17 September 2011

The Magic of Masks

Most people know that the mask is the symbol for theater in the West, based on a stylized representation of the masks of the ancient Greek stage. The logos of both the Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity Association feature masks, and even though masked actors are rare on Western stages today, no image evokes theater as distinctly as the masks of comedy and tragedy. Greek and Roman theater were masked forms, of course, as was the Italian popular Commedia dell’Arte, and there are still many performance styles around the globe that use masks such as Japanese Noh, Wayang Topeng in Indonesia, and many African and Native American rituals. In Western theater today, masked performance is a mark of much avant-garde and experimental stage work and masks even still appear in mainstream plays from time to time, such as the one worn by Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Playwright Eugene O’Neill was an enthusiastic proponent of returning the mask to Western stages in the early, innovative years of the 20th century and so was E. Gordon Craig, the principal visionary of the New Stagecraft, who even launched a journal entitled The Mask (1908-29) that focused on the new theater of the era. In 1932, O’Neill proclaimed:

I hold more and more surely to the conviction that the use of masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution of the modern dramatist’s problem as to how—with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means—he can express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.

During the same era, some renowned artists designed the masks for stage performances, including Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among those who created the masks and sets for Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), and Pablo Picasso, who devised the masks in Jean Cocteau’s Parade (1917). In the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, French playwright Jean Genet incorporated masks in his plays as a way to address social and cultural roles and relationships. These artists all wanted to “retheatricalize” Western performance and saw the mask as a symbol of this goal. O’Neill, in the forefront of this movement as exemplified by his plays Lazarus Laughed (1925-26) and The Great God Brown (1926), states:

Looked at from even the most practical standpoint of the practicing playwright, the mask is dramatic in itself, has always been dramatic in itself, is a proven weapon of attack. At its best, it is more subtly, imaginatively, suggestively dramatic than any actor’s face can ever be.
I started to read a little about masked acting years ago because some of the work of Leonardo Shapiro, whom I was researching and on whom I’ve written several times on ROT, employed masks, and his company was named for a masked spirit figure, the Zuni Shalako (about which I’ve also written: “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite,” 22 October 2010). I discovered that of all the aspects of masks and masking that are covered in the literature, no one had written much about the relation between the mask and the spectator. The mask and the performer, yes. The mask and the mask-maker, sure. The mask and spirituality, the mask in ritual and psycho-drama, reams. But the mask and the audience? Almost not a word. By the time I ceased my research, I'd run out of sources. I’d also pieced together a semi-cogent understanding of the way masked performances work for their audiences.

Masks are mysterious. According to W. T. Benda, a well-known artist and mask-maker from the first half of the 20th century, “when a person, no matter how sophisticated or naive, confronts a masked man, that person will be mystified. The mask may or may not fascinate, it may or may not terrify, it may appeal to the sense of humor or fail to do so, but it will never fail to mystify.” Confirmed by anthropologists, this is the same mystery that ancient cultures, where masks usually represented gods, demons, or other supernatural figures, found in them but it operates even among sophisticated people who only see masks at art shows and theatrical performances. Masks have a dual effect on the observer: they distance us from the wearer because masks are artificial barriers made of inert materials and at the same time, they draw us in because they represent recognizable characteristics and focus our fascination. “No one can remain indifferent as the masked figure moves about making an unreal world, not only real, but larger than life,” asserts masker and mime Leonard Pitt. The effectiveness of masks on stage derives in large part from the inherent mysticism with which, perhaps subliminally, the audience greets them. Essentially, the relationship humans have with masks sets up their function in performance.

