Marceau

Union Theater, University of Wisconsin

February 14, 1978

Interviewer: Vicky Herman

Vicky Herman [VH]: How did you first meet Bernard Bragg?

Marcel Marceau [MM]: Well, Bernard Bragg came when I played in San Francisco in ’56 and he was a young man at the time who came to see me because he was interested in pantomime. He wanted to audition, and I saw that he was deaf. And his piece was called, “The Tennis Man,” among several other pieces, which was quite good, and it struck me immediately he had very elegant gestures and no vulgarity at all. Pantomime, when you have no technique, is very difficult to handle, because if you have not the poetry of the body, if you don’t have a technique, it becomes quickly realistic. It can be without any refinement and it’s difficult to watch, even to follow. He was very precise, and I loved his finesse. But of course we could not speak together, he hadn’t an interpreter with him. I could understand that he wanted badly to work with me, and I told him that I had my theatre in Paris, at Theatre du l’Ambigu. I was directing my company, no school, just my company. He went to Paris to study with me for the summer. He was very gifted and always smiling. Life would be for him a dream. You know, he goes through all the problems we go through, but there was in his attitude such a kindness and such purity. I liked him very much. Of course, I did not realize that he would go back and create what would be the Theatre of the Deaf of America. I soon heard that there was a national company du mime in America, the National Theatre of the Deaf, and Bernard Bragg was one of its fondateurs — you say founders? So I followed his work, and we met quite a few times when I played in America. We met even in Russia, he was on a tour in Russia, I met him there. This was, I think, in ’74 or ’75.

VH: At the time you met Bernard Bragg, he was experimenting with sign mime on his own. What was it about his sign mime that intrigued you?

MM: Well, you see, what Bernard Bragg did, which was very clever, he brought to America a grammar of mime, which would be identical to the grammar or Decroux, the grammar of Marceau. You teach it to students, whether they are deaf or not, because it’s a language which is like music, like words, or like ballet, a language which doesn’t need words, which has its own grammar. Bernard Bragg thought of something else, and he was very wise. He created a sign mime language, which was the language of the deaf, and he put it like poetry on the stage. Like actors who recite Shakespeare on stage, he created a sign language of the deaf, he did beautiful gestures. This was very interesting. I noticed, for instance, when I saw deaf people come into my shows, I noticed that some had rough gestures, some had soft gestures, some were nervous, others were quiet, and I noticed that for the deaf and dumb, deaf and how do you say, mute people, I noticed that their temperament comes through their gestures exactly like we can see in people who speak, even nervous or not. Some people have a harsh voice, others have a soft voice, others have a strong voice, others speak slowly, and you can see the character of a person through his voice very often. For the deaf people who have to speak through sign language when they get excited or emotional, the gestures change. There are some with nice gestures, and others who have rough gestures. Bernard Bragg said if I am going to make a Theatre for the Deaf, I want the people to play like actors with beautiful, refined gestures, which would be the gestures with the grammar of the deaf. I think that the Deaf Theatre, now you correct me if I am wrong, which is where he uses the sign mime language of the deaf, and they play complete plays replacing words with gestures. They are really written, like you can read them, you can follow them, you can translate them. I think this is very original.

VH: They’ve even done an opera.

MM: They’ve even done an opera, you see, it’s very, very original, and I congratulate him for that. You see, he could have also gone back to America and taught the grammar that I teach to my students, and nobody would know if they are deaf or not. You see what I mean? But he really wanted to represent the Theatre of the Deaf, and it took pride to showcase the sign language as being a beautiful language. Bernard Bragg made the actors dwell in their waters. You know, we dwell in our waters when we speak, it’s our air we breathe, and the Deaf too have their way of conveying their emotions. Bernard Bragg wanted to do it in the language of the deaf.

VH: While you were working with him in Paris, were there any problems of communication?

MM: No, not at all. Not at all. Because as I say, he had a very quiet, a very rational mind. He was very quick to understand. He was reading lips very well, and he speaks a little, you know, you can hear his voice, because he’s not completely mute. Yes. He reads my lips, and it was no problem at all. Later I got many other mimes who were also deaf, and there was even one who was almost cured when he started pantomime, it gave him such a relaxation, he began to hear much better. When you hear better, you speak better, you see.

VH: Since that time, sign-mime has developed into a performing art. Do you believe that you were able to give Bernard Bragg anything that helped him to develop the art form of sign-mime?

MM: I don’t think so. I gave him a security about the art itself. For instance, there are two ways of doing pantomime as he does. He can do it with his sign language, but he can also play pantomime with psychological situations which involve characters which are put in situations where they use a mime technique, which Bernard Bragg has, he has both, you see, he has the sign language used by the deaf, and he has also the mime technique I use with my school always, my company, and having both, it was very, very interesting for him to create both in the theatre.

VH: Bernard Bragg mentioned the importance of two things that he felt he learned from you: One was consciousness of body and the other was breathing, because he can’t hear himself breathe.

