The Postwar Mime Culture: Decroux

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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On June 27, 1945, with the success of Les enfants du paradis well affirmed, Barrault and Decroux, with two students, Éliane Guyon (1918-1967) and Jean Dorcy (1898-1978), presented a program of “corporeal mime” performances at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris, which was and remains a large lecture hall primarily used for scientific conferences. Leabhart (1989: 48) contends that more than a thousand persons attended the presentation, although the Maison de la Chimie website designates the hall as containing only 851 seats. The guest of honor was the English theater theorist and apostle of an abstract-symbolic theater, Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), who had lived in France since 1931, having since then retired from any active involvement with theater. A purpose in inviting Craig was “to show up the doctrinal links from Craig to Copeau, from Copeau to Decroux, from Decroux to Barrault” (Leabhart 1989: 49). Craig had become famous in the early years of the century for promoting the idea of the stage director as the defining figure of theatrical performance, determining all production elements to create an emotionally powerful visual experience in which actors became scenic details, “marionettes,” within the director’s omniscient vision. It may seem odd that the actor-centered Copeau-Dullin school of theater would link itself to Craig, but Decroux’s ambition was to transfer the absolute authority over the actor from the director in the theater to the teacher in the studio classroom. The 1945 program contained eight pieces followed by Decroux’s lecture on the theory of corporeal mime. Several of these pieces, which Decroux devised in the 1930s, he and his students performed in sometimes slightly revised versions for decades to follow. Barrault performed his horse wrangling scene from Autour d’une mere; Decroux, Barrault, and Guyon performed a choral piece, “a panoramic evocation of famine, mass movements of population, revolution and finally peace”; the final performance piece was the Combat antique, performed by Decroux and Barrault, which the two had developed for a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra at the Comédie-Française earlier the same year, although Barrault and Decroux had worked on it since 1933 (Leabhart 1989: 50-51; Kurkinen 2000: 110). For Decroux, this single performance was more a demonstration of his mime technique, a “work in progress,” than anything one might call a theatrical production. Yet it is doubtful that, if Leabhart is correct about the attendance, Decroux ever again had such a large audience for anything he performed as corporeal mime. The event generated much publicity for Decroux’s pedagogic approach to mime, but this approach soon separated him from his greatest students. In 1946, Barrault produced, under the title Baptiste, a stage version of Cot d’Ordan’s Marchand d’habits pantomime from Les enfants du paradis, with music by Joseph Kosma (1905-1969); with the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault, he revived the production in 1948, again at the Marigny Theatre. The production involved elaborate costumes and stage décor that emulated those in the film [Figure 150]. Decroux regarded Barrault’s use of pantomime as retrograde and trivial, while Barrault believed Decroux had become single-mindedly obsessesed with achieving an absolute purity of bodily signification that was antithetical to the pleasures of theatricality (cf. Dobbels 1980: 54). But after Baptiste, Barrault abandoned pantomime altogether and devoted himself to building a grand career as an actor and director in spoken drama and films. In 1948, Decroux forbade another of his famous students, Marcel Marceau, from entering his school, because Marceau had cultivated an interest in pantomimic characterizations, particularly his Pierrot-like “Bip” character, which he had introduced with great success to Paris at the Théâtre de Poche in 1947 (Benhaim 2003: 266). Meanwhile, Éliane Guyon “perfected the creations of Decroux, L’usine, L’esprit malin, La statue,” but in 1949, while touring with Decroux in Switzerland, she met her future husband, the painter and scene designer Jean Monod (1922-1986), and quit Decroux’s ensemble. She and Monod went to Rome with an actor, Marcel Imhoff (1922-1979), to do movement research at the Alessandro Fersen Theater Academy. There, she, Monod, and Imhoff began constructing cabaret performances that involved an interaction between pantomime and puppetry: Guyon was especially gifted at creating characters with her bare hands. In 1952, she returned to Paris and worked for a month with Decroux and his son Maximilien (1930-2012) demonstrating some of Decroux’s pieces. But her focus was on her own production at a small theater of her “mimodrama,” Le Tribunal, which involved pantomime and marionettes constructed by her husband. Decroux disapproved of her use of masks, costumes, dramatic narrative, and characterization. Guyon therefore “distanced” herself from Decroux and went on to stage further marionette dramas, and in 1954, in Lausanne, she appeared as the Soldier in her production of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat (1918), which used giant puppets (Chercher 2005: 774-775; Poletti 2011: 32-33). Her work deserves greater scrutiny, if it can be excavated, because of its strange combining of pantomime, puppets, and marionettes, but also because it exposes a unique tension between a female student and Decroux, whose hallowed legacy rests heavily upon an overwhelmingly male sector of his student corps. 

