In this age of excess, when chandeliers crash and helicopters land on Broadway stages, Marcel Marceau does not need fancy sets, musicians, props or even words to tell his tales. Just some white makeup, a battered hat with a flower in it and, of course, those marvelously expressive hands that can suggest everything from a balloon held aloft in an amusement park to a man locked into an ever-shrinking box that he can't escape.
"The audience loves to see the actor use nothing but his own soul and his own body to create magic," the world-famous mime said this week on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was performing before coming to the San Diego Civic Theatre Tuesday night.
"I was a little frightened about this tour because of the recession and the election and the violence in the world. But the public is wonderful, really."
Marceau, who was born in Strasbourg, France, and lives now in Paris, has always had a faithful following in the United States. He was, after all, inspired by such American silent screen artists as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. He sees silence as an antidote, a welcome break from the current loudness of American life.
"The American public is very poetic," he said. "They need this. The world is too loud. They need to go back to the silence of the sea."
Marceau has been performing since 1946, and this is being billed as a farewell tour. But don't believe it.
At age 69, he works as hard as ever--performing as many as 300 nights a year worldwide. He said he intends to come back to the United States next year, but with a different show. Next year, he hopes to bring a mime company with him to do what he calls "mimodramas"--dramas in mime.
Asked if he ever gets tired, he does not seem to understand the question.
"My luck was to be on stage all the time," he said. "This is part of my life, and this is what I do best, and this has kept me fit. That's my secret. If you take away the life of actors, what would they do, what would they become?"
Mime was a declining art when Marceau began to study with the legendary Etienne Decroux in 1946. Since that time, mime has had a rennaissance, but has never had more than a handful of popular practitioners at any one time. Another Decroux pupil, Jean-Louis Barrault, created the ultimate homage to the beauty of mime with his film "Les Enfants du Paradis" in 1945. In recent years, New Yorker Bill Irwin, whose clown act includes mime, has entranced critics with such brilliant works as "Largely New York."
But it is Marceau, who has tirelessly traipsed the continents to weave his magic, who has come to represent mime itself over the last three or four decades. In 1947, Marceau created "Bip," the clown character who has been described as part-Charlie Chaplin tramp, part-Pierrot, and who has become his alter ego on stage. He became an international star in 1955-56, when he received rave reviews on Broadway, and he has been traveling ever since.
The traveling continues to be inseparable from his art.
"When you play in the theater, you have to struggle much to be remembered by the public. I think it is wonderful that I can tour, and this is why I am still remembered by young generations. If I had done only 10 tours in the United States, I would not be known. You have to tour 40 times in America--and still not be known completely," he said with a laugh.
Marceau will perform some new creations in San Diego, including "The Birdkeeper," "The Hands," "Pygmalion" and "Le Petit Cafe." Bip (whom he named for the character Pip in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations") has his own separate pieces, some of them new to the tour.
Through his many years of performing, Marceau has made many friends: he teamed up with Red Skelton, he ate Chinese food prepared by Danny Kaye, he considers himself to have been "a great personal friend" of Harpo Marx, and he remains a very good friend of Anthony Quinn. He used to perform on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and, earlier this month, he performed on the Arsenio Hall show.
He has married twice and has two children from each marriage, but, reluctant to talk about himself, he steers questions about his personal life back to his work. His audiences are his children too, he said. He talks about how much more he wants to do with his art, about his ambitions for the mime company that he plans to form with students from his Paris school, about the special place that mime has in the world.
"An actor is a witness of his time. I have to create in my work events that I see in my time--violence, nuclear threat," he said. "But I think the public realizes that, even if an actor plays about his time, he has to deal with timeless foundation. It makes me laugh when people write about mime, post-mime, dance and post-dance. The past had its perfection, the present has its perfection and the future will have its perfection.
"In the last 20 years, a completely new generation has come to theater that feels they have seen everything on television. The theater gives the people much imagination; they dream with us and they work with us. Suddenly they see love on the stage--the quality of tenderness of poetry. The public becomes part of the creation, they are part of the mystery.
"I think making people laugh and cry is the essence of life."
* Marcel Marceau will perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $15.50-$27.50. At the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego, 236-6510.