Grammar of Mime

by: Melissa Wiley

The problem with using whiteness as a blankness, and with equating it with a nothingness….


Mimes should play croquet. They should play it in the kitchen. They should hit wooden balls with their mallets so that they roll between table legs looking like crutches, because no knees ever buckle on them. Mimes should also be crushed by water on occasion, once the kitchen becomes an ocean. Mines should make those of us in the audience witness their oblivion by their faces’ contortion, by their bodies pretending to experience what could easily happen were their stage only flooded. Were they only living with real torment that led them to shout upon occasion. And were they only drowning, swinging their mallets underwater while their breath bubbled out of them.

Étienne Decroux, the father of corporeal mime, developed a grammar of movement meant to internalize all of human drama within the body’s edges. For the head alone, he stipulated two hundred and fifty positions. He parsed a further one hundred and eight of the head’s inclinations to demonstrate yet a wider range of emotions, though he later realized even this was insufficient. And perhaps because I am not a mime student, mastering this sounds to me like a banausic prospect. There’s also little that’s natural in codified movements, though I suppose that’s the art of it. Otherwise, we would all be mimes by virtue of moving while keeping quiet.

Though if there is a grammar at work, then miming is a language, meaning mimes are far from silent. The mime is an artist, and artists cannot keep from clamoring for notice. Mimes chatter on while trying to make their faces disappear into a whiteness, trying to speak for all of us. Overlaying their skin with clown makeup to express universal emotion, whiting out their features so that we might more easily identify with the theatrical drama, so that we might perceive the mimes as our simulacra. As if we are just as loquacious, our own emotions just as stripped of color. As if because we fail to understand the grammar of movement and never studied mime in Paris, our bodies cannot form their own sentences.

There is a problem, though, with using whiteness as a blankness, with equating it with a nothingness, a wall upon which we can project any number of images. There is a problem with regarding it as only an absence of pigment, as if whiteness were a conduit rather than its own substance. Because the whiteness that covers mimes’ faces conceals what lies beneath it. It lends the skin an opacity, refusing to allow light to reflect off it and obscuring the flow of blood below its surface. It pretends the face is a universal one when it’s just the opposite.

It forgets the trauma of each birth from the body of a woman, the growth of each of us from an egg into a human capable of who knows how many head movements. The whites of eggs contain protein that nourishes the yolk irrespective of fertilization. They surround an ovum with a placenta’s equivalent, formed from layers of secretion contained within the oviduct. Also known as the albumen, the whiteness encircles the yolk, looking like a darkened sun while providing a certain level of protection, whether or not the egg will hatch into a chicken.

Hens, even those that do nothing all their lives except sit chaste inside a henhouse some farmer has made for them, even those that remain virginal until they turn into corpses, still undergo the birth-giving process, three-hundred days a year or so because of how we have bred them. Because unfertilized eggs travel the same pathway as those packaged for human consumption. They emerge from the hen’s uterus and inflict the same amount of pain upon the mother in escaping an orifice as if she were not once more childless. Yet each egg unbroken looks of a fullness. An unbroken whiteness. If you break this one, there is always another behind it.

An egg shines with a purity to it, and I like to look at eggs better than the work of most artists, if I’m honest. Because they have no artifice, and they are not expecting me to applaud them. Yet even here there can be problems. Because eggs are the beginnings of all of us. Because innocence is only a chatty kind of silence.

The gene mutation responsible for albinism strips the skin, hair, and irises of melanin so a newborn baby emerges as white as the shell that once held him. The mutation is present from conception, the moment a small minnow sperm attaches to an egg looking like a continent in comparison. The gene is recessive, though, the parents likely unaffected, and the child’s whiteness is no blankness indicative of a greater innocence. Instead, it marks it immediately as different, as too white to betray much prettiness. Because say what we might regarding their tendency to sublimate mundane movement into art of the body, few finds mimes attractive until they wash their faces.

Albinos in turn, typically suffer from severe vision impairment while remaining in constant need of sun protection. No one sees an albino and sees themselves in them, not if they have normal levels of melanin, not if they can see more clearly than the albino sees them, as is an almost certainty. No one wants to mime how life feels to them, though perhaps Etienne designed a motion of the head to signal their isolation.