Masks, like mirrors, are inherently magical objects. A performing object like a puppet or a mask “seems to come alive without pretending to be alive,” marvels puppeteer Roman Paska, “with an effect closer to magic than technology.” Masks are dead things, inanimate objects that take on the appearance of life. “Our preconceived ideas of the boundaries between life and death are no longer valid as we witness the inanimate being brought to life,” explains Pitt. “In effect, we have here the essence of magic.” Dario Fo, Nobel-winning performer and mask expert, observes that “the mask and its own personality shift in relationship to overall body poses and to the gestures one produces.” Masks appear to change expressions when they’re activated by a performer in motion; a really experienced and talented masker can make the mask seem truly alive by the angle the audience sees and the play of light on the frozen expression. Some Noh masks, for example, are so carefully designed that the face smiles cheerfully when the actor looks up and takes on a dark, melancholy expression when the actor looks down. Even masks designed to imitate one exaggerated emotion, however, can still display many different expressions. International stage director Peter Brook asserts that “the moment [an actor] wears the mask it becomes alive in an infinite number of ways. A mask . . . has this extraordinary characteristic that the moment it is on a human head, if the human being inside is sensitive to its meaning, it has an absolutely inexhaustible quantity of expressions.” Just as miraculously, when an actor dons different masks, the wearer’s physique may seem to alter with each one. The same mask, on the other hand, seems different when worn by another actor. But the magic only happens in performance, when the mask is animated by a flesh-and-blood actor: when the mask, like its puppet cousin, is isolated and inactive, it remains an inert art object. A mask’s life, however, can be drained even in action if other parts of the actor’s body are busier than the false face, drawing the focus away from the mask; the mask must be the center of attention to seem alive.

Most cultures that have masked rituals as part of their religious life believe that wearers are possessed by the spirit or creature represented by the mask, taking on its character and powers. (Some cultures take this a step further, believing that the masker actually becomes the being depicted in the mask.) While the masker carries the spirit’s image, he is no longer the ordinary human he was before but a holy person whose actions are completely altered from ordinary behavior. In some cultures with masked performance forms, actors and dancers feel that they assume the persona of the character depicted in the mask. Theater maskers testify that masks alter their behavior as well—in almost as mystical a way. “Actors can feel possessed by masks,” says mask-maker Ralph Lee, “or they can feel robbed of their own personality,” though famed acting teacher Michel Saint-Denis insists that while actors may feel possessed by the mask, they aren’t actually “dispossessed” of their own selves. Actors who work with masks confirm that their physical actions are different when they’re masked. Benda observes that masked actors attest that they seem transformed into the character portrayed in the mask in both appearance and behavior: “[T]he wearer of a mask yields subconsciously to the irresistible impulse to act like the being the mask typifies.” At least one mask professional noted that when several actors wore the mask of the same character, so powerful was its psychological hold that each one spoke with the same voice in the same rhythm and with the same gestures as the others regardless of differences in the actors’ ages or physical appearances. Only if the masks were altered did the actors show any but the most inconsequential distinctions. Furthermore, the mask’s effect can be so complete that, as Peter Brook attests:

You do things and other people tell you afterwards: ‘It was extraordinary!’ You don’t know: you just wear it and you do certain movements and you don’t know if there is any relation or not, and you know that you mustn’t try to impose something. You somehow do and don’t know, on a rational level; but the sensitivity to the mask exists in another way, and it’s something that develops.
“Anyone who has worked with a mask knows that the use of the body is totally different when one is wearing a mask,” writes Eugenio Barba, experimental theater director and co-author of A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, “even if the actions one does are the same.” This apparent power of masks to transform wearers has been affirmed by both anthropologists and performers. According to Susan Harris Smith, a theater professor who’s made a study of masking, Jacques Copeau, one of the most active users of masks in actor-training in the 20th century, saw the masks’ personas take possession of the actors and substitute their personalities for the actors’. Smith reports that maskers complained that their faces, as psychologists have documented, mirrored their masks’ expressions.

Smith also observes that to today’s Westerner, the mask may not represent a supernatural being but rather “one of the many faces of himself.” Indeed, wearing a mask can make us feel safe, but experts attest that that very sense of safety can be the catalyst that reveals our true selves. Kenneth Macgowan, drama critic-turned-film producer in the first part of the 20th century, asserts: “When a man puts on a mask he experiences a kind of release from his inhibited and bashful and circumscribed soul. He can say and do strange and terrible things, and he likes it,” and Smith reports: “Most anthropologists and psychologists agree that the mask liberates man.” Benda suggests that it’s paradoxically because of the concealment of the face that maskers feel free to take such physical and psychological risks without concerns for what others think of them. Harry L. Shapiro, onetime head of the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History, holding that the concealment of the mask-wearer’s identity “permits him a freedom not usually his,” finds that a masker may “express himself more vigorously or freely than under normal circumstances” and Ronald L. Grimes, a religion professor, identifying a “recurrent theme” in mask theory, suggests that “masks allow wearers to act out of their unconscious, thus making the repressed public.”