Figure 150: “Marchand d’habits” scene from Jean-Louis Barrault’s production of Baptiste, Paris, 1946. Photo; Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Decroux established a small school in Paris in 1947 that enabled him to receive invitations to give demonstrations and workshops, which sometimes lasted months, on corporeal mime in Amsterdam (1949), Lausanne (1949), Israel (1950), the Sorbonne (1951), the Netherlands (1952), England (1952), Milan (1953), Stockholm (1954), Zurich (1954), Oslo (1955), and Stockholm again in 1956. After Marceau discussed mime with American interviewers, the Actors Studio in New York City in 1957 invited Decroux to teach for eight weeks, apparently as part of an effort to prepare actors to handle assignments associated with the “theater of the absurd.” He gave further demonstrations at the Dramatic Workshop and at Baylor University in Texas. In 1959, he returned to New York, opened a school, lectured at ten universities, and taught a course at New York University. Much of the film documentation of Decroux’s demonstrations and “evocations” took place in the United States. He did not return to Paris until 1962, when he opened another small school, but many of his students opened their own small schools in Sweden, Italy, Israel, Canada, and the United States. An International Festival of Mime in Berlin sought to honor him as a “great pioneer of modern mime,” but he refused the invitation (Benhaim 2003: 266-267). In 1963, he published his only book, Paroles sur le mime, which was mostly a manifesto for a radical redefinition of theater. By the mid-1960s, Decroux had achieved an international fame that circulated primarily through mime schools established by his students and through educational institutions seeking to incorporate corporal mime into their curricula, with the mime school culture producing work for “public” audiences mostly at international mime festivals attended mostly by mime students and educators. 

            Decroux developed a severe, ascetic pedagogy that complemented his intense aversion to any public performances of corporeal mime. He separated mime from pantomime, for he regarded mime, as he defined it, as a completely modern phenomenon, while pantomime was an archaic, “ridiculous, and indecent” form of theatrical performance that attempted to tell stories through gestures and was therefore a corrupt form of writing (“thought corrupts movement”) rather than a new vision of the body’s expressive power (Decroux 2003: 61, 202). Mime, however, has no existence of its own: “for mimes to exist, there have to be schools of mime” (92). To be a mime or to perform mime requires the appropriate education in a mime school to achieve the goal of mime, which is to perform “research” on bodily expression rather than to perform for people who have no experience of the research mission. Decroux demands total, exclusive focus on the body as the goal of study. The student learns what the body can “evoke” absolutely and free of attachments to things or even other bodies. A profound distrust and distaste for theater pervades the learning environment. Like Copeau, Decroux practiced a sequestering of the student from the world outside of the studio classroom. The bare studio is the ideal space for mime performance or, preferably, “demonstration.” This space contains no scenery, no costumes, no masks, and no props; the lighting is always flat and even; music is unnecessary and obtrusive; texts have no place here. The research goal of the actor is to “evoke” a relation to the world, to things, to others entirely through the body. If a mime wants to show that he climbs a ladder to retrieve a tool with which he builds a chair on which he will sit, he should “demonstrate” these actions entirely with his body, although for Decroux, the “purest” aim of mime is simply to evoke the act or concept of building without representing it. “Evocations” in Decroux’s pedagogy were free of drama, avoided showing conflict, and did not tell stories or represent characters. In performing demonstrations, students should wear loincloths or neutral body stockings, although in early demonstrations, Decroux wrapped a thin veil around his head. In the film documentations of his own demonstrations done around 1960-1961 in Texas and New York, Decroux appears alone in a loincloth or white body suit against a dark or white background. His demonstrations evoke numerous abstract actions through stylized movements that emphasize a balancing of weighted and counter-weighted pressures (pushing and pulling movements) within the body, usually within about twenty seconds: “The Weight Lifter,” “The Rope Puller,” “The Boxer,” “The Bell Ringer,” “The Offering,” “Melancholy,” “The Effect Becomes the Cause,” “Transporting a Glass of Water,” “Placing Plates between the Guests,” “Inclining with Respect and Shaking Hands.” In one of the longest (one and a half minutes) demonstrations, “Greeting the Collectivity,” Decroux makes expansive gestures with his arms while shifting his weight from right foot to left and pivoting, as if surrounded by persons he must acknowledge in an elaborately formal manner. Decroux hardly ever moves more than three or four steps away from the initial standing pose of equilibrium. Indeed, the goal of the demonstrations is to display a ceremonial formality in the performance of basic actions like greetings and lifting or setting down imaginary objects. Kathryn Wylie and Maarjana Kurkinen suggest an influence on Decroux of the elaborate stylization of bodily movement in Japanese Noh theater dating from Copeau’s 1924 experiment in Noh aesthetics, Kantan, which Decroux himself acknowledged as significant (Wylie 1993: 111-112; Kurkinen 2000: 111-113; De Marinis, 2003, 272-274; Decroux 1963: 18). But the demonstrations also remind one of the elaborate ceremonial gesturing introduced at the court of Louis XIV and his successors, a ritual dignification of humble bodily effort, and Sklar (1985: 73) notes a student who observed that studio sessions with Decroux resembled a ritual designed exclusively for initiates.