What distinguishes you as a corporeal artist can also land you in trouble if you were born looking more like a mime than you may have wished to. Because no one is as defenseless as an albino in an African jungle, where a higher percentage abound than in other parts of the planet for unknown reasons. In the thick of trees’ shadows and the dark lumber of gorillas, the fact remains someone so white arrests your vision. Witch doctors in Tanzania, also rampant throughout Zambia, like to massacre them to use their limbs in their potions. When you drink flayed albino skin mixed with other liquids, it seems it helps you to become rich, or so goes the legend.

My question is not how to stop the witchdoctors from inflicting violence – I think more police should do it; I think the witch doctors should be prosecuted – but how mimes might render the carnage via movement? How, with a face painted white enough and a neck tilted with precision, I could see myself taking a machete to the arm of a child looking blanched into a softness, though more often a young woman, because no one makes a better sacrifice than a virgin. All the stolen lives of them. Because nothing is so universal as violence.

Each morning for the past several weeks, I drink my coffee over a fan of fresh ant corpses, so that to a certain amount of death I am becoming more accustomed. They are always fresh to me in any case, because the night before I’ve just mopped and tossed twenty or thirty in the garbage. And were they any color than that of darkness, I would never see them, because my wooden floors are blonde to blinding. From a distance they look like silhouettes, as if the sun shone just behind them, but I’ve known them long enough to know that is the whole of them. That unlike in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, their blackness has not saved them. They were dead to me, though, I should say, to begin with. I was not the one to kill them and I like to assume their lives were as long as they could have been.

Even their corpses have wings attached to their thoraxes, though they’re flightless as chickens. My husband has investigated and thinks they are carpenter ants, not that they do much building, erecting only their own nests, always in what we have read is dead, damp wood, within which they like to maintain a certain tidiness. The corpses shunted onto our floor are a result of them cleaning their houses, because within our walls, it seems, there’s no place to bury them. I had liked to think the wood inside our home was living, I realized once I read that, because I felt immediately sad that it wasn’t, as if I were inhabiting a coffin all of a sudden. As if I lived in a ghost of an apartment filled with carpenter ants with useless wings strapped to them, because all they do is crawl through wood deadened and deprived of oxygen.

My apartment is too colorful to be a ghost, I tell myself, repeating it like a mantra, wanting to deny it, as a way of convincing myself the wood here is really living not to mention myself inside of it. White light, however, contains the whole color spectrum. So from far away enough, all these colors could blur into a whiteness. Our apartment too is high off the ground, so it may appear to hover, and I may well look a wraith within it, staring down at the dead ants that mark the only thing that’s solid, the only spots of pure darkness. This ghost life I am leading may explain why so few people come to visit.

Only I am not alone in my near whiteness that feels an extinction of this individual life I have led. I know this. If I am disappearing, others are disappearing with me. So many people paint bicycles with white paint matted to the texture of toothpaste – ghost bikes, they call them – to memorialize the sites of fatal bicycle accidents. So many dead cyclists now reduced to whiteness. Whatever the color of their corpses, their bicycle graves are whitened. So I suppose we can more easily see ourselves in them the same as in the faces of a mime performance and drive more carefully as a consequence.

And I am in support of this not killing, of cyclists or albinos or those with more melanin who never learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels attached, who tip one over as soon as they start to pedal forward farther in the distance. Still, I cannot help noticing that life keeps metastasizing like a cancer regardless. That no matter how much we may massacre each other, there is still this proliferation of living, or more ants in a building than the ants themselves know what to do with, to the point I sometimes suspect them of killing each other just to make their residences roomier, because so many can’t keep dying every evening. And there is always one egg after another, its whiteness a silence telling us nothing of the reason. The constant forward momentum.

There is the growth of mushrooms, for instance. Second perhaps to eggs fresh from the market, I have long loved to look upon a pileus, the part of a mushroom that looks like an umbrella, but isn’t. Were I a mime, I would switch from the animal to the fungal kingdom, trying to make my audience see themselves in something that talked no more than I did during my performance. For this, I would stand very still and change the upper shape of my body from convex to ovate to that more like a parasol depending on the fungus. I would also do no pretend talking, I would just stand there and grow taller, as mushrooms do with little variation, holding the spores of the mycelium below me then dispersing them once they grow too heavy.

For all his grammatical parsing of the head’s tilting, Mr. Decroux stressed the importance of the trunk over any other parts of the body, where you are longest and from which your body does the most speaking yet you often can control no better than your eyes’ expression. Were I to rigorously apply his methods, I would speak for mushrooms, devoting all my energy to the torso, if only because I find them so tasty, and the devoured should be given a voice as well as those who do the eating. Though my sense is generally that it’s only human beings who need to bother speaking. All the rest of biology communicates more effectively wordlessly, killing no one for their whiteness or blackness or seeking wealth through potions or other means. Among most life forms there is only an agreement to keep living despite the mess it makes.

