Bring on the Clowns: Clover Hughes Celebrates the Return of a Neglected and Misunderstood Art Form. (Performance)

By Hughes, Clover | New Statesman (1996), January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Bring on the Clowns: Clover Hughes Celebrates the Return of a Neglected and Misunderstood Art Form. (Performance)


Hughes, Clover, New Statesman (1996)


Mention the word "mime" and most people think of a white-faced Parisian street performer wearing an embarrassingly tight catsuit, stuck behind an invisible wall. Famous names within the world of mime are relatively hard to come by: everyone knows Charlie Chaplin, possibly even Marcel Marceau, but few have heard of Etienne Decroux or Jacques Lecoq.

"Mime" comes from the ancient Greek mimos, meaning to imitate; "pantomime" means all-in-mimic, referring to the complete dramatic sketch. Although today a much maligned and misunderstood art form, mime can lay claim to an ancient and respected theatrical heritage. In 100BC, a Chinese writer recorded the work of a wonderful mime artist called Meng. Aristotle writes forcefully about what he terms imitation in the Poetics "Imitation is natural to man from childhood, and it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation." The pyrrhic dances of the Greek warriors were partly a mimetic representation of different kinds of fighting, and in Rome, the legendary Livius Andronicus performed mime as stadium entertainment. During the 12th century, it was a major feature of the mystery and miracle plays developing throughout Europe and England. Mime was still a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century, made famous by clowns Jean-Gaspard Deburau and Joseph Grimaldi, but the vogue for Pierrot and mime play s subsided after the First World War.

Since pantomime today has been hijacked by Widow Twanky and C-list celebrities in stripy tights, serious mime artists, not surprisingly, distance themselves from the form. But mime has found it hard to dispel the childish and cliched traditions of pantomime. "The public don't know what to expect from mime," says Joseph Seelig who, with the mime artist Nola Rae, founded the London International Mime Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. "Marceau, a performer of extreme technical brilliance, originated the classic, white-faced image of mime. Unfortunately, this rather limiting representation has stuck: people see mime as street entertainment. But mime covers something much broader, and should come under the umbrella term of physical theatre, encompassing puppetry, juggling and clowning."

Since its establishment in 1977, in the decidedly fringe venue Cockpit Theatre, the festival has developed into an established theatrical event, appearing in places such as the Royal National Theatre and the ICA. "The festival had a big impact on changing the image of mime and circus skills. It has attracted non-animal based acts from France, a country with a strong history of performing arts, and encouraged the development of circus schools and workshops in England. But mime still confuses people: they think they know about it but are surprised, or even disappointed, when a show includes spoken words, or is based around something unexpected, like juggling," says Seelig.

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