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Mimes Jean and Brigitte Soubeyran

A mime artist is someone who uses mime as a theatrical medium or as a performance art, involving miming, or the acting out a story through body motions, without use of speech. In earlier times, in English, such a performer was referred to as a mummer. Miming is to be distinguished from silent comedy, in which the artist is a seamless character in a film or sketch.

The performance of pantomime originates at its earliest in Ancient Greece; the name is taken from a single masked dancer called Pantomimus, although performances were not necessarily silent. In Medieval Europe, early forms of mime such as mummer play and later dumbshows evolved. In early nineteenth century Parismarker, Jean-Gaspard Deburau solidified the many attributes that we have come to know in modern times — the silent figure in whiteface.

Jacques Copeau, strongly influenced by Commedia Dell'Arte and Japanesemarker Noh theatre, used masks in the training of his actors. Etienne Decroux, a pupil of his, was highly influenced by this and started exploring and developing the possibilities of mime and developed Corporeal Mime into a highly sculptural form taking outside of the realms of naturalism. Jacques Lecoq contributed significantly to the development of mime and physical theatre with his training methods.

In film

Prior to the work of Etienne Decroux there was no major treatise on the art of mime, and so any recreation of mime as performed prior to the twentieth century is largely conjecture, based on interpretation of diverse sources. However, the twentieth century also brought a new medium into widespread usage: the motion picture.

The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.

Silent film comedians like Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre but through film had a profound influence on mimes who work in live theatre even decades after their death. Indeed, Chaplin may be the best documented mime in history.

The famous French comedian, writer and director Jacques Tati achieved his initial popularity working as a mime, and indeed his later films had only minimal dialogue, relying instead on many subtle expertly choreographed visual gags. Tati, like Chaplin before him, would mime out the movements of every single character in his films and ask his actors to repeat them.

In literature

Canadian author Michael Jacot's first novel, The Last Butterfly, tells the story of a mime artist in Nazi-occupied Europe who is forced by his oppressors to perform for a team of Red Cross observers. Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll's The Clown relates the downfall of a mime artist, Hans Schneir, who has descended into poverty and drunkenness after being abandoned by his beloved. Jacob Appel's Pushcart short-listed story, Coulrophobia, depicts the tragedy of a landlord whose marriage slowly collapses after he rents a spare apartment to an intrusive mime artist.

Greek and Roman mime

The first recorded pantomime actor was Telestēs in the play "Seven against Thebai" by Aiskhulos. Tragic pantomime was developed by Puladēs of Kilikia; comic pantomime was developed by Bathullos of Alexandria.

Traiānus banished pantomimists; Caligula favored them; Aurelius made them priests of Apollōn. Nero himself acted as a mime.

In non-Western theatre traditions

While most of this article has treated mime as a constellation of related and historically linked Western theatre genres and performance techniques, analogous performances are evident in the theatrical traditions of other civilizations.

Classical Indian musical theatre, although often erroneously labeled a "dance," is a group of theatrical forms in which the performer presents a narrative via stylized gesture, an array of hand positions, and mime illusions to play different characters, actions, and landscapes. Recitation, music, and even percussive footwork sometimes accompany the performance. The Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on theatre by Bharata Muni, mentions silent performance, or mukhabinaya.

In Kathakali, story from Indian epics are told with facial expressions, hand signals and body motions. Performance is accompanied by song narrating the story while the actors acts out the scene, followed by actor detailing without background support of narrative song.

The Japanese Noh tradition has greatly influenced many contemporary mime and theatre practitioners including Jacques Copeau, Jacques Lecoq and others, because of its use of mask work and highly physical performance style.

Butoh shares a lot of similarities with Lecoq's methods and ideas, and being referred to as a dance form, it has been adopted by theatre practitioners too.

Notable mime artists

See also



  1. Anatole Broyard. A Laugh Before Dying. The New York Times, March 7, 1974. P. 37
  2. Daniel Stern. Without Shmerz. The New York Times January 4, 1965. Book Review, P.4
  3. Bellevue Literary Review, Vol 5, No. 2, Fall 2005.
  5. R. J. Broadbent: A History of Pantomime. London, 1901. (chapter vi)

External links

  • The world of mime theatre International mime theatre information, including a library, resources, performer contacts, and events calendar

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