A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause
by Shawn Wen
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411483

By Noah Sanders

In modern day America, mimes get a bad rap. Sure, there’s good reasons: the pasty-faced makeup selection, the perpetual confinement within invisible boxes, the invasive clown-like aspects of their entire schtick—all are, in this writer’s opinion, rankle-worthy qualities. Yet, as you will learn from Shawn Wen’s poetic collection of essays, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause, miming (or the miming of one, er, mime in particular) was, for a spell, a popular enough form of entertainment that it graced the couches of late night hosts and filled theaters with eager, anticipation-filled fans. Wen’s book focuses solely on Marcel Marceau, the most famed mime of the modern era, peeling back the layers of his life, exposing the demons that lived below his foppish effect, his near-total commitment to his work and the invisible box his life became because of it. Through the lens of his biography, the author sheds light not only on Marceau’s life and art, but also on the layered, complicated beauty of the craft itself.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause (the name of a record the mime made entirely composed of a twenty minute silence and then applause) follows Marceau from his birth to the early days of training under Charles Dullin at the School of Dramatic Arts through his ascension to a household name in America and beyond and the three wives, miming school and a staggering collection of artifacts he left behind. It is Wen’s great ability in this slim volume that each facet of Marceau’s life she briefly touches on becomes an separate mirror, their combined reflections forming a detailed image of the man. To simplify, Marceau was an asshole. A man so consumed by devotion to his art, and to the mute qualities of that art, everything else—his family, his friends, the press, his own image—became fodder for his work, meat to be sacrificed to his artistic gods. A survivor and revolutionary participant in World War II, Marceau contained multitudes of emotion just beneath the surface. Miming became the outlet for those emotions. “He found no formula for the end of suffering,” Wen writes, “No formula to stir up empathy and understanding. Just a formula for one man.”

Through breathtaking descriptions of Marceau’s work as his most famed character—a Chaplin-like clown named Bip—Wen is able to showcase how Marceau used his art to explore his own inner suffering. If Marceau’s life off the stage was marred by a singular, self-obsessed dedication to being a mime (and portraying himself thusly), his ability to create imagined worlds out of, literally, nothing on stage, seemingly became his only way to outwardly express the range of emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. Wen, writing of Marceau’s daughter Camille, writes, “Her father was entirely inhabited by his art. Mime was his way of building the world as he wanted it to be.”

Marceau surrounded himself with artifacts collected on his travels and showcased at a property he owned in Berchères. The house is described by Marceau’s daughter as ‘a physical manifestation of [the world as he wanted it].’ Wen fills the second half of the book with detailed descriptions of Marceau’s collections—masks, icons, weapons, a catalogue of cultures from around the world—the artifacts reflective of the world Marceau tried to bring to the stage, the world he wished truly existed.

In parts of Silence, there’s a feeling that Wen is trying to refute the stereotypes now associated with mimes. Marceau was a true artist, his miming a layered, complex interaction between physical movement and emotional depth. Simple refutation isn’t Wen’s aim though, rather the author seeks to highlight the difficulty, dedication and mastery involved in miming at the highest form. Miming is, quite literally, the creation of characters, sets, and props out of nothing but a single person’s physical interaction with a crowd. Wen’s abilities as a writer are no joke, and she recreates the magic that occurs between mime and audience with eye-opening clarity. Silence does push back on our mime generalizations, but it also leaves the reader with a notion of its power in the right hands. If our respect for the craft has diluted, if not disappeared altogether, it says nothing about miming’s artistic value when performed by an actor of Marceau’s immense talent. It isn’t that miming is something to be ignored, even hated, but rather that the quality of miming has degraded. Or as Marceau himself once said, in response a reporter’s question about why Americans hate mimes, “Because most mimes are lousy.”

As striking as the writing and Wen’s observations in this book-length essay are, they are bolstered by the actual layout of each page. The author has chosen to place her words—scant as they may be—between stark, wide margins of white. It reminds one of words drifting on an all-white sea. The design becomes a visual representation of what miming, in the hands of a master like Marceau or Charlie Chaplin, could do: create worlds out of nothing. Wen’s book seeks to disabuse the notion that anything is created out of ‘nothing’ though. Instead, miming at this level, for Marcel Marceau at least, is the product of subsuming everything internally, sacrificing an external life in pursuit of artistic epiphany.