What Is the Origin of Mimes?

By Contributing Writer ; Updated September 15, 2017
What Is the Origin of Mimes?

Pantomime, or miming, is a form of performance art in which the silent actor must convey a feeling or scene using only facial expressions and body language. The form is as old as the theater itself. The word "mime" comes from the Greek word "pantomimus" which means "imitating all." The rich history of miming has played a major part in developing the theatrical arts worldwide.

Earliest Mime History

The origins of mime can be traced back to the theater of ancient Greece. The Romans carried on the tradition, most notably during the reign of Emperor Augustus. The Christian Church, declaring the art form indecent, closed down many theaters and excommunicated the actors involved. Mimes continued to work in traveling theater groups throughout Europe, also appearing in the comic and religious plays of the Middle Ages.

Commedia dell'Arte

Mime became extremely popular in sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy and Paris as "commedia dell'Arte," improvisational performances that began in the marketplace and developed over time. The plays had several reappearing plot lines, known as "lazzi" and stock characters, like Arlecchino the harlequin and Brighella the avaricious shopkeeper, performed by actors in masks and costumes.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century

Jean Gaspard Batiste Deburau is created another popular stock character, "Pierrot," who represented the heartbroken protagonist. He is known as "Pedrolino" in the Italian tradition. In 1786, Johann Jacob Engel wrote a study on the mime in which he declared silent performances superior in their ability to depict true emotion. Around the time of the French Revolution, pantomime had a surge in popularity as it became a form for political expression. Since miming was not an official form of performance, actors were not subject to the censorship imposed on other types of theater.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau is the most well-known contemporary mime. Three modern schools were developed out of the French miming tradition, one by Etienne Decroix, one by Jacques Lecoq and one by Marceau. Marceau's character, "Bip" the clown, popularized the white face and black and white striped outfit that is the most recognizable image of the mime. In 1949, Marceau received the French Deburau Prize and established Compagnie de Mime Marcel Marceau, the only mime troupe in the world. Marceau appeared on many television programs and acted in several feature films.

Other Mimes to Know

Joseph Grimaldi developed the English miming tradition and performances based on his work are a Christmas tradition in the U.K. Jacques Copeau firmly believed in the use of mime to teach students in his famous school, Theatre du Vieux Colombier. Etienne Decroix popularized miming by using techniques from silent films. Actors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin brought mime to the silver screen, providing inspiration for Marcel Marceau, among others.