This article courtesy of Bauman Theatre Forums
Bari Rolfe performing in The Secretary
THE BIG FRENCH FOUR
by Bari Rolfe
Inevitibly associated with mime theatre today is a quartet of French names, four artists who have worked differently from those who preceded them. They are four remarkable artists of world-wide reputaion, they were contemporaries, and two are currently active. Even more remarkably, their work went in four totally different directions. Still more unusual, they all stemmed, directly or indirectly, from a single source.
In the early 1920s there opened in Paris the Vieux Columbier, an actor training school. Director Jacques Copeau had what was for that time a revolutionary approach; he rejected the then popular strict naturalistic style of theatre in favor of impressionism, a movement shared by several other directors such as Gordon Craig, Adolph Appia, and Nicolai Evreinoff. Impressionism opened doors to non-literal, non-realistic theatre, a physical theatre of fantasy, dream and metaphor.
Copeau's acting program included studies in masks, body expressiveness, clown, commedia dell'arte, acrobatics, dance, music/movement, animal identification, and silent acting. He emphasized teaching of commedia and the ancient Greek chorus (non-realistic theatres of epic and farce) as important aids in developing actors capable of group playing in physical styles.
The Vieux Columbier closed in 1924, but two important schools, those of Charles Dullin and of Jean Daste, acted as links in the development of the Big French Four.
Enrolled at the Vieux Columbier in 1923, Etienne Decroux was taken with a vision of mime through some teaching there, and developed an original, personal style of movement. His early "statuary mime" recalls Rodin's figures; then came a more plastic form which he called "mime corporel." An intellectual and theoretician, his body training was based in part on what modern dancers call isolations, with body sections moving in prescribed sequence, and in part on physics, the compensation required to keep the body in balance when the center of gravity in shifted.
He wanted to enlist other students into a mime company, but the acting students were not very interested. When the Vieux Columbier closed in 1924, Decroux taught at the acting school of Charles Dullin, the Atellier. To the school came Jean-Louis Barrault, and the two worked closely for two years, producing mime pieces together and separately.
Decroux's primary contribution is that of a teacher. Perfomance as such was not important, and even those few performance occasions he would sometimes treat like a rehearsal. Many performances were given in studios for small invited audiences. He himself also worked as an actor, notably with Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis, playing Deburau pere, and in other French films. Decroux opened his own school of mime in 1941, and developed theory in support of his system. The work had deep-going effect on artists like Barrault and Marcel Marceau, even though they then followed their own stars.
He has been called the father of modern mime, which is true only to the extent that he is the father of his own style; there were and are other styles of modern mime unrelated to his. In addition to his contribution as a teacher, his influence on Barrault and Marceau created a tremendous impetus for mime in France, from whence it spread. His work continues to stimulate and inspire mime artists.
Jean-Louis Barrault was a widely-experienced actor, director, teacher, writer, and theoretician. His interest in mime was a part of his love for theatre as a whole. He came to Dullin's school in 1931 as a penniless student, became enthralled with mime from his first lesson with Decroux, and they worked intensively together for two years, living frugally on kippered herring, raisins, lettuce, and fruit. They caled mime with imaginary objects "objective mime," as the French still do, and "subjective mime" that study of the states of the soul, body, and emotions. Their invention of a profile walk-in-place led others later on to design many more illusions of moving in place.
Apart from the glorious experimenting of that early time, Barrault is best known by far for his role of Jean Gaspard Deburau in the film Les Enfants du Paradis. The film introduced what was thought to be the Deburau style of pantomime, for which Barrault consulted the mime Georges Wague, to the world, even making it synonymous with mime for many audiences. Ironically, the two performed in the film long after they themselves lost interest in that style of pantomime-harlequinade.
Barrault's emphasis during the early years, and continuing through his life, was on physical aspects of acting, and he incorporated mime in highly imaginative ways into his stage productions. In the play "Rabelais," 1968, his actors mimed the birth of Gargantua, animals, the ship's form and movement, and did many mimed sequences with narration.
Marcel Marceau needs no recounting of his importance and influence here. He literally created an audience for mime in our time, and also created the desire to become a mime on the part of countless performers. He has reached both the theatre-going public through his touring since 1949, and the popular one through extensive appearances on television. His rise to stardom was meteoric, touring throughout the world in a few short years.
In the public mind he has defined mime as what Marceau does. He himself credits the influence of Chaplin and other sources upon him, along with his teacher Decroux, with whom he studied in the Dullin school in 1946. The Pierrot makeup and Deburau anecdotal style (as much as we know of it) are French touches, and his stage persona Bip is Chaplinesque and clown-like. Marceau's other creations of style pantomime, abstract mime, and elliptical mime are his own.
As almost the first, and certainly most well-known mime in the United States, he served as a model for many aspirants to imitate. Also, mime audiences tended to expect only Marceau-like mimes, and some artists had difficulty in finding acceptance of other styles. Actually, no playing style can be maintained as sacred, and Deburau himself was accused of being faithless to his own work. As for imitation, Marceau's response is that students should imitate his technique, for in this way the art form is preserved; then they must develop their own characterization, their own concepts. He calls this "imitation with continuation;" students must continue on their own artistic paths.
Jacques Lecoq is primarily a teacher, sometimes a director, and has the broadest concept of mime among the four. He calls his Paris school the International School of Theatre and includes many different techniques of physical training, and has no wish to perpetuate mime in a defined, structured, conventionalized art form. He sees mime in two ways: as an ever-changing art form, and as a source of artistic thrusts toward diverse forms in drama, dance, music, architecture, literature, and more. Although members of those and other professions are attracted to his school, the majority of students are mimes, actors, and directors.
Lecoq in his youth was an athlete and paramedic for athletes; he became interested in mime through a student group, pupils of a remarkable physical education teacher. While he was performing with the group in Grenoble, Jean Daste saw Lecoq and asked him to join his acting company. He played as an actor in the troupe and was in charge of the physical training. He went to Italy and taught at the Padua University Theatre and at the Piccolo Theatre of Milan; after some years he returned to Paris and opened his school in 1956.
Lecoq is a stimulator. He directs attention to the process and where it can lead the student, rather than focusing on the result. He can wave away a concept that a student is newly mastering in favor of exploring something yet unknown. The teaching methods demand much discipline, curiosity, imagination, and ego-strength from a student.
Performers that have come out of his school are artistically highly individual and totally different from each other, for there is no Lecoq style; his work is to open doors through which the student will pass.
Such are the origins of some of today's mime theatre. All four, formed by Copeau's approach, are varied in what they have brought to mime theatre: Decroux's meticulous technique and style, Barrault's integration of mime into spoken theatre, Marceau's story sketches and symbolic abstractions, and Lecoq's wide-ranging concern with movement.
Probably most of the performing and teaching of mime theatre today comes directly or indirectly from the French sources, but that is an accident of history. Our earlier mimes, Chaplin, Max Linder, Keaton, Bert Williams, Angna Enters, Charles Weidman, Kurt Jooss, Trudi Schoop, Lotte Goslar, came before them but left no schools, only examples of their art. But the Big French Four started a huge wave of increased interest in present-day mime theatre, a wave we are joyfully riding and which has not yet crested.
Editors note: At a recent lunch with Bari, we both agreed that
perhaps the wave of mime (as an autonomous art form) may have crested in the
early 1980s, but that there exists a deeper wave - a "tidal wave" of
mime's influence in actor training as well as in productions world-wide in
theatre and dance. - mb