Arts & CultureHistory

A brief history of mimes

Today when people think of mimes, they think of silent, white-faced street performers that always seem to find themselves stuck in a box or pulling an invisible rope. While some people find their antics a little hokey, mimes have a long history and have been more influential in today’s world than you may think. It is one of the oldest and most difficult art forms to master.

Early beginnings

View of tourists at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Greece on a clear day
Credit: tropicalpixsingapore / iStockPhoto

Miming as an act has been around since the beginning of time. Before humans developed language, they communicated their wants and needs by miming. Of course, this is not mime in the sense of the art form but, rather, a survival technique. But despite the invention of language, ancient people continued to use mime to tell stories, and, thus, the art form was born. Aboriginal eAustralian tribes used mime to tell stories at ceremonies over 60,000 years ago.

The art of mime in the sense that we know it today was made popular in Ancient Greece. The actors were not necessarily silent, but they relied heavily on overdramatic motions and facial expressions to tell their story. While the philosophers and the educated would attend “high art” dramatic performances at the Theatre of Dionysus, mime performances depicted everyday occurrences that would appeal to a broader audience. Pantomime, or silent performances, were also popular as they did not rely on language to tell the story.

When Greece was conquered by the Romans, they adopted the Greek art of mime and scattered it throughout their empire. They even rebuilt the legendary Greek theatres to continue the traditions. Over time, the Romans developed the comedic and dramatic aspects of mime until it became similar to the style that we know today.

Into the Renaissance

Aerial photo of an old Italian village
Credit: Anton_Ivanov/ Shutterstock

In the 1500s, mime had developed into a style called commedia dell’arte, which was a comedy show based heavily on improvisation. Most of the characters were set, but the plots and dialogue changed with each performance. Actors wore costumes that would signify their character.

These performances often took place in town squares and marketplaces, easily accessible to working-class people. Commedia dell’arte troupes traveled from city to city putting on shows. Performances relied on dramatic gestures to convey the story. This allowed performers to reach a wider audience and avoided language barriers, which helped increase its popularity worldwide.

The modern era

A man in classic black and white mime makeup and costume
Credit: Erstudiostok/ iStock

When Italian commedia dell’arte performers made their way to France in the 1800s, a man by the name of Jean Gaspard Deburau took an interest in the character Pierrot and further developed it into the simple, childlike, and optimistic lover that took Europe by storm and created the standard model of a mime that we know today.

Deburau influenced countless other people to develop their own mime characters. One of the more notable is Marcel Marceau’s character Bip, a silent clown famous for his humorous misadventures. Marceau became as legendary as his influencer Deburau and established schools throughout the world to teach others how to perform pantomime.

Street performers still perform pantomime all over the world. Most of them are in the fashion of Deburau and Marceau. The lack of dialogue and focus on simple, everyday problems make mime an art form universal to all people despite language or ethnic background.

Woman in traditional mime makeup performing a pantomime on stage
Credit: Maria Mikhailenko / Shutterstock

If you think you have what it takes to be a mime, there are dozens of schools that can teach this ancient art form, and the World Mime Organization hosts conferences for anyone interested in learning or building their skills.