Mime first stepped out of the shadows in ancient Greece. The Theatre of Dionysus played host to masked actors who performed the most elaborate form of mime, known as hypothesis, which saw the principles concentrate more on the development of their own characters than the story itself. Mime continued as an art form right through to the Middle Ages, reaching its pinnacle in 16th century Italy, with Commedia dell’ Arte. The Commedia dell’ Arte saw street performers donning extravagant masks to complement their acrobatic skill and to attract an audience. Notice-boxes, yes, but successful ones. These performers, who became affectionately known as Zanni, took advantage of their masked identity to ridicule contemporary society and its institutions.
Despite mime’s tenacity, the art form continued to be about as subtle as your mother indicating that your dress is tucked into the back of your knickers at a family wedding. Slapstick mime humour prevailed until the early 1800’s, which saw the emergence of a Bohemian acrobat by the name of Jean Gaspard Batiste Deburau. Deburau was engaged to perform at the Funambules theatre on the Boulevard du Tempe. Enjoying perhaps one of the longest gigs in history, played there until his death. In between he managed to elevate mime to the level of an art form, which became known as French traditional mime. Deburau also created one of the most enduring mime characters of all time – the Pierrot.
After World War I, Jacques Copeau continued to teach French traditional mime at The School of the Dramatic Arts. One of his students at the school, went on to create a modern form called Corporal mime, which revived the arts fading fortunes once again. Decroux taught mime as the art of physical control, which requires grace, agility and versatility. His most famous student was Marcel Marceau, acknowledged as the world’s most famous living mime. Renowned for his poignancy, Marceau was influenced by cinema greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His most recognisable creation was his character Bip, the white-faced everyman in the battered top hat.
In the 1980’s, some mime artists began to rebel against their minimalist constraints and increasingly started to use voice, lighting effects, props and costume in . Because of these changes, new forms of mime can be known by different names such as mime-dance and New Vaudeville.