AMERICANS HATE MIMES. Even Marcel Marceau knew this, and suggested maybe it was “because most mimes are lousy.” But he was the exception, and watching a grainy video of Marceau tame a lion, or play a mask maker — the premise is simple: he puts one on and he’s smiling, he puts another on and he’s crying — or transform from baby to middle-aged man to old man before sinking into death, only hints at his mesmerizing talent. He once said that when he performed “creation of the world,” god entered him, and seeing the man in motion does hint at something otherworldly. An inspired subject deserves an inspired biographer. Like a performance by Marceau himself, Shawn Wen’s debut book, the novella-length essay A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, is a captivating exercise in style and form. It immortalizes the silent man in words.
Wen’s formally daring biography is not without precedent. Consider Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, in which she combines criticism, autofiction, biography, and speculation to create a portrait of Barbara Loden and her alter ego, Wanda, or Jackie Under My Skin, in which Wayne Koestenbaum turns his critical eye to the iconic first lady, deconstructing the myths that have surrounded her while exploring public and personal (his) desire. These are just a couple of titles that come to mind as examples of books that illuminate their subjects through the lens of personal obsession, crafting compelling portraits with the help of innovative structures. Wen’s book builds on this tradition.
The story goes that Wen, at the time a budding radio producer, joked that she wanted to do a show on Marceau, but it would be all but impossible to translate his silent art to the airwaves. This passing comment led to a journey that took her across Europe and through hours of interviewing, observing, and digging in archives. In a 2016 interview with the Australian journal The Lifted Brow, Wen said, “In a piece of writing, what you omit is as important as what you include.” A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause is indeed spare in its prose, which is, paradoxically, indicative of the fact that Wen has complete command of her subject. Marceau, the singular celebrity of mimedom, is a slippery character to catch.
Marceau’s childhood and early life, which were marred by tragedy, are laid out simply and poetically. Marcel Mangel lost his father, a butcher, to Auschwitz, after the family was forced to flee its home when France entered World War II in 1939. Marcel was 16. He and his brother soon began work for the underground resistance, Marcel becoming a forger. Wen writes, “With red crayons and black ink, he shaved years off the lives of French children, too young now to be sent to concentration camps.” Marcel, who was not yet Marceau, led groups of children over the border into Switzerland, using mime to keep them quiet during the treks.
After the war, when Marcel arrived in Paris, he changed his last name to Marceau and began to study at Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art, with his eyes on a life as an actor. The school’s instructors approached acting with a revolutionary vision: the body would become the actor’s text, and with the entrance of Étienne Decroux, who had studied the performing arts as a young anarchist interested in political oratory, the curriculum soon turned to corporeal mine, “[t]o shift gravity, challenge balance, create a physics of compensation.” Decroux declared Marceau a natural mime. When Marceau created his beloved Bip, with his white face, red lips, and painted eyebrows, topped by a crushed hat with a red flower springing from its crown — a character inspired by his idol Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dicken’s Pip — Decroux denounced the work, saying it was clownsplay. But Marceau declared Bip a “citizen of the world,” and built a legacy on his silent shoulders.
Early in his career, Marceau became an international sensation, traveling more days of the year than he was home. In 1955, Marceau booked his first performance in the United States, where he was scheduled to appear at the Phoenix Theatre for a two-week run. Marceau was so popular that his show was moved to Broadway and he stayed for six months. “Americans love something new,” he said. “And I was doing something new. I brought silence on the stage for the first time. I made the invisible visible, I created metaphors, and Americans saw the poetry.” Soon he was acting in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, which allowed audiences to hear Marceau’s voice for the first time, and in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, in which he had the only speaking part. Meanwhile, he toured Europe, Asia, and the United States endlessly, so much so that his domestic life was often in ruins, and befriended fellow superstars like Michael Jackson, whose moonwalk he inspired with his routine called “Walking Against the Wind.”
Wen distills Marceau’s life by allowing his eccentricities, words, life, and work to speak for him. Wen’s admiration for Marceau is most evident in her beautifully wrought descriptions of his best-known performances; these careful renderings and thoughtful observations bring Marceau’s movements to life on the page. In the scene “Bip, Great Star of the Traveling Circus,” Marceau is imitating a knife thrower, using his ballet-slippered feet to accent each blade hitting the space on the wall surrounding his assistant. Wen describes the climax:
Chin high, unmistakable look of pride on his face. He ties a blindfold around his eyes and pulls out a sword half the size of his body. He throws it with a heave. Silence. Still blindfolded, he waves to the crowd and takes a bow. He yanks out the sword and, finally, sound of her body hitting the ground. No matter. He exits stage left.
