Mime is the silent art of acting out a scene or expressing feelings with gestures and facial expressions. Although many people think of the French when they think of this art, mime as entertainment dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was then popular in Italy before it reached France, although it was so popular in France that schools were established and traditions of great French mimes followed. Modern American Mime is very different from the French version.
Ancient Greek actors wore masks and performed scenes of everyday activities and dramatic character-centered mimes called "hypotheses" in front of thousands of people at Athen's Theater of Dionysus. The Romans brought this art form to Italy after they conquered Greece. It came to Paris in 1811 with the arrival of Bohemian Jean Gaspard Batiste Deburau, the son of a touring acrobatic family.
Deburau remained in France and developed the ancient art of mime into the more polished and expressive modern version that still exists today. His most famous character was the lovesick Perriot. Jacques Copeau, Charles Dullin, Etienne Decroux, and Jean-Louis Barrault are well known in the art after World War I.
The well-received 1945 French film "Les enfants du paradis," co-starred Barrault and Decroux and told the fictional tale of Deburau's work from his beginnings in Paris. The famous French mime, Marcel Marceau, was a pupil of Decroux. Like Duburau's Perriot, Marceau's character, Bip, was mostly down on his luck, but sometimes had life work out for him. Bip wore a flower on his top hat and a short coat. Marceau's work included the influence of the silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Marceau was highly original and masterful in the art form.
Mime has two main types: abstract and literal. Abstract mime often has no plot or main character, but rather is an expression of feeling used to provoke interpretive thoughts about a serious subject. Literal mime is often comedic or is used to tell a story. Gestures and visuals show a clear and usually hilarious tale of the conflict faced by the main character.
Many combinations of both types are possible and pantomime movements are also common. Pantomime is the use of movement and gesture in the telling of a story, usually in a comic manner and is a more literal type. The ancient Greeks and Romans used pantomime dances in their performances.
The 20th century saw mime being included in vaudeville, circuses, and music halls. American comedians such as Dick Van Dyke and Red Skelton were famous for including it in their spoken work. Paul J. Curtis founded the art form known as American Mime in 1952.
American Mime combines acting, play-writing, and pantomime dance and is very much unlike the French version. Curtis was struck by the silent aspect of French mime, but wanted acting and dance to be more pronounced. He is the founder and director of the American Mime Theater in New York City.