The fact that most people know what a mime looks like—the white face with cartoonish features, the black and white clothes—is largely thanks to Marcel Marceau, born Marcel Mangel.
Born on this day in 1923, Marceau maintained that he created the character he mimed, Bip the Clown, as a figure of hope. During a speech when he received a humanitarian award at the University of Michigan, he said that he drew on elements from history and cinema to create Bip’s name—which riffs off the character Pip from Great Expectations—and his look.
“Modelled after his movie hero, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Bip was the classic underdog dressed in a striped shirt, white sailor pants and a battered top hat with a single red flower sprouting from the lid,” writes Saul J. Singer for Jewish Press.
But though Bip is what Marceau is remembered for today, before he created the character, he used his mime skills for another reason: to help him smuggle Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied France when he was part of the French Resistance.“He later said that he used his pantomime skills to keep the children silent during the most dangerous moments,” writes David B. Green for Haaretz.
Marceau’s talent of mimicry also may have saved his own life during the war, when he ran into a unit of 30 German soldiers, Singer writes. The mimic pretended to be an advance guard of a larger French force and convinced the Germans to retreat, he writes.
By 1944, the American troops noticed his skills, and his first big performance was in an army tent in front of 3,000 American soldiers following the liberation of Paris. During this time, because he spoke English, French and German well, he served as a liaison officer with General Patton.
Like many survivors of that dark time, Marceau went on to do great things in the performing arts. After the war, he began studying mime at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris and in 1947, created his most iconic character, Bip. “Destiny permitted me to live,” he said in his 2001 speech. “This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.”
He also alluded to his character’s dark origins, saying on another occasion that “the people who came back from the [concentration] camps were never able to talk about it… My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence.”
But he only referred to his Jewish experience in one piece, writes Singer, and explicitly stated that Bip was not intended to be a specifically Jewish character. In “Bip Remembers,” Marcel explained that he returns to his childhood memories and home and shows life and death in war.
One of the people he alluded to in that sketch was his father, Charles Mangel, who was murdered at Auschwitz. Marceau changed his name because he needed to hide during the war, choosing “Marceau” to honor a historic French general, along with his brother Alain.
Marceau’s performances as Bip were a bright spot in the appreciation of mime outside of France, writes novelist Mave Fellowes for The Paris Review. After his death in 2015, nobody stepped forward to take his place.
“So all we have is the footage,” she writes, “fuzzy, flickering recordings of his performances. A solitary figure on the stage in a circle of spotlight. We can see the white face below the battered hat and watch it move, flickering from one emotion to the next as if someone is pressing the controls on a mask. The outfit is oddly creepy. The act seems to take itself so seriously as to be ridiculous. But when the figure climbs the staircase, we feel that he is rising upwards. When he lifts the dumbbell, we can sense its weight.”