            While Decroux focused largely on the education of the solitary body, he did construct some evocations involving two or more bodies. These date mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, but students afterward performed them for decades. With these evocations, he supplied musical accompaniments. In La Statue, about three and a half minutes long, Decroux appears as a sculptor in black while the female statue wears a white leotard. The piece develops a Pygmalion theme: the sculptor rises inspired from a slumber with his lumpen material (the female partner), makes commanding gestures to which the female figure responds with dancelike movements, then applies hammering and chiseling gestures that bring the statue to life. Impressed with his creation, he picks up the statue and carries it exultantly, until it embraces him. He slips out of the embrace and sinks exhausted to the floor as the statue stands smiling. L’Usine, about five minutes long, used three performers of indeterminate sex wearing hooded black body suits contoured with a white stripe. Here the performers wore silver masks and performed movements evoking the operations of machines: stamping, pendulum, hacking, sawing, flipping movements synchronized with mechanical sound effects devised by Decroux. The piece had no dramatic structure, no concept of struggle between or within machines or between the body and the machine; rather, it straightforwardly demonstrated the ability of human bodies to emulate the geometric movement patterns of automated factory machines, which was hardly innovative even in the 1930s. Le Matin, with harp accompaniment, and Le Duo Amoureux, accompanied by the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (1901), were more lyrical demonstrations, four and six minutes long respectively, in each of which a male-female couple in white body stockings slowly exchanged or shared ardent, picturesque poses of devotion, as if they were statues moving in a kind slow motion trance, always remaining within a couple of feet of the places in which the pieces began. One of his most interesting demonstrations, Les Arbres, dating from 1946, lasts about nine minutes and features his largest documented ensemble—four persons wearing white body stockings and veils covering their heads, the face never having any importance in his aesthetic. The piece does not imitate the movement of trees; rather, it evokes, so to speak, the lives of trees and of groves through continually shifting configurations of flowering, blooming, branching, bending, reaching, fluttering, swaying, arching, canopying, bobbing, and lilting motions, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually, mostly with the arms and hands [Figure 151]. The performers do not move more than two steps beyond their intial and concluding “grove” position. In one film document, the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (1801) accompanies the action, but in another film document, Decroux uses unidentified postromantic orchestral music, which suggests he did not conceive the piece in relation to any specific musical source. In Combat antique, one of the earliest demonstrations, from about 1933, about four minutes long, two men, bare-chested, enact a physical combat brandishing imaginary swords and spears and making lunging, feigning, darting, stabbing, shielding, dodging, tangling, leaping, and taunting motions until one of them, almost inadvertently, stabs the other, who falls. The victor prods the body to make sure it is dead, then walks away. Though somewhat less abstract than other Decroux demonstrations, the Combat antique has remained a popular exercise in mime schools dedicated to Decroux’s philosophy, in part because it emphasizes his enthusiasm for “masculine,” sport-inspired movement themes, which has proved effective in making corporeal mime more attractive to male students than dance. But as Decroux’s ideas about mime became more abstract, he responded to the question of what differentiated mime not only from pantomime but from modern dance in a quite long-winded, abstruse manner, deciding eventually that “the need to dance is not the need to narrate” and that “dance is an evasion, mime is an invasion” (Decroux 2003: 110-116, 194). In practice, dance movement consumes much more space than mime movement as he taught it. He believed that the torso anchored the body, whereas in dance, the torso functioned like a motor to animate the arms and legs into movements that pretended it had no weight. Sculpture provided a huge inspiration for Decroux, and he regarded mime as a kind of “mobile statuary” (Lecoq 2006: 44). “I think often of Rodin, never of Deburau,” he claimed, and according to Petra Kolařova, who has written an enormous dissertation on Decroux’s relation to Rodin, “the work of Rodin appeared to [Decroux] as the antithesis of classical dance” (Kolařova 2015: 127, 132-133). Yet his evocations never disclosed a serious “need to narrate.” They show instead a need to sculpt the body with movement.             