We can see manifestations of this phenomenon in non¬performative circumstances at Halloween, Carnival, and Mardi Gras when ordinary people who may never otherwise act inappropriately engage in extreme behavior, foolishness or flirtation, safely hidden behind a false face. The masks’ psychological effects that release emotions, according to anthropologists, work even today when the ritualistic associations have vanished. In fact, I believe this fact explains much of what’s behind the belief, particularly outside the religious sphere, that a mask’s persona can possess the wearer. Smith continues that “the basic aim of masking . . . is not deception but freedom, the liberation of the true personality. The mask confers the freedom of anonymity and of transformation on the masker” and mask and make-up designer Irene Corey states that “to mask is to unmask: visually unleashing the powers of greater life force.” Adding another dimension, Dario Fo returns to the notion of magic: “Incredible as it may seem, there is for me something magical in the fact that wearing a mask . . . allows one to see more clearly and to act with greater liberty than with the face completely uncovered.” Proponents of masking in actor-training, like Copeau, Jacques Lecoq, Michael Chekhov, Saint-Denis, and many others since the middle of the 20th century, used the liberation of the device to help actors find the alternate personas within themselves and then to tap into them as resources for their creative work.

Some mask experimenters as well as some psychologists speculate that because the mask isolates the wearer, depriving her of many of the sensory stimuli on the other side of the mask, the actor is left alone with herself. That turns the actor’s focus inward and she becomes more aware of her body and her inner resources. Anglo-French actor-teacher Pierre Lefèvre calls the mask “a catalyst,” especially in actor-training, because it’s “an instrument of concentration” that “liberate[s] the actor’s breathing, presence, physicality and imagination.” Others, like Fo and Corey, focus on the rest of the actor after the face has been obscured, explaining that the loss of facial expression forces the actor to work more with the body. “If you put on a mask,” says innovative director and masker/puppeteer Julie Taymor, “you get free of the limitations of your own body and face.” For most Western actors, the face is by far the most animated part of the actor’s equipment and even the best-trained actor overlooks the body as an instrument of expression aside from a few shoulder shrugs or arm gestures. The mask, performers like Fo, a world-respected clown and mime, argue, requires actors to use their bodies more expressively and extravagantly. A masked actor, denied the facile communication afforded by the face, must find means to use the entire instrument in novel ways. Looking at the phenomenon from a slightly different angle, Saint-Denis contends: “The mask helps the body say things which ordinarily speech cannot express.”

Furthermore, Fo affirms, masks require actors to tell the truth because it’s harder to lie with the body than with the voice and face. As mime and Lecoq student Bari Rolfe puts it: “The mask hides the lie and shows the truth.” Fo explains:

Because the mask cancels the prime element—the face, with all the expressions we formulate and employ with such ease—used to give expression to any form of mystification. When the face is removed from the equation, people are compelled to speak in a language free of formulas and of fixed stereotypes—in the language of the hands, of the arms and of the fingers. No one is accustomed to lying with their body. We never bother to check the gestures we make while speaking.
Curiously, this belief is confirmed by an entirely unrelated source, Aaron Frankel, a traditional acting teacher. In his system of actors’ prep, Frankel asserts that body language is the “most difficult to control: it seldom ‘lies’” (see “An Actor’s Homework, Part 3,” ROT, 26 April 2010). Bertolt Brecht, who employed masks extensively in his 1931 staging of Mann ist Mann, writes: “The actors can do without (or with the minimum of) makeup, appearing ‘natural’, and the whole thing can be a fake; they can wear grotesque masks and represent truth.” Susan Smith simply avers that “all masks are true because they represent aspects of the self.”

The freedom masking permits imposes some requirements as well, of course. As Fo points out, “While performing with the mask, the actor’s gestures must be grandiose and exaggerated.” In addition to finding the life of the particular mask (that is, the character) he’s wearing, the actor must break away from all naturalistic impulses. In performance, says Sears A. Eldredge, “the mask attacks mumble-and-scratch naturalism” and Saint-Denis concludes that working in mask is outright “anti-psychological.” Masks are inherently anti-realistic and as such demand a theatrical physicalization that’s commensurate with a masked performance. “Masks elicit a more heightened, more schematic performance,” insists Eldredge, a drama professor who has studied masked performance. Jacques Copeau, in his mask training for the actor, wasn’t interested in letting the mask-wearers impose their usual psychology and physicality on the mask characters, but to find and explore new, imaginative ways of using their minds, bodies, and emotions. Masked acting, says artist W. T. Benda, is “frankly artificial and extremely theatrical”; it is “as unreal, as artificial, as stylized as the masks themselves. It should be entirely different from all other acting. . . . [I]t’s movements should be rhythmic, stylized and expressive . . . .” Masking, in other words, not only frees performers to use their assets in novel and expressive ways, but it obligates them to do so. “Masks,” writes Irene Corey, the make-up artist, “carry us beyond naturalism into suggestions not hampered by earthbound flesh and blood.” Masks, after all, have no imaginative constraints: they can represent the abstraction of a face, a part of a face, a part of a body, or some inorganic object altogether unconnected to the human figure.