In other sections, experimental micro-essays and lists build Marceau’s legend. The book is filled with catalogs of obscure collections that Marceau gathered during his travels: religious icons and carvings; portraits of Marceau; masks — some imported from French colonies in Africa, others from Japanese theater, which his daughter says inspired “Bip’s expressive traits”; and ancient dolls from the Americas and beyond.
A biography’s subject reveals as much about the writer as it does the subject. As readers, we’re left to wonder at the years of her own life that the biographer has spent on her subject, and how those subjects came to captivate her — and the public. Marceau became famous despite his art form of choice; it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another mime reach the heights of international fame. There are no descendants of Marceau’s to take his place: his celebrity was singular. Wen, whose primary medium is one that relies on sound, became obsessed by Marceau’s ability to communicate with his body rather than his voice. His life was an occasion for her to assess her own.
In Jackie Under My Skin, Koestenbaum similarly examines the former first lady as a subject of public obsession, while betraying his own infatuation with the woman. Each of the essays that make up Jackie Under My Skin begins with her name; the table of contents reads like a chant — “Jackie, Jackie, Jackie” — and Koestenbaum reveals in the first pages that the project began with his desire “to find — to liberate — [my] ‘inner Jackie.’” He’s relentless in his pursuit of the icon and all her parts. “Jackie is like our own Armageddon earring,” he writes in “Jackie and Apocalypse”: “dear symbol, we wear her as decoration. What she symbolizes may be huge as the moon, or dangerous as atomic war; she’s global, explosive, and cold. Worn in the form of a jeweled pendant, she rotates like a lit disco ball of mirrors above a dancing crowd.”
Another such innovative biography, My Emily Dickinson, finds the poet and essayist Susan Howe communing with the ghost of her predecessor through careful analysis of her work. Using a critic’s eye and a poet’s tongue, Howe resurrects Dickinson. Here we have not an “odd” Emily, but a shrewd one, who chooses rather than acquiesces. Howe writes:
Emily Dickinson took the scraps from the separate “higher” female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and “unladylike” outside reading, and used the combination. She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy.
There is a resonance between this description of Dickinson’s practice and Howe’s own practice as a poet. Howe’s book could only have been written by a person, a poet, who had taken the time to consider Dickinson from the inside out.
Often, a biography is as much about cataloging the legacy of a subject as it is about chronicling the days, years, and events of a person’s life. Howe, in approaching Dickinson’s later years, focuses on the complicated history of her very private life and the immortality of the words she left behind. In the case of Koestenbaum’s Jackie, the reader is offered a meditation on memorials to the woman. Koestenbaum goes so far as to call “contemplation and self-containment” a part of Jackie’s legacy, suggesting that when a person takes part in these acts, she is creating an instantaneous memorial. Léger’s Barbara Loden, meanwhile, is a trickier case, as Loden was, until recently, a forgotten artist. Throughout Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger points to Loden’s invisibility as a painful piece of her legacy, her struggle to be known and seen as a part of her life’s work. Léger’s book becomes a memorial site itself.
In a short burst of pages, Wen captures and complicates Marceau’s own death and legacy with the help of a fascinating structural twist. At the time of his death at age 84, Marceau was deeply in debt — nearly 500,000 Euros. To assuage the pressure, an auction was held, where Marceau’s treasure trove of objects was issued monetary value and sold as cheaply as possible, for a total of 700,000 Euros. Even his signature hat sat in the middle of the room, in a glass case, up for bidding. Wen returns to the lists of Marceau’s objects and collections after the auction, but now each magical item carries a price. Suddenly a life lived without limit becomes a commodified death.
Mime is one of the most physically and psychologically demanding art forms, one that overtakes the participant’s entire life, urging him to create the same complicated world of “thingness” on stage in his personal spaces. At the book’s start, Wen writes, “No matter how hard we try, things that exist will never outnumber things that do not exist.” This gnomic line holds a key to Marceau’s obsessive constructions of both his visible and invisible worlds. Marceau’s obsession with the finite world flung him into the infinite world of mime, where possibilities are endless. When this passion is approached by an obsessive biographer like Wen, Marceau’s many legacies — including his penchant for amassing wild collections and his sublime ability to embody the infinite onstage — are not only understood, but also immortalized.
Melynda Fuller is a New York–based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, LitHub, Poets & Writers, A Women’s Thing, TimeOut NY, The Hopper, Bust, and HelloGiggles, among others. She’s a graduate of the New School’s MFA writing program and is currently at work on a collection of essays.