While Decroux described his work with students in his studios as “research,” he had no interest in sharing the results of his research with the public, through performance or publication. His little book Paroles sur le mime consists entirely of essays written in the 1930s and 1940s. The film documentation exists because universities wanted it. He relied on his students to “publish” his work through interviews with him and their own memoirs of working with him. A cult atmosphere emerged that, as Kurkinen has remarked, encouraged “the zealousness of the students of Decroux” to produce a discourse on him in which “one is let to understand that writing or doing research on Decroux’s art without having first-hand experience on his mime disqualifies the scholar altogether” (2000: 14). Yet he deserves credit for initating the international expansion of mime culture from the 1950s to the 1980s, even if much of this global expansion was due to the performance success of a few students who had departed from the master’s teachings. The mime culture spread primarily through schools established by students of Decroux and through universities that sought to incorporate corporeal mime into their performing arts curricula: schools provided a more reliable source of income than the production of performances for which audiences were willing to pay enough to see. Mime education, with its minimalist aesthetic of the bare studio, was less expensive than traditional theater arts, with their costly scenic technologies, costuming requirements, complex collaborations, theater facilities, royalty payments, marketing obligations, and intricacies of casting. Perhaps, too, many students found mime less intimidating than conventional theater or dance studies, which often encourage demoralizing competitiveness, although numerous actors and dancers have studied mime as a way of enhancing their competitiveness. Decroux’s socialism was attractive. Mime, he contended, was something one could only learn and learn only through the application of the appropriate technique; it was not a “talent” given by genetic predisposition or biological determinism. The learning of the technique came from the teacher and the pedagogical regime, not from an intuition or “instinct” or even from mere exposure to art or performance. Ostensibly, an egalitarian spirit pervaded the studio, for the purpose of mime was not to produce art consumed by public audiences, but to create a way of living with the uniqueness of one’s body, regardless of whatever “talent” the body may possess. Most students studied mime to become teachers of mime and to reproduce the studio classroom environment that defined the life of the mime. One learned technique above all through exercises, and exercises often resulted from a process of improvisation that resisted any “complete” idea of an action. The chief product of mime study was therefore not performance nor was it the analysis of performance, but exercises, the discovery, development, and compiling of exercises, the deployment of exercises that showed a student how to “use” a part of the body as a sign. But using a body part as a sign is hardly the same thing as using the body to signify, to narrate, or to build a representation of the world. It is somewhat like learning a vocabulary without learning to compose an essay or a story. Decroux himself, however, never published any compilation of studio exercises. In interviews, Decroux discusses mime in broad, philosophical terms, sometimes referring to great authors, like Hugo, or great artists, like Rodin, and often in an aphoristic style: “The mime must not detest technique […] The technique is the proof of personality. It is an obligation, a language, and it tells us: ‘You have to do it like this and not like that.’ […] Monsieur Paul Bellugue [1892-1955] was professor at the Academy of Fine Arts […] One day he said to me: ‘Technique is the obedience of the hand to the spirit.’ I was struck by the clarity of this reflection […]” (Decroux 2003: 119). But he never described his technique or particular relations between body parts, “counter-weights,” rhythms, and signs. He introduced theoretical terms like “body lines,” “segmentation,” and “immobility,” without showing their applicability to particular bodies in relation to particular “evocations.” Leabhart mentions an exercise in which “students manifested the five qualities that [Decroux] associated most with corporeal mime: pause, weight, resistance, hesitation, and surprise” (Leabhart 2003: 437). But he doesn’t describe this exercise or any others, which apparently he derived from his old demonstrations and evocations. Instead, his students compile his many aphoristic statements: “The feet are the proletariat of the body” (Decroux 2003: 202); “Immobility is indissociable from the law that says ‘one thing at a time’” (347); “The mime is no longer a mime if he uses music” (136). One of his most prominent students, Thomas Leabhart (b. 1944), a professor at Pomona College, has described the classroom atmosphere when he studied under Decroux from 1968 to 1972. But the discussion of the classroom atmosphere does not include examination of the pedagogic system or technique applied by Decroux; it focuses instead on identifying the teacher’s personal qualities, his way of interacting with students, his style of communicating: Because he “insisted first on technique and that improvisation and inspiration came only afterwards, he tended to show us how what he humorously called dry and boring technique worked in an improvisation. He did this by first giving us a philosophical context for work (the conference), and then allowed us to realize how this technique could enslave the imagination and work ‘from within to outside’”; “Decroux responded differently to our efforts to transcend ourselves: mockeries, warm praise, tender compassion […] Often a long cold silence followed our efforts [… then] commentaries such as: ‘You must sing with your muscles’ or ‘You have not found the rhythm of the thought’ […]” (Leabhart 2003: 437). In other words, exercises were “proof of a personality” insofar as they revealed the mysterious or “elusive” charisma of a teacher in sculpting the minds and bodies of students (cf. Soum 2003: 405ff.). Mime physicalized the mysterious, unwritten relationship between teacher and student, which was the thing the student could best reproduce rather than any relationship to something outside the studio.

