Mime

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A wordless form of entertainment, in which movement and gesture are used to communicate. The term comes from the Greek word mimos, meaning imitator. Early Greek mime is thought to have originated in about 581 BC in Megara; it had some basic dialogue but emphasized physical action. Surviving examples of Greek mime are mainly burlesques of myths or satirical playlets about domestic situations.

Small troupes of Greek mime artists probably performed at banquets in the 5th century BC, making them the earliest known professional entertainers. The troupes included women, many of whom were also prostitutes. The performers wore distinctive costumes but no masks; mime performers were never admitted to membership of the Artists of Dionysus. In Greek southern Italy a type of mime play known as the phylax became popular.

The earliest mime artist known to us by name was the Roman Livius Andronicus (284–204 BC). According to tradition, he turned to mime when his voice failed after a series of performances. In Imperial times the mimus, a type of bawdy knockabout farce, and the performances of the lascivious pantomimus became popular. The former often involved displays of nudity and sometimes included real on-stage executions. The licentiousness and anti-Christian satire of these performances led to the Church excommunicating all mime performers in the 5th century AD.

Many elements of the Roman pantomime survived in the 16th-century commedia dell’arte, which was in turn the main source of modern mime. In England the dumb show, a section of a play performed without words, was popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods but almost disappeared after 1620. Hamlet (1600) includes a dumb show enacted as part of the play-within-a-play, while Webster’s The White Devil (1612) features two dumb shows.

As an art form, it underwent radical changes throughout the twentieth century, mainly because it periodically attracted the interest of people dedicated to theatrical experiment and innnovation. Most of the important work has stemmed from France, where there had been a strong revival of interest in silent mime (known there as pantomime) in the early nineteenth century. This centred on Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who adopted the white-faced image of Pierrot, one of the most popular figures of the commedia dell’arte.

The development of mime in the twentieth century can be traced to the French actor and director Jacques Copeau. As a reaction against the increasing preoccupation with naturalism on the French stage at the beginning of the century, Copeau set up his own acting school in Paris, the Vieux-Colombier, to investigate the importance of the body as a means of expression. Copeau’s actors played on an almost bare stage, and as part of their training, they studied masks, gesture and Japanese noh theatre. One of Copeau’s students was Etienne Decroux, who continued his own research into the architecture of the body, eventually developing a system he called mime corporel (corporeal mime). This lifted mime once more to the level of an autonomous art, though in many ways it was the opposite to what Deburau had done. Decroux was interested in research more than entertainment. He would rather perform to a handful of invited friends in a drawing room than in a popular theatre. His style was abstract and severe: he usually worked almost nude, with a gauze over his head to neutralize the face. In 1940 he opened his own school in Paris, which continued until his death. Because of his uncompromising attitude towards the performance of mime, Decroux was little known outside the profession; yet within it he is rightly recognized as ‘the father of modern mime’. Decroux’s closest collaborator during the 1930s was the great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. Together they gave many private performances, and in 1945 they appeared as father and son in Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du Paradis. Barrault played Deburau and re-created for the film some of Deburau’s nineteenth-century pantomimes. Great physical sensitivity remained a hallmark of Barrault’s later work, both as an actor and as a director. But it was not until the emergence of Marcel Marceau in 1947 that mime was able to reach large audiences around the world. Marceau had studied with Decroux, though he developed a completely different approach, preferring to go back to the romantic tradition of Deburau. He was also influenced by the great mimes of the silent films, in particular Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In his solo mimes, Marceau became expert at creating an environment of imaginary objects and characters in space. For many people, his clown character, Bip, with its white face and battered top hat, was for decades the quintessence of mime. Ironically, Marceau’s international popularity almost drove mime into an artistic cul-de-sac, because it became increasingly difficult to add anything new. The countless imitations to be seen in public squares throughout Europe merely made clichés of the devices Marceau had so meticulously perfected. And despite fine work from respected artists like the Czech mime Ladislav Fialka or the Swiss clown Dimitri (b. 1935), the public began to tire of the Pierrot image.

A bold new direction was taken in the late 1950s by Jacqes Lecoq. Through his Paris school, Lecoq extended the territory of mime to include related disciplines like clowning, masks, commedia dell’arte and bouffons. He also set out to reassess some of the physical principles of genres like tragedy and melodrama. Although not primarily a performer, Lecoq became one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century mime in that he showed the way forward from Marceau. Whereas Marceau produced a new generation of white-faced solo performers, Lecoq’s students have tended to form diverse companies, like the British groups Moving Picture Mime Show and Théâtre de Complicité. The growth of mime in Britain has been further encouraged by the London International Mime Festival which was founded in 1977 to provide a showcase for new mime. Added stimulus was also given through regular workshops conducted in Britain by leading teachers like Lecoq, Philippe Gaulier and the commedia dell’arte exponent Carlo Boso. Meanwhile, the influence of Etienne Decroux has strengthened, especially in the United States where his somewhat geometrical style is represented by performers like Daniel Stein and Thomas Leabhart. The French company Théâtre de Mouvement is the finest exponent of Decroux’s legacy.

In Britain one of the most influential and enduring figures has been David Glass, first through his solo performances in the 1980s, then through a series of startling productions for the David Glass Ensemble in the 1990s. By the early 1980s it was clear that mime, no longer a silent art, was moving into a fruitful area of overlap with conventional drama, while certain strands of drama were increasingly drawing on mime. British theatre groups like Shared Experience and Cheek by Jowl, or French groups like le Théâtre du Soleil, have often resorted to mime in their efforts to restore the supremacy of the actor on a bare stage. Mime techniques of Asian theatre were used to stunning effect in Julie Taymor’s staging of The Lion King (1998).

Inevitably, a confusion has arisen as to what is now meant by mime. In order to dispel the Marceau image, some companies prefer to call their work visual theatre, or physical theatre. Others call it new mime or postmodern mime, hoping that the public will eventually recognize that the term ‘mime’ now means a lot more than a silent world of white-faced figures walking against the wind.

from Jonathan Law, ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011); Kenneth Rea, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).