Hero of the ‘once nearly lost art of pantomime’, Marcel Marceau (images), has recently died at the age of 84.

A nice tribute (proceed to many others at YouTube at your leisure)

Mime Marceau was born as Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France. He died on September 22 this year. From what I gather of the many tributes and obituaries he was an exceptional mime artist. He is often said to have revitalized the art (even singlehandedly :-) ). That he enjoyed world wide recognition is illustrated by an older movie from a trip to Japan, where he is warmly received. Or possibly the Japanese are simply very fond of pantomime?

It is strange how this art, which is so cherished and admired by some, is unappreciated by others. The wikipedia says: “Of [Marceau’s] summation of the ages of man in the famous Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death, one critic said: “He accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.”.

But if you read research on gesture or sign language, pantomime is often what the writers set themselves off against. It is often used to make distinctions between that which is studied (linguistic or at least semiotic systems) and that which is not studied (mere pantomime). There are also those who seek to distinguish different gestural mechanism in signed discourse (where signers may alternate pantomimic and lexical/grammatical strategies to convey meaning) who talk about ‘gesture versus sign’. To me that is a strange distinction, for even ‘frozen’ (in the sense of Cuxac and Sallandre) lexical signs are gestures in my definition. What would be more appropriate is to label it ‘pantomime versus sign language’, if you wish to indicate a difference in level of conventionality.

I think it could be very productive to study the mechanisms by which mime artists create meaning or express themselves. In countless gesture studies the iconic nature of gesture has been treated (from Tyler (1870) to Mueller (1998)). Each time the same mechanism emerge: meaning is created through imitation of acts, through embodiment, and through molding and sketching in the air. The same appears to be true of pantomime. At least those strategies are certainly used. But there may be more.

Poetry pushes the boundaries of what can be done with spoken or written language. Perhaps mime as an art form pushes the boundaries of what can be done with gesture? I believe sign language poetry and pantomime are brothers in arms. Not only is beauty thus created, but people are shown new ways to express themselves more eloquently in gesture.

Obituaries (among many others) in The Times, and on BBC News.

Update October 2: There is a hilarious Dutch parody of a meeting between Marceau and Ivo Niehe, from Koefnoen (video).