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Billy Krahl
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The History of Mime

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Primitive Times

Mime is considered one of the earliest mediums of self-expression. Before there was spoken language, mime was used to communicate what the primitive people needed or wanted. Instead of fading into obscurity when the spoken language was developed, mime had became a form of entertainment. It then developed into a true theatrical form in ancient Greece, where performers enacted everyday scenes with the help of elaborate gestures. The principle mimes were known as ethologues, and the scenes they would perform would teach moral lessons.

Ancient Greeks and Romans

This is where it all began: the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. Masked actors performed outdoors, in daylight, before audiences of 10,000 or more at festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of theater. The most elaborate form of Mime, known as hypothesis, may have approached the level of true drama. This would be performed by companies of actors, who would often concentrate more on the development of their characters, than the plot itself. Often one actor would play the part of several individuals in the production.

The comedy and tragedy which developed in Athens and flourished in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, have influenced nearly all subsequent Western drama, starting with that of the Romans. When the Romans conquered Greece, they brought Greek art of mime back to Italy and set about making it their own.

The Romans, with their love of spectacle, soon took over the existing theaters in Greece and began renovating and rebuilding them for their own spectacles, which included everything from pantomime to mock- naval battles. The remains of the Theater of Dionysus which we can see in Athens today date to Roman times and not the fifth century BC.

Mime enjoyed much success and growth under Emperor Augustus of Rome.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the Christian church showed great opposition to the bawdy, and often indecent associations of Mime, and excommunicated all performers, and closed down all the theatres. Despite this, the basic form of Mime survived. As the Church began to relax its attitude, mystery and morality plays began to appear with religious themes, many performed in mime.

Commedia dell' Arte

Mime continued to entertain through the Middle Ages, and reached its height in sixteenth century Italy, in the form of Commedia dell'Arte. Commedia dell' Arte originated in the market places of the Italian streets in the early 1500's. Street performers began donning masks with exaggerated comical features to draw attention to themselves and to complement their acrobatic skills. The characters they created became affectionately known as Zanni.It wasn't until two Zanni performers teamed up that Commedia dell' Arte really took root and by 1550 it had become a firmly established genre. These first two characters, Arlecchino and Brighella were portrayed as belonging to the serving class.

The performing troupes were accessible to all social classes and the subject matter was always contemporary. With the mask concealing their identity, the performers could ridicule any aspect of society and its' institutions. No-one was safe. Ironically, the more trouble the troupes were in, the more popular and successful they became.

Even though troupes travelled away from their homeland, language was no barrier. Skillful mime and Zanni antics conveyed the story lines to audiences throughout Europe. So strong was their influence, that performers from other countries began to imitate the Zanni style. In 1576, a company of Italian players led by Flamino Scala went to France, where the art of Mime became immensely popular. Many of the traditional gestures and figures, such as Harlequin, became familiar at this time.

Modern Mime

Almost two and a half centuries later, in 1811, a Bohemian acrobatic family were playing in Paris. The son of the family, Jean Gaspard Batiste Deburau, was engaged to perform at the Funambules on the Boulevard du Temple. He remained at this Theatre, until his death, and during this time he converted the crude slapstick form of Mime, to the art form that it is known as today. Deburau was a master of his art, and was responsible for creating the lovesick 'Pierrot', the eternal seeker.

Mime received new impetus after the First World War from the great Jacques Copeau, who taught Charles Dullin at the Vieux-Columbier school. Etienne Decroux, who had been another pupil, took these beginnings a stage further, and together with his own pupil Jean-Louis Barrault, developed the first elements of modern mime. Barrault later went his own way, to create the first true mimodramas. Decroux and Barrault both appear in the highly acclaimed French film, 'Les enfants du paradis'. The film, shot in Paris in 1945 under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo, tells the fictional biography of Deburau, as he performed at the Funambules.

After the Second World War, Marcel Marceau emerged, who was a pupil of Decroux at the Dullin school. He created his own special character, known as 'Bip', who is a familiar sight, with his top hat with the flower sticking out, and his short jacket. Bip was a character similar to Pierrot, a down trodden character, who could sometimes win, but would always end up at the bottom of the ladder.

Influenced by the silent film stars like Chaplin, and Keaton, Marceau was the architect of a totally new style and tradition, the true creator and master of modern mime as we understand it today.

Mime in America is eclectic and blends many styles. American mime suggests the emergence of another school of mime: a melting pot with much experimentation.

Basically, there are two major types of mime: literal and abstract or a combination of both. These types are evident in all the schools of mime.

Literal mime is primarily used for comedy and story theater. Literal mime generally tells a story with a conflict through the use of a main character. The actions and visual design clearly tell the viewers the story which is usually humorous.

Abstract mime is used to generate feelings, thoughts and images from a serious topic or issue. Normally there is no plot or central character. It is considered a more intuitive experience or image rather than literal actions.

1996 Billy Krahl