As an aspect of this physicalized acting, masks, like puppets, remove performance from the realm of the ordinary and raise it to the level of myth and ritual. “The mask is a translator from the human or ordinary realm,” says anthropologist Joan Halifax, “to one that is out of the ordinary.” Masks, which can make the face larger than life both actually and metaphorically, remind us “that we are in a theater, that the act going on before our eyes is not real in a literal sense, but is rather a symbolic or an artistic presentation,” writes Edwin Wilson, former theater critic and author of The Theatre Experience. Though they can’t depict subtle arrays of emotional expressions, they can reveal clearer, stronger, and less ambiguous expressions of feelings than human faces. Because masks can project those expressions, which can be distorted or exaggerated for symbolic effect, beyond the rows of the audience close enough to discern facial expressions, they are innately more theatrical. “The characters and situations are more heightened, more intensely who or what they are” in masked performances, writes drama professor Eldredge. “They are automatically more archetypal, more mythic, more representative, and metaphorical.” Finding that without masks, performances of some classic plays like Oedipus Rex were far less striking than when the actors were masked, director and producer Tyrone Guthrie proclaims that “the use of the masks gives a magnificence, an aloof grandeur . . . that is not within the range of any human face.” This lines up with theater scholar and poet Stefan Brecht’s discovery that the “ceremonial gesture” imparts an augustness to the performance when executed by a masked actor, while it isn’t just diminished but even rendered pretentious when performed by an actor without a mask. Susan Smith emphasizes that the mask’s very artificiality underlines the artificiality of the theatrical performance as it prevents the audience from indulging in illusionary reality. In Totemism and Exogamy, social anthropologist James G. Frazer further asserts that wearing a mask “throws a sort of mysterious glamour over the performance . . . .” This may be a subliminal residue, even in the modern West where theater has been long separated from religious ritual, of the association of masks with spiritual or superhuman figures, enlarging the masked performance to a level beyond the merely “human.” As Leonard Pitt, a student of master mime Ètienne Decroux, simply puts it: “To move with a mask is like moving under a magnifying glass.”

Along with their theatricality, there are also the Brechtian aspects of masks—that they distance the actor from the character and the spectator from the actor, for example. Since the mask isn’t human, the spectator isn’t drawn automatically to identify with the masked character. Since the performer’s own face is hidden, the spectator can’t readily identify with the actor, either. This puts the masker and the viewer in a less emotional or empathetic relationship and into more of an objective and critically observant one. As Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Russian innovative director to whom Brecht owed a great deal for the Epic Theater concept, observes: “The mask enables the spectator to see not only the actual Arlecchino [i.e., Harlequin] before him but all the Arlecchinos who live in his memory. Through the mask the spectator sees every person who bears the merest resemblance to the character.” Furthermore, the actors can’t identify so easily with their characters, principally since they can’t really see them. As Peter Brook points out, “The great magic of the mask, which every actor receives from it, is that he can’t tell what it looks like on him; he can’t tell what impression he’s making . . . .” Ideally, this makes the audience-character-performer connection more a theatrical one than a personal or emotional one. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the spectator-character relationship isn’t affecting; of course it is: Aristotle’s original concept of catharsis, the release he believed spectators experience at a tragedy, was, after all, engendered by masked characters. (I should note here that in children’s theater, masking even has a tendency to heighten the emotional connection. Children are more adept at relating to both inanimate objects—observing a child with a doll or stuffed animal will demonstrate that—and with fantasy and non-realistic figures—as their persistent belief in Santa Claus, monsters, fairies, and all kinds of magical creatures makes plain.) The designer facilitates this by using familiar expressions and characteristics; by exaggerating them or painting them in unusual colors, the mask sculptor creates a character at once recognizable and alien. This allows, even encourages, the audience to observe the character analytically—the original objective of Brecht’s distancing technique.