Figure 96: Etienne Decroux’s Les arbres (1947), as filmed in his New York studio in 1960. Photo: screen capture from projectomimicas YouTube channel, posted on December 19, 2012.

Even though “mime cannot be learned from books,” according to Samuel Avital, because “it is passed down from teacher to student,” nevertheless, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s saw a prodigious publication of books on mime (Avital 1977: 101). Nearly all of these books explain how to do mime and how to be a mime; they emphasize mime as a technique learned by performing exercises or “routines” recommended or described by the author. They avoid analyzing or evaluating mime performances or the history of pantomime. They also tend to focus on mime as a solitary activity, somewhat like a hobby that opens the path to a more creative life. One of the most imaginative of these publications is Mime Work Book (1977), by Samuel Avital (b. 1932), a Moroccan-born Jew, who migrated to Israel before moving in 1958 to France to study with Decroux, Barrault, Marcel Marceau, and Maximilien Decroux, who had established his own school and company in Paris in 1955. In 1964, Avital moved to the United States, where in 1971 he founded his mime school, Le Centre du Silence, in Boulder, Colorado. Mime Work Book is a montage of texts and photographs including autobiographical statements, interviews with Avital, interviews with other mimes, brief reflections on the history of mime as it derives from the commedia tradition, Pierrot/Deburau, Decroux, Barrault, and Marceau, quotations from mime students, polemical essays on mime (“Not every white face in a town square gesticulating hopelessly is a mime”), and remarks on the mystical relation of mime to Kabbalah (“In our Jewish culture in Morocco we have days that we don’t speak. We fast from speech.”) (Avital 1977: 20, 137). But much of the book consists of advice on how to do mime, including numerous exercises and philosophical aphorisms in the manner of Decroux grouped under thirteen headings, such as “Staccato and Slow Motion,” “Snail Movement,” “Bases and Fixations,” “Trips,” “Gravity”: “Work the traject in staccato rhythm. Break down the everyday movement into pieces of movement like a camera lens opening and closing. Walking in staccato send a telegram to one part of the body and move it. Be careful the movement is not tense. Breathe the movement” (33). Some advice relates to habits of living as a mime: “Fast from words once a week, choose a day and keep it steady” (86). “The Singing Plastique Cycle” consists of eleven exercises that the mime should perform daily; No. 7: “Pelvis: first lift each hip straight up, alternating; then Belly Dancing, i.e., swirling hips in a circle, 26 times” a day (87). Avital also provides a “Language of the Thinking Body” that lists words under four categories of “communication” between teacher and student, such as “Exercises: spiral, withdrawal, interwinding […] caress the space, steal the space […]” (90) and “Expressions” that the mime should keep in mind as motives for making a sign with the body: “the body as a brush,” “shower on fire,” “don’t be too nice with yourself,” “embrace the opposites,” “heels kissing,” “rewind the film,” “be your own mirror,” “vigorously, not violently” (92-94). Then, “Samuel Says” offers several pages of teacherly aphorisms: “The slower the breathing, the more relaxed,” “A teacher is one who takes what is given and gives what cannot be taken,” “Orgasm is freezing,” “When you think you can do it, your progress stops,” (110-111, 116-117). Avital is more open to theatricality and public performance than Decroux, and his book includes numerous photographs of himself, in circus-like costumes, and his students, in white face, performing in public spaces. But the book avoids analysis of mime performance itself or the aesthetics of mime performance. The focus is always on how to improve one’s life through the practice of “mime work.” In all these ways, the book is typical of the many books on mime that appeared from the 1960s onward and established mime as an individualistic enterprise in self-development, an actor-centered life that only incidentally intersected with theatrical performance. 

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