I worked for several years for a magazine in a basement office where black mold grew along the ceiling, darkening what was dark to begin with. Not long afterward, we moved a couch further forward against a wall for some reason I’ve forgotten and noticed mushrooms billowing from behind it, at which I laughed until I started belching. Because even though this was a dead-end job, as lifeless as the wood inside this apartment, there was still so much life growing. Someone saw a snake crawling outside on the stairway one morning, and later we found rat droppings in the break room around the microwave. The office was filthy, but only because so much life was invading.

The darkness wasn’t only owing to the fact that the few windows we had were small and dirty and the mold’s filaments’ shadowy, but to its sheer vitality. Had the space been cleaner, had our boss any concern at all for hygiene, it also would have looked whiter and more ghostly.

The man on the corner of the street where I was waiting for the light to change from red to green said he was shapeshifting. He had been looking for his friend, and now that he saw him, he started laughing. Apparently the friend had once been fat but now was skinny, and this made it hard to recognize him as he walked a white greyhound on a leash. A pause and then more laughing, while I crossed the street, saying nothing beside the two men, unrecognized by anyone yet smiling, aware that the way I held my torso was doing most of the talking were anyone by chance listening. Aware I was a mushroom moving. A miracle of mycelium.

The whiteness or the blackness of things has more to do with visibility, I’d say, than beauty. With volume over musicality. Yet many things speak more quietly, and every time I see a greyhound, I feel as if I’ve seen only half of its body. As if someone has sliced off half of it on the bias or, alternatively, half has disappeared deliberately, likely to escape some suffering. So that if I walk too closely to it while passing its owner on the sidewalk, I’m actually walking through it partially. A white greyhound in particular gives me the shivers. Because there is whiteness and there is clarity. There is the dog’s coat containing so much blood and organs, and there is its invisibility. The half gone missing about whom no one says anything.

And if mimes are talking, someone must be listening. Only you have to be seen. If you are a mime on stage or even performing on some street, this is not a problem, because you are heard by some pedestrians at least. If you are a cyclist riding at night while wearing dark colors or an Albino living in Arusha, Tanzania, life is more difficult. You are either seen too much or seen too little. Your body either goes silent or screams for you while you say nothing.

The best mimes cannot alter reality. Artists can speak, but speaking alone does next to nothing. Mimes do not save anyone I am aware of, not while they’re performing, by which I mean to make no critique. I say this as a person who makes no difference in the world except by not harming it much. Someone who keeps her croquet set in the kitchen because she has nowhere else to put it.

I never do bother playing with the croquet set I bought for a reason now lost to memory, but when I see it at least I know I have the option, to play when I might be working. The wooden mallets are unvarnished and unpainted except for some few stripes of color round their circumference. Though most of the time I have no one to play with, because my husband is more interested in the ant carcasses that keep reappearing, as if the same ones died just to come to life and die again.

I have thought of taking it outside during the middle of the day admittedly. Only I quickly lose my confidence, because to play croquet with yourself in the public park system is akin to a performance, miming a game meant for several participants. So that people sitting on the surrounding benches would likely look for another person just as I look for the greyhound’s other half, just as I look for the albino’s missing pigment. Because whiteness invites us to color life in, to fill the emptiness it presents us. To imagine someone for the lone women to play croquet with.

Only I refuse to do this. To become a mime for any audience, to learn or study or practice any methods, to apply any training to what I do already as it is: move my body silently while it does all the speaking, not controlling it too much so that it may converse naturally. Playing croquet with myself in the kitchen without an audience watching. Hitting one ball after another beneath the table, watching some skirt the legs of the table as if they were obstructions and others crash into them as if they were the ghosts of wooden legs rather than those that are living.

Melissa Wiley is freelance writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including [PANK], Superstition Review, Mad Hatters’ Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as an assistant editor for Sundog Lit.

One reply on “Grammar of Mime”
  1. says: Maaya

    I love the Marcel Marceau panel. Innovative yet subtle.I wasn’t sure if Marcel was aclaltuy dead though, so I looked up his bio (yes he is dead). I was intrigued to discover that in WWII, Marcel and his brother joined the French Resistance in Limoges where they saved numerous children from the race laws and concentration camps. Marcel started miming as a way of keeping children quiet as they were escaping to neutral Switzerland. Who knew?

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