In addition to the distancing effect (I resist the word ‘alienation’ because I believe it’s misleading and inaccurate), a mask also instantly communicates aspects of character, personality, and psychology, as well as other performative elements, often across cultural and linguistic boundaries. According to Smith, masks also “challenge the primacy of language” on which realistic drama is founded. To a great degree, this obviates the need for the actor to engage in character exposition or development as the character will be almost immediately recognizable to the audience. The artist creating the mask selects the specific traits of the character in the spirit of the play, focusing just on those characteristics chosen and omitting the insignificant. (In the realm of traditional masked dramas such as Noh or Wayang Topeng, the characters are immediately identifiable, as they were in Greek theater and Commedia dell’Arte, because the iconography of each role is established.) In modern Western masked performances, the designer must employ commonly known images and then the performers may briefly have to establish the conventions for the character. Sears Eldredge explains: “A sculptor has a vision of an essential personality, an archetype, or a spiritual force and tries to incarnate that presence in a sculpted object that will affect the physical senses and imagination of the wearer and observers.” Anthropologist Shapiro affirms that for a spectator at a play, a mask identifies the character and suggests the appropriate emotional response. For playwright John Arden, the mask is such a powerful conveyor of character that it even eliminates the need for a lot of dialogue, relying on “a more naked expression of emotion.”

The masks’ immediate communication of character information to the audience functions somewhere between what Michael Kirby, a theater teacher, performer, and playwright, calls “nonmatrixed representation”—“that condition in which the performer does not act and yet his costume [or other non-performance element] represents something or someone”—and “simple acting”—the condition “in which only one element or dimension of acting is used”—where the mask “represents something or someone” while the performer does not act or actively depict a character. In Commedia dell’Arte, for instance, with the half-mask and costume identifying the characters by an iconography familiar to European audiences for over a century—like, say, Harlequin’s patchwork or, later, diamond-patterned clothing and black-and-red mask with the snub nose, hollow cheeks, and bump on the forehead—the actors didn’t have to develop the characters for the audience. Spectators already knew what to expect, so the actors (and, today, the director) could focus on making the statements they wanted to make through the action. This most closely resembles a form of “received acting,” in Kirby’s words, where the performers behave as themselves while the performative aspects are projected by a very “strong, persistent” environment, such as masks.

The divide between the mask and the actor can set up the possibility for what is sometimes called “schizoid acting” (described briefly in my ROT report on Venus in Fur, 11 July). Since the mask communicates the character independent of the actor, the actor is freer to appear simultaneously as herself. This is a Brechtian concept wherein the actor can comment on the character and her actions as an observer, thus encouraging the spectators to do the same thing. In a masked performance, this “split” or “divided” performance is eased, even, perhaps, inevitable because the mask conceals the actor’s personality in exchange for the character’s while preserving both. (This isn’t to say that all maskers engage in this kind of commentary: traditional masked performances such as Noh aren’t considered divided in this way. In fact, Noh actors believe they’re transformed into the character when they put on the mask.) Just as the holiday masks of Carnival and Mardi Gras permit revelers to do and say things they’d never be free to reveal under ordinary social circumstances, the theatrical mask allows actors the freedom to express ideas they could never disclose on a conventional stage. Putting on a mask, or “second face” as Ronald Grimes calls it, means “to don an other and doff a selfhood,” allowing the actor to stand outside the character and comment on it or encourage the spectator to do so. If, as Susan Smith states, the masker “is at once himself and someone else,” he is able to act as the mask-character even as he simultaneously behaves as himself.

