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Étienne Decroux

Étienne Decroux (July 19, 1898 in Paris, France - March 12, 1991 in Billancourt, Somme, Picardie) studied at Jacques Copeau's Ecole du Vieux-Colombier, where he saw the beginnings of what was to become his life's obsession--Corporeal Mime. During his long career as a film and theatre actor, he created many pieces, using the human body as the primary means of expression.

Career

Enrolled at the Vieux-Colombier in 1923, DeCroux began to envision a newly defined vision of mime, and later developed an original, personal style of movement. His early "statuary mime" recalls Rodin's sculptures. Later, more plastic forms were called "mime corporeal" or corporeal mime. An intellectual and theoretician, his body training was based in part on what modern dancers call “isolations,” in which body sections move in prescribed sequence. and, in part, on the physics of compensation required to keep the body in balance when the center of gravity is shifted.

He wanted to enlist other students into a mime company, but the acting students were not very interested. When the Vieux Colombier closed in 1924, Decroux taught at the acting school of Charles Dullin, the Atellier. Jean-Louis Barrault also came to the school, and the two worked closely for two years, producing corporeal mime pieces individually and together.

Returning from the United States to Paris in 1962, he opened his school in Boulogne-Billancourt where he taught almost until his death. Many hundreds of students passed though his school, and a new generation of mimes continue his research. He was a student of Charles Dullin, and teacher of Marcel Marceau, Jean-Louis Barrault, Samuel Avital, Thomas Leabhart, Tony Montanaro, Alvin Epstein, Daniel Stein, Jean Asselin, Todd Swenson, William Fisher, Andrea Clausen, Steven Wasson, Ingemar Lindh and Corinne Soum among many others.

The art form Decroux created along these years differs completely from what had previously been known as traditional pantomime. He did not develop the art of silence, but a true art of dramatic movement. As a consequence, it is his revolutionary art form that is often considered to be "classical" mime.

Publications

Paroles sur le Mime (Words on Mime), is one of his writings still in print today. In Words on Mime, Decroux outlined a "cure" for a theatre scene mired by tradition and lack of inventiveness, a theatre which was "suffocating under a heap of rubble". He argued that ordinary speech should be banned from the theatre for a limited period (30 years) or until the actor had "taken charge in his own house;" that is, was able to fully utilize his/her expressive physical abilities. All vocal noises were prohibited for 20 years, after which the voice (and eventually intelligible speech) would gradually reappear--controlled by the actor and used only when it was necessary and not because of laziness or lack of invention. His proscriptions are as follows:

For a period of 30 years, the proscription of every alien art. We shall replace the drawing-room setting with the setting of the theatre itself, our intention being solely to provide a background for all imaginable actions.

For the first 10 years of this thirty year period: the proscription of any elevation on stage, such as stools, staircases, terraces, balconies, etc. The actor will have to give the impression that he is higher and his partner lower, even when in reality they are side by side. Later, the authorization of certain forms of elevation on condition that they create even greater difficulties for the actor.

For the first 20 years of this thirty year period: the proscription of any vocal sound. Then the acceptance of inarticulate cries for five years. Finally, words are accepted for the last five years of the thirty year period, but [they must be] invented by the actor.

After this period of war: stability. Plays shall be composed in the following order:
A. Rough outline of the written action serving as a basis for work.
B. The actor miming his action, then accompanying it with inarticulate sounds, then improvising his text.
C. Introduction of a dramaturge to translate the text into [the] choice language, without adding a word.
D. Reappearance of the alien arts, but practised by the actors. And when the actor is [the] master in his own home he shall see to the employment of dancers, singers and musicians for the indispensable and well-defined tasks. And then we shall see on the poster: 'text arranged by Mr. Secondo'." (Decroux, 1985, p. 26-7)

Legacy

Decroux's primary contribution is the art form, repertoire and technique of corporeal mime. He also worked as an actor, notably with Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis, playing Anselme Deburau, father to Barrault's Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Decroux opened his own school of mime in 1941 and developed a technique in support of his artistic creations. The work had deep-going effect on artists like Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau, Thomas Leabhart and Daniel Stein--though even they followed their own stars. A few artists who studied with Decroux continue to teach and develop the art form of corporeal mime, creating new pieces and shows and also performing pieces from the Decrouxian repertory. Students of Decroux and Corporeal Mime have have since opened schools and created companies in Spain, Italy, Belgium or England. Their work aims at developing corporeal mime in new directions and creates encounters between their technical and artistic background and those of other artists.

Etienne Decroux has been called the “father of modern mime,” which is true to the extent that he is the father of his own style or corporeal mime (though Decroux credited Jacques Copeau with paternity, he claims only to have raised the child). There were and are other styles of modern mime unrelated to his. In addition to his contribution as a teacher, his influence on Barrault and Marceau created a tremendous impetus for mime in France, from where it spread. His work continues to stimulate and inspire mime artists.

Decroux's work was necessary to give mime the artistic autonomy it has today, as is the case with other art forms such as music or dance. He did not develop his vision in an abstract way, but in an extremely concrete one, drawing daily inspiration from people, jobs, situations and sport. The years between 1940 and 1984 were fundamental to Decrouxian research. Directors such as Artaud, Copeau, Dullin, Craig and many other artists stimulated Decroux to undertake his research "ferociously" (according to Edward Gordon Craig's definition of Decroux's method) and for decades he worked to redefine the art of mime in a modern context.

In both the actor and the pantomime artist, gestures and facial expressions may predominate which are uncontrolled uses of the face and hands. These are defined by Decroux as "instruments of a lie" because they are bound to everyday habits. Decroux began to analyze the body, deconstructing and recomposing it and giving it a three-dimensional form, influenced by classical Greek sculpture and by the plastic art of Auguste Rodin. In corporeal mime the prevalence of the trunk over other parts of the body is fundamental. The actor, according to the Decrouxian model, becomes totally expressive and is no longer awkwardly limited to the over-riding and uncontrolled use of the face and hands.

In terms of mime, one could speak not so much of the art of movement, but the art of attitude determined by harmony and achieved through the trunk and limbs, thought and form. The art of sculpture tends to grasp attitude more than movement. As Rodin says, "The movement of the body is the passage from one attitude to another." For Decroux, attitude is more important than gesture or actual movement and he defines the latter as a succession of attitudes.

Today, Decroux's methodology is seen to be a modern and truthful way for the forward-thinking actor who feels the need to re-establish himself in a theater form in which stylization is both fundamental and vital.

Sources

Leabhart, Thomas (2007) Étienne Decroux, New York: Routledge.

A few sites are dedicated to his works. See:

  • http://www.mime.info/artists.html
  • http://www.escuelademimo.com/eng/ International school of corporeal mime
  • http://www.hippocampe.asso.fr/pages/english.html
  • http://www.mime-corporel.net.

Filmography

... aka Crazy in the Noodle (USA)

... aka The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird (USA)

... aka Oh Amelia!

... aka Scandals of Clochemerle (USA)

... aka Children of Paradise (USA)

... aka The Raven

... aka Gambling Hell (USA)

... aka The Last Turn

... aka The Lafarge Case (USA)

... aka It's in the Bag

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