Jacques Legrand's Mimes in Vichy France (Louisiana University Press, 2012) is a captivating and provocative exploration of a woefully under-studied aspect of French theatrical and street performance during World War II. While the role of mimes in the postwar period has been well chronicled (in Jean Gaspard's The Mimes of France and other works by Dan O'Leary and Margo Schmidt), and of course the origins of mime are well-documented (see Allardyce Nicoll's 1931 masterwork Masks, Mimes, and Miracles: Studies in the Popular Theatre and the introductory chapters to Lilian Sayce's Let's Mime), the mimes of France during the period of Nazi occupation have been much neglected. Jacques Legrand's book does much to correct this unfortunate lacuna.
Mimes in Vichy France was originally published in French back in 2007 by Presses Universitaires de France, and given Legrand's untimely death the following year, there was much concern that the book might not be released in English. So I was delighted to learn early this year that Adam Garvey's English translation had not only been completed, but had found an American publisher in Louisiana University Press. While the translation in places leaves something to be desired (Legrand's prose is not nearly so stilted as Garvey would have it), on the whole Garvey has done the scholarly community a great service, and deserves our thanks.
Legrand spent decades researching this book, combing through archival collections around France and Germany and (most importantly) interviewing several surviving mimes and members of their families about their activities during the Vichy period. His painstaking comparisons of personal recollections with archival documents show in many cases how the two offer strikingly different versions of history. Several former mimes insisted to Legrand that they had been jailed by Vichy authorities for performances deemed disrespectful to the regime, but court documents revealed that they were at most fined by the courts. In one case, mime Pierre Moreau insisted that he saw Vichy authorities summarily execute a fellow mime, Matthieu Fabrice, who went by the nom de theatre Bom-Bom. Legrand, however, managed to locate Fabrice's family (now living outside Lyon), who provided documents showing that Bom-Bom had not only survived the war, but continued performing until his death in 1967. As a study of historical memory alone, this book would be worth reading.
Carefully reconstructing what amounted to a civil war among French mimes during the Vichy period, Legrand is able to document as no one has ever done before the ways in which mimes both resisted and collaborated with the Vichy government, and how anti-Vichy mimes coordinated with Free French partisans to undercut the regime's authority. The key role played by mime saboteurs in Nimes and Lyon is presented here for the first time, and makes for fascinating reading.
Thoroughly enjoyable, and sure to provoke significant new scholarly debates over the important contributions of mimes to the political and military history of Europe.