Excerpt from Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause (Sarabande Books)


Marcel Marceau had sympathy for Michael Jackson. He saw in Michael Jackson something of himself.

“Michael has the soul of a mime,” he said.

What is this soul of a mime? What is shared by Marcel and Michael and all actors who stand onstage making various gestures?

“The soul of a mime is a complex one: part child and part artist, part clown and part tragic figure.”

“I’ve seen Michael on TV for years, and I think that he is a poet. But now he is in the tradition of French poets like Verlaine and Rimbaud because his subject is the lost childhood.”

On December 4, 1995, Michael Jackson promoted an HBO special at the Beacon Theater. His career was at its pinnacle.

More than a decade earlier, Jackson modeled the moonwalk after Marceau’s Walking Against the Wind. And ever since, he has been turning his focus, ever so slowly, away from the voice and toward the body. In a few days, he would collapse from exhaustion. But that night he faced the reporters.

One yelled, “Are you still married?”

Another, “Say hello!”

All questions received the same response: silence.

Instead, Jackson brought out the mime to speak for him.

“For the first time, the King of Mime will work with the King of Pop.”

Two men on stage with pancaked faces and liquid bodies. Held under a beam if bright light, Michael Jackson performed the invisible box routine. A metaphor for both their lives.

The journalist Neil Strauss agreed that Michael Jackson was evolving. He wrote: “After Mr. Jackson’s collapse, a medical technician said there was so much makeup on his face that medics had to lift his shirt to check his complexion.”

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