Aside from the Brechtian aspects of masking, there can be other consequences. In the theater of realism, for instance, the actor is usually expected to bear at least a general physical resemblance to the character. (This is particularly so in today’s theater. We are long past the time when a middle aged man can still play Romeo acceptably or, outside of school plays, a very young woman can successfully appear as Lady Bracknell—though we do recognize that a man can play the part.) With masking, this isn’t necessary true. In Noh, for instance, a stout, jowly man is often seen as a sweet young girl because in that tradition, the mask carries the character. In the West, masking can ease the way to non-traditional and color-blind casting for the same reason. Since masked performances are inherently non-realistic, the impediments to actors of any race, gender, or ethnic heritage playing any role for which they have the talent can be swept aside. (It’s also seen as a method of defeating the entrenched star system.) In fact, masks make many casting problems entirely insignificant. Just as the ritual mask allows humans to portray gods, demons, spirits, and all manner of supernatural beings, today the stage mask can let an actor appear not just as an animal, but an inanimate object or even an abstract concept. (This isn’t an altogether modern idea: the characters in the well-known 15th-century morality play Everyman include not just God and Everyman, but Death, Fellowship, Strength, Five-Wits, and Knowledge, among others. How else but with masks could these abstractions be depicted? The medieval religious dramas have today been supplanted by the work of symbolist, surrealist, and expressionist writers and directors whose characters are often dream or subconscious images.) This application goes far beyond merely permitting three actors to play multiple roles.

There are trade-offs, of course. For all their performative benefits as I’ve outlined them, masks freeze the face in one expression. Yes, the masker can make the mask appear to change emotions and brilliantly designed masks can give the impression of multiple expressions, but even with moving parts, a mask has but one face. Everything else is excluded, and the performance has to be staged to accommodate this restriction. In traditional plays like Commedia dell’Arte, the masked characters can become so familiar to the audiences as to be predictable, even stereotyped, no matter how inventive the actor animating the mask gets. And while the mask frees the actors’ physicality in ways they may never have explored it before, it also restricts the actors’ choices because the maskers are constrained to act in the spirit of the masks they’re wearing—an inanimate piece of art designed by someone other than the performer (in most cases). Yes, costumes are also designed by another artist, but costumes are less specific than masks for the most part and they’re more flexible. Mask performers testify that if they violate the character of the mask, the performance simply doesn’t work; Peter Brook says it becomes “distorted.” I’ve never heard an actor say that about a costume.

Furthermore, of course, actors working in masks either must have been specifically trained or a mask expert must be called in to teach the cast how to act in masks, devoting considerable time and attention to the demanding idiosyncrasies of the form. As we’ve heard, the mask will lose impact if the physical performance of the actor isn’t extraordinarily precise in every movement. For all the imaginative freedom the mask affords, the actor has to know how to exploit her new choices and not all actors, even talented ones, are prepared to meet that challenge. In most of the West, especially in the United States, few actors receive specialized mask training. None of the teachers with whom I studied, for instance, worked with masks. I took mime and dance classes, games and movement classes, even “style” classes (which train actors to work in classical plays with period props and costumes like frock coats, long dresses and hoop skirts, walking sticks, handkerchiefs, fans, snuff boxes, and so on). Many actors also used to get fencing lessons, though that’s gone out of fashion nowadays, but few training programs or conservatories offer mask work. Just as fight choreographers come into rehearsals to work out the moves for a sword, dagger, or fist fight on stage, a mask specialist may be necessary to teach the actors how to work with this strange appendage that has such profound effects on them. The difference is, however, that a sword duel is finite—you do it, it’s over, and you return to the more common acting of the rest of the play. A mask affects everything you do, all the time you’re on stage, no matter what the rest of the action may be. Masks demand total concentration, proficiency, precision, and complete control over every movement the actor makes—all the time. Even if you don’t experience the psychological possession to which some maskers attest, the mask unquestionably takes over all your artistic efforts.

Possibly as important as these attributes of masked acting is the fact that from the audience’s standpoint, as Marshall McLuhan writes, “The mask is not so much pictorial as participatory.” Most of us recognize that for any theater performance to work for the audience, the spectators must often suspend their disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it in 1817. Theater isn’t reality, as everyone but perhaps Ilya of Never on Sunday knows. To believe what’s happening on stage, the spectators must put aside their understanding of the real world and accept the theatrical one. Even more, in what he called “stylized theater,” Meyerhold proclaimed that the spectator is the a “fourth creator” of the “creative act” with the writer, director, and cast. With masks, however, the audience takes an even more pivotal role in actuating the performance, as Ronald Grimes observes: “In performative circumstances . . . , audiences may, in fact, be the real animator of masks and maskers.” As in puppetry, a closely allied art, we see that the audience must imbue the mask with life in order for there to be a show. Psychoanalyst Eric Nuetzel maintains, “The audience projects something onto the object,” which, he declares, “doesn’t exist alone.” “The audience is complicit,” responds master puppeteer Paska, and Sears Eldredge writes, “The audience’s imaginations must be engaged to complete the transformation” from inanimate object to living character. That means that, like actors playing for audiences of children, the masked performer can’t ever lose the spectators’ focus and active engagement in the performance or the show evaporates. So, on top of the additional effort that playing in a mask requires, this extra burden is also placed on the actor in a masked role. As we have already heard, the mask dies if it’s not continually animated by the actor; so, too, the play is in jeopardy if the actors don’t maintain complete mastery of the performance.

