Shawn Wen, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause

Characterized by a spare and precise prose style that’s injected into a kaleidoscopic overall structure, Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause details the life and art of the iconic mime Marcel Marceau. In this artful exploration, Wen reaches for the truth of Marceau’s life and significance by using multiple strategies: meticulously observed scenes from his performances, historical reporting, interviews, lists, and even poetry, employing a playfulness that pulls readers ever closer to the enigmatic genius.

Marceau is known as an “artist of silence” whose signature character Bip embodied a range of human emotion with nothing but physical gestures: “Bip as a lion tamer… Bip on an ocean voyage… Bip goes to the moon.” The depth of Marceau’s depiction of Bip, combined with the undeniable virtuosity of Marceau’s own physical performance, made the performer an innovator in the field. Wen traces the arc of Marceau’s rise to fame by interweaving them with insightful observations about the iconic white-faced mute in a sailor suit. Throughout, she depicts each scene in minute detail, recreating Marceau’s movements gesture by gesture, and giving readers time to pause and the space in which to savor Marceau’s artistry. As a biographer with the lightest touch, Wen manages to translate into words what until now has remained wordless: the magic and awe of Marceau’s silent visual performances.

Expertly deploying narrative fragments, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause mimics its subject by telling its story in individual moments, gestures, and lines that are themselves surrounded, enhanced, and punctuated by space. A Twenty Minute Silence breathes through these spaces, underscoring the fact that meaning can be created through absence. “To him,” writes Wen, “absences can be transformed into a wall, a woman, a restaurant, a thief. The mime holds out his arms and motions that the world floats within the armspan of one man.”

With deep and fearless honesty, Wen also skillfully fills in the shadows of Marceau’s life and career. She explores his aging—“You can clearly see the pancake makeup, the fake eyebrows, his constant mugging. A stark reminder of what you’ve always suspected: he’s just a clown”—noting his tenacity, his refusal to stop miming even when facing physical decline. She quotes him: “I’m the Picasso of mime. At eighty, Picasso was young. If I keep my fitness I have at least another ten years.” In this way, Wen creates a moving portrait, not simply of a virtuoso coming into and then riding on his gift, but one who can’t let go of it.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause is a beautiful illustration of essaying, sketching for readers an impassioned iconoclast, an artist of tremendous grace and precision, an itinerant performer, and a man who, despite the constant gnawing of time, doesn’t want any of it to end.


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