Mimes date back to 6th Century BC Greece, but they weren’t silent. Invented by Sophron of Syracuse, an older contemporary of Euripides, they were little sketches of ordinary Sicilian life, recited aloud. Sophron means ‘of sound mind’. Plato was a big fan: when he died, the mimes of Sophron were found under his pillow, along with the comedies of Aristophanes.
In Roman times, ‘mimes’ were low-life comedies for the plebs. Unlike high-class theatre, women took the female parts and performers didn’t wear masks or formal acting shoes; they wore a kind of harlequin costume. The object was to get laughs, no matter how obscene the jokes, and they all had a character called the stupidus (or fool).
Sometimes they featured adultery live on stage, or live executions with actors replaced by condemned criminals. The Church excommunicated all mimes in the 5th century AD.
Marcel Marceau is barely recognisable without his makeup is probably the most famous mime of modern times. Michael Jackson is said to have based his moonwalk on Marceau’s ‘Walking against the Wind’ sketch.
Marceau appeared in Mel Brooks’s 1976 film Silent Movie – and had the only spoken line in the film – ‘no’.
Today’s mime artists perform physical theatre, puppetry, acrobatics and even deliver some dialogue. Joseph Seelig, co-director of the London International Mime Festival says ‘There’s more to mime than Marcel Marceau... There hasn’t been a striped t-shirt at the London Mime Festival for 29 years’.
Marceau himself described mime as ‘the art of expressing feelings by attitudes and not a means of expressing words through gestures.’
If you shoot at mimes, should you use a silencer?
The term mimodrame refers to an ensemble mime piece.
Marcel Marceau played a character called Pip based on the character in Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Evidence exists that acts of adultery were actually performed on the mime stage during the Roman Empire.
Following the Beijing Olympics lip-synching controversy - when one girl mimed to another’s voice during the Opening Ceremony - China introduced laws to stop professional musicians and singers miming to their tracks.
A magician makes the visible invisible. A mime makes the invisible visible.
Silent film actors were expert mimes.