MM: That’s right. I told him at the time, I remember now, that when he was getting emotional, not hearing himself, you could hear him breathe hard, and even he made sounds, and I told him that what is so beautiful when we see fish in the water, it’s completely silent, they move like in another world, like behind a screen. This other dimension we create when we do pantomime on the stage, but when we hear people breathe, it brings us back to a certain reality. The fact that people don’t talk, but you hear them breathe, makes as if a dimension was missing. If they move on stage silently, if you don’t hear them breathe, they are like poets, it has a fantastic musicality, and the gesture becomes very musical, and the silence becomes very ethereal, you see? I told Bernard Bragg to watch his breathing because he couldn’t hear himself, but he could control it, he was very careful about it, and I think that it helped him. I also explained to him that even when you don’t hear, you must have a sense of timing. He had a sense of timing. It was instinctive. But, you see, when you are deaf, you cannot always control the time, but I think when you are really gifted for mime, you have an inner sense for timing, because I have known quite a few mimes who are deaf and have a great sense of rhythm. I don’t know how they do it, but not hearing, they have a fantastic inward, how you say inward, or inside rhythm. Because you see, mime needs, in silence, a musicality. First of all, we use music, second, the way we move in space with time has a resonance, it has a vibration, you hear the silence, people hear it.

VH: To hear the silence…

MM: Yes, because, you see, you have to hear the silence. I think one dimension is missing, but on the other hand, of course, the fact that they see pantomime theatre, as we saw Chaplin films or Keaton films, I am sure that when they went to the movies and saw the silent movies, they realized they could act psychologically, like actors, they were gifted for it, without speaking. And when they saw our mime theatre, I think it was a great revelation for people who are deaf and have an ability to become actors. And I would think that this would be inspiring to them, because they need the language and the fact that they are able to convey emotions through gestures is very important, the fact to create the mime theater is very important for the deaf.

VH: Did working with Bernard Bragg give you any insights into your own art form? Did you learn anything from working with Bernard Bragg?

MM: I learn from my pupils always, you see, and I learned certainly from Bernard Bragg who had such a kind, poetic attitude. I learned very much from seeing that deaf people, when they were gifted for mime or the theatre, had a sense for rhythm, had the same psychological feeling. They were not barred from our world and from our society. Because there was a time that people who hear normally had the feeling that deaf people were, how should I put it, I don’t know the American word, but there was an attitude of embarrassment for the people who were normal, when I say normal, I mean we speak normally, we hear, and people who don’t hear embarrass us, you know. Our society has a tendency of being, of not knowing how to cope with people who don’t behave like they do. It would be the same about people who are disabled, you know, and it’s very, very delicate psychologically, and we have to learn the sense of solidarity for people who have not, who are not fortunate to have the normal disposition, with the five senses we have, you see. And we have learned a lot from people who are blind, from people who don’t hear, from people who are disabled, we learn very much from people who have not the possibility to share our health, or the possibility to move normally or to hear normally. And it’s very good for us to share that sense of responsibility.

VH: Did you notice anything in working with Bernard Bragg that was different from working with other mimes?

MM: Yes, he was special. You see, Bernard Bragg from the start was very gracious. He had style. And, sometimes some mimes are a little awkward when they start, or nervous, or because they are not accustomed to, there is a barrier, you know, anyhow, there is a barrier because the fact that they don’t hear, they move differently, they are living in another world, this is true. But Bernard Bragg… it would be very difficult for some to even know that he was deaf, you would think that he hears normally, and that he could speak. So in harmony were his movements. I was really surprised and it was one of my first experiences. Bernard Bragg was really my first deaf student.

VH: Deaf theater is accompanied by interpreters doing a voice over; there are hearing actors within the company.

MM: Yes, Deaf theater does it a little like the Greek Theatre did, they add voices of people who speak like the way the Greek Theatre did– what we call the coryphée, the people who comment on the play. What I like about Bernard Bragg is that he doesn’t put any barrier around himself, he does what he feels. If he wants, he should have music one day, why not? I think that one should experience in his lifetime everything that is possible. Sometimes people say Marceau doesn’t use props, he’s pure, he doesn’t use music. When they say, “Why should he use music, why should he use props, why should he use a company?” they put me in a cage. And I don’t want the public to put me in a cage. I want to be free to experience in my lifetime all possibilities mime can offer to human beings. And I think Bernard Bragg is absolutely right to try to go in all directions he can.

VH: And what distinguishes sign mime from classical mime?

MM: Well, sign mime is, of course, for the deaf. It’s a natural grammar of the deaf. It’s true that sometimes the public seeing the Theatre of the Deaf would not understand sign mime, and mime should be understood by everybody. I personally prefer mimes using the technique of mime, because then there is no barrier for no one. The sign language can become classic mime because when there are beautiful gestures, everybody could learn the grammar of the deaf after all. And also they use it a little like the Kathak dancers, the Kathak dancers use their hands, they have a special grammar, 48 positions of the hands to describe animals, people– sign language representing parables, you know, symbols of life. The Theatre of the Deaf uses very refined gestures, like the Kathakalie or the Bharata Natyam, which are religious and dramatic dances from India. This is classic. Everything which is formalized and has style becomes classic in time. What is classic is timeless, when you secure a grammar which is going to work for a long time, you become classic. Shakespeare is modern, but is classic at the same time. What I do is classic, too.

The language of mime is the language of the heart. The musicality of mime transcends words, which can be misunderstood. Sign language which is part of the art of mime makes a common denominator for all people in the world, no matter what nationality, what race, what color they have. It’s an art like music which speaks through the soul, and there is a universality in the humor or human tragedy. This is why the art of pantomime, for me, is the deepest art form like music, because it reveals man in his deepest aspirations.

VH: That’s all. Thank you very much.

Marcel Marceau and Bernard Bragg met again several times throughout their lifetimes; each had an appreciation for the other, a respect forged through their shared art, and a friendship that transcended their differences. Bernard Bragg is honored to have known Marcel Marceau, and along with the world, mourned Marceau’s death on September 22, 2007.

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