March 12, 2008

“L'art du silence”

capThe recent “quiet” passing of mime icon Marcel Marceau has come and gone and with it what appears to be the end of an era. Shortly before his death, he himself expressed concern that the art form for which he has been the archetype for more than half a century would die with him.
Though his entire career was devoted to “L’art du silence,” as he called it, he was quite loquacious when he was not in performance. In multiple interviews he described his efforts to bring to the mime art form some permanence—some kind of material bequest for posterity—that other arts produce. A novel, a play, a piece of music, a sculpture, a painting—all live on in libraries and museums. But how do you write a script for a mime sketch?
In his distinctive striped suit with battered opera hat and single red rose, when he was in character, throughout his life Marceau departed from strict silence only once. In the mid-1970s he appeared in Mel Brooks’ film entitled Silent Movie, a tribute to the pre-sound motion pictures of an earlier era. In that film, when Brooks asked Marceau in subtitle if he would appear in his movie, Marceau delivered the only audibly spoken word in the entire film, a deliciously ironic “Non!”
2008 1507 page32Though there’s a general consensus that the death of Marcel Marceau ends a pinnacle in the performance of mime, there are still those who attempt to practice it. We see them occasionally in popular parks and malls and promenades. And sometimes it is almost as interesting to observe those who are watching the mimes as it is to observe the mimes themselves.
It appears that there are two kinds of people: those who love and those who hate this art form. A crowd always gathers around the performer, drawn into the moment, sometimes literally.
But others try to evade the performance, hurrying by to avoid involvement. They look as if they are feeling something eerie. There are those who hate mime outright, resulting in wisecracks on t-shirts and even some Web sites.
One of the things that makes people uncomfortable is the complete lack of auditory stimulus when we are living in an otherwise surround-sound culture. Technologically this applies to cinema, home entertainment, video arcade games, computer games, and so on. But in a broader sense, we’re continuously surrounded by sound in supermarkets, malls, elevators, airports, and professional offices. Then we add to this with personal mp3 players and state-of-the-art sound systems in our homes and cars.
There seems to be something “disquieting” about silence. But there can also be something especially profound. Jesus knew this.
He and His disciples had gathered in the upper room of a prearranged place for their Passover supper. “On this last evening with His disciples, Jesus had much to tell them. If they had been prepared to receive what He longed to impart, they would have been saved from heartbreaking anguish, from disappointment and unbelief. But Jesus saw that they could not bear what He had to say. As He looked into their faces, the words of warning and comfort were stayed upon His lips. Moments passed in silence.”1
Then just at this moment Jesus suddenly laid aside his outer garments, took up towel and basin, and, one by one—silently—began to wash His disciples’ feet.
Did He do this because He was concerned for physical and personal cleanliness? Was it an issue of propriety, something similar to today’s “no shoes, no shirt, no service?” Was it because—as the Great Physician—He knew better than anyone else present about the public health consequences of unsanitary conditions where food is being served?
By the account in the Gospel of John, Jesus enacted this performance wordlessly till He came to Peter. Well, you know that Peter would be the one to break the silence. As brash and compulsive and quixotic as he was, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him the loudest as well. And there were a couple “sons of thunder” in the room too. Probably not a bunch of guys who were readily accustomed to silence. Only when Jesus knelt before Peter with the basin, however, did He enter into a dialogue that ended with His admonition that what He had just done was an example of what His disciples are to do for one another as an exercise in humility.
So now, more than two millennia later, Christians everywhere still celebrate the magnificent—and wordless—act of Jesus in washing one another’s feet. In this ordinance we have the opportunity to perform—to experience—His profound and stirring way of teaching us the relationship we should have with one another. As Marcel Marceau has said, "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?" 2 


1The Desire of Ages, p. 643.

2The Reader’s Digest, June 1958.

Gary Swanson is the associate director of the Sabbath School Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference.