Mime has similar origins to both drama and the dance. When the storyteller was at a loss for words, gesture took over. Because of its character as an instinctive part of the makeup of a human being, mime must, of course, have existed in some form as long as recognizable men have walked the earth. It must very early also have been a dramatic art used to entertain or interest the audience, just, as early, in fact, as the tribal gatherings around the campfires of primitive people. We can be sure of this because of what we know of the brilliant mime and mimicries of many African tribes and Australian aborigines.
When we get to Greece and Rome, we are on firmer ground. Aristotle in the Poetics writes forcefully about what he terms imitation. "Imitation is natural to man from childhood, and it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation." From this is a short step to an audience delighting in a performance based on imitation - mimicry and its higher developments.
Dance and mime were then, as now greatly intermingled. The famous Phyrrhic dances of the Greek warriors, for instance, were partly a mimetic representation of different kinds of fighting. The importance of pantomime in Greek drama was underlined by the fact that the number of plays was severely limited, and therefore, much of the action had to be wordless.
In Rome, the completely silent mime climbed to immense popularity. The legendary Livius Andronicus, having lost his voice, had the chorister speak the lines, while he mimed to the piping of the flute and the rhythmic clash of cymbals. Unfortunately, as was the case with the other arts, pantomime too was to decline. Its popularity was its undoing - it became increasingly vulgar and indecent in theme and action, as it pandered to the lowest public taste, and not unnaturally, as the Christian Church became established. It fought against spectacles which were more and more reflecting and encouraging depravity.
Outside Europe, however, mime still flourished. Frequently, dance, mime and drama had religious origins, as in India, and usually mime pre-dated drama, and then continued to exist as a parallel theatrical art. Dance drama (natya) in Indian goes back to that country's earliest civilization, when Hindu belief maintains that the god Brahma invented it, feeling that the ordinary man needed an art which would have no barriers of appreciation. Its first great teacher was the wise man Bharata Muni, so it became known, and is still known, as Bharatanatya.
There was mime too, in China, which may well have the most ancient pantomime history in the world. A writer who lived in China in 100 B.C. tells us that there was a brilliant mime then called Meng, whose art was admired by one of the king's ministers. Chinese mime was beginning to develop into a tradition of total theatre, encompassing all the theatrical arts by the time of the early Middle Ages in Europe where the discredited players had taken once more to the roads and wandering life from which the Greek of medieval times were the link with past glory, although they had music and storytelling skills, as well as mimetic ability.
As time went on, mime also found its place in dramatic history. It was a feature of the mystery, miracle and morality plays that developed in and after the twelfth century in France, Germany, England and elsewhere.
During this time, the Noh drama, combining a gesture language with its song and intoned text, became famous in Japan. The static Noh theatre, which from the fourteenth century on used only three basic roles - the old man, the woman, and the warrior - became a rather highbrow type of theatre, with the result that a more popularized form of the art began to develop - the Kabuki.
Long before the seventeenth century, Europe had seen the start of a vitally important theatrical movement. Characters with some similarity to those of the ancient Roman mimes were appearing in a new form. Some authorities believe that the link between the Pappus, Maccus and Bucco of Roman days and the fifteenth-century Pantaloon, Clown and Punchinello is firm and complete. Along with these possible descendants came another - Arlechino (or Harlequin), who is supposed to be a memory of the god Mercury. Italian and Sicilian players were especially adept at this new type of mime play, which was called Commedia dell'arte all'improviso - a comedy improvised by professional actors. Its influence spread all through Europe.
The most famous of the Commedia dell'Arte characters are Harlequin, Pierrot and Columbine. When the Commedia dell'arte spread to France, mime took on greater importance. The actors called forains, appearing at the great fairs, the Foire de Saint Germain or the Foire de Saint Laurent. They acted out of doors and at first scrolls covered with explanatory verse were shown as an accompaniment to the mimes. (This custom is remembered when Marcel Marceau's assistant shows us a card bearing the title of the coming scene.)
In the nineteenth century, two supreme and very different Pierrot-Clown protagonists emerged: Jean Gaspard Deburau in France and Joseph Grimaldi in England. Deburau became famous through the Theatre des Funambules, was sought after by society, shouted for by his public, and eventually enshrined in history and legend. Deburau and his successors were subtle players, distilling understanding and sensitive feeling into their often rather muted performances. Grimaldi, on the other hand, had to broaden the technique to be successful. By his individual personality, he became the forerunner of the modern clown tradition in theatre and circus, so much so that clowns are sometimes termed as Joeys in memory of him.
What has happened to Mime in the twentieth century? Although, the vogue for Pierrot and the mime plays had died down in Paris after World War I, the art of mime still fascinated theatre people. From time to time various theatrical directors of genius included mime training for their actors. One of these is the illustre Jacques Copeau. One of his students was Etienne Decroux, who admired the idea of pure mime and was considered today to be the great teacher and theoretician, and "Father of Modern Mime."
In Copeau's theatre, there was also Jean-Louis Barrault, remembered mainly today by the film of Carne - Les Enfants du Paradis, and at one time was the director of the Odeon in Paris; and evidently Marcel Marceau who actually worked with both Decroux and Barrault, and is the living genius of mime, and legendary in his life time. Through his work, the American audiences on TV and in theatre halls have become familiar with mime. Charlie Chaplin's genius revival of his work makes one wonder about this marvelous art, and Jacques Tati, Jacques Le Coq, and others.
What are the present trends in the theatrical mime, and what kind of future can it have? There is Adam Darius who became inspired with Les Enfants du Paradis; in Poland The Wroclaw Pantomime Theatre, the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague with Ladislav Fialka; The Theatre of the Deaf, who study acting, modern dance, and mime. Some of them worked with Marceau, the influence of mime in the work of the Living Theatre and Grotowski's work, and some of the actors of the Open Theatre who studied mime under Moni Yakim in New York, the American Mime Theatre that has been very active in the last 23 years directed by Paul Curtis, the Celebration Mime Theatre of Tony Montanaro, Claude Kipnis and others.
And of course, the International Mime Festival held in the summer of 1974 at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin presented some of the actual mime workers of today. Names such as Dimitri from Switzerland, Mamako Youneyama of Japan, Geoffrey Buckley of England, Antonin Hodek, USA, Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell and Memagerie Mime of San Francisco, Yass Hakoshima, and Samuel Avital, who is a direct link to the great mime teachers of the 20th century, and who embodies in his work the spiritual aspect of the creative artist, in his Le Centre du Silence, Boulder, Colorado.
For this contributing text WMO whishes to thank LE CENTRE DU SILENCE and Samuel Avital, Director (www.indranet.com/lcds.html)