The performance of pantomime originates at its earliest in Ancient Greece; the name is taken from a single masked dancer called Pantomimus, although performances were not necessarily silent. In Medieval Europe, early forms of mime such as mummer plays and later dumbshows evolved. In early nineteenth century Paris, Jean-Gaspard Deburau solidified the many attributes that we have come to know in modern times—the silent figure in whiteface.
Jacques Copeau, strongly influenced by Commedia dell'arte and Japanese Noh theatre, used masks in the training of his actors. Étienne Decroux, a pupil of his, was highly influenced by this and started exploring and developing the possibilities of mime and developed corporeal mime into a highly sculptural form, taking it outside of the realms of naturalism. Jacques Lecoq contributed significantly to the development of mime and physical theatre with his training methods.
Prior to the work of Étienne Decroux there was no major treatise on the art of mime, and so any recreation of mime as performed prior to the twentieth century is largely conjecture, based on interpretation of diverse sources. However, the twentieth century also brought a new medium into widespread usage: the motion picture.
The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.
Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.
The famous French comedian, writer and director Jacques Tati achieved his initial popularity working as a mime, and indeed his later films had only minimal dialogue, relying instead on many subtle expertly choreographed visual gags. Tati, like Chaplin before him, would mime out the movements of every single character in his films and ask his actors to repeat them.
On stage and street
Mime has been performed onstage, with Marcel Marceau and his character "Bip" being the most famous. Mime is also a popular art form in street theatre and busking. Traditionally, these sorts of performances involve the actor/actress wearing tight black and white clothing with white facial makeup. However, contemporary mimes often perform without whiteface. Similarly, while traditional mimes have been completely silent, contemporary mimes, while refraining from speaking, sometimes employ vocal sounds when they perform. Mime acts are often comical, but some can be very serious.
Canadian author Michael Jacot's first novel, The Last Butterfly, tells the story of a mime artist in Nazi-occupied Europe who is forced by his oppressors to perform for a team of Red Cross observers. Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll's The Clown relates the downfall of a mime artist, Hans Schneir, who has descended into poverty and drunkenness after being abandoned by his beloved. Jacob Appel's Pushcart short-listed story, Coulrophobia, depicts the tragedy of a landlord whose marriage slowly collapses after he rents a spare apartment to an intrusive mime artist.
Greek and Roman mime
The first recorded pantomime actor was Telestēs in the play Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. Tragic pantomime was developed by Puladēs of Kilikia; comic pantomime was developed by Bathullos of Alexandria.
The Roman emperor Trajan banished pantomimists; Caligula favored them; Marcus Aurelius made them priests of Apollo. Nero himself acted as a mime.
In non-Western theatre traditions
While most of this article has treated mime as a constellation of related and historically linked Western theatre genres and performance techniques, analogous performances are evident in the theatrical traditions of other civilizations.
Classical Indian musical theatre, although often erroneously labeled a "dance," is a group of theatrical forms in which the performer presents a narrative via stylized gesture, an array of hand positions, and mime illusions to play different characters, actions, and landscapes. Recitation, music, and even percussive footwork sometimes accompany the performance. The Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on theatre by Bharata Muni, mentions silent performance, or mukabhinaya.
In Kathakali, stories from Indian epics are told with facial expressions, hand signals and body motions. Performances are accompanied by songs narrating the story while the actors act out the scene, followed by actor detailing without background support of narrative song.
The Japanese Noh tradition has greatly influenced many contemporary mime and theatre practitioners including Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq because of its use of mask work and highly physical performance style.
Butoh, though often referred to as a dance form, has been adopted by various theatre practitioners as well.