With all their mystery and magic, masks are also objects of endless contradictions. To start with, they are dead things that come alive on stage. They are inanimate, ornamental art objects which become animated practical devices. A mask reduces the character to one or two frozen attributes and at the same time raises it to a place of myth and ritual where its impact is magnified. Then, as we’ve seen, masks both conceal and reveal at the same time: masks hide the actor’s natural face, protecting his true identity, while they reveal interior realities that the unmasked actor seldom exposes, allowing the wearer to take great risks. At the same time that the mask hides the performer’s identity, diminishing her, it enhances the character’s persona and spotlights the actor’s physical mastery. Masked actors are limited in their use of the facial expressions they ordinarily rely on but their use of the rest of their bodies is greatly expanded. As for the audience, the mask simultaneously attracts us and draws us in, and distances us and even disturbs us. It’s both familiar and strange at the same time. Peter Brook writes that the mask sends a message inward to the wearer even as it projects a message outward to the spectator. Those messages can echo one another, or they can conflict. Perhaps the most significant dichotomy is the phenomenon that the mask is an unreal object without life until it’s imbued with vitality by not only the masker but the spectator who must participate in the animation of the performing object in a more fundamental way than at a conventional, unmasked play. As Ron Jenkins, an expert in Balinese theater and translator of works by Dario Fo, writes:

The power of the mask is rooted in paradox, in the fusion of opposites. It brings together the self and the other by enabling us to look at the world through someone else's face. It merges past and present by reflecting faces that are the likenesses of both our ancestors and our neighbors. A mask is a potent metaphor for the coalescence of the universal and the particular, immobility and change, disguise and revelation.

But a mask is more than a metaphor. It is a tangible catalyst for transformation in the theater that can charge simple actions with complex meanings.

But actor and teacher Pierre Lefèvre may have summed up the magic of acting in a mask best: “It is like a magnifying glass for the actor. An unforgettable experience. Suddenly, he is aware that he is his own source of inspiration.”

* * * *
[I’ve made reference to an extraordinary number of people in this article, some of whom may be unfamiliar to most readers. Many of the names are well enough known to be listed in available reference works, including on-line resources, but just to make things easier, I’m appending a list of the names I invoked in “The Magic of Masks” (aside from passing mentions) and noting some of the reference sources I used in my original research. Note that many of these people are multi-dimensional figures in the arts, academia, and other fields, so this is hardly a definitive description of their authority and significance—just an introduction.]
  • John Arden (b. 1930) – British playwright; married to Irish actress Margaretta D’Arcy (b. 1934); reference for this article: Theater at Work (Charles Marowitz and Simon Trussler, eds., Hill & Wang, 1967)
  • Eugenio Barba (b. 1936) – Italian-born theater artist based in Denmark; artistic director of Odin Teatret and founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology; student of Jerzy Grotowski; author of A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology (Routledge, 1991)
  • W[ladislaw] T[eodor] Benda (1873-1948) – Polish-born American artist and mask-maker; references: Masks (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1944), “Modern Masks and Their Uses” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1946), “How Benda Revived the Use of Masks” (Boston Evening Transcript, 17 Apr. 1926)
  • Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) – French Post-Impressionist painter; an innovative printmaker; made puppets and masks and designed theater sets
  • Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) – German playwright who defined his own style of theater, Epic Theater, and used masks and other distancing devices and techniques to encourage the audience to observe events critically and analytically; father of American poet and theater scholar Stefan Brecht (see below); reference: “The Popular and the Realistic” (Brecht on Theatre, Hill and Wang, 1964)
  • Stefan Brecht (1924-2009) – German-born American theater scholar and poet; son of playwright Bertolt Brecht (see above); author of numerous books on theater, especially the avant garde and experimental theater; reference: Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theatre (Methuen, 1988)
  • Peter Brook (b. 1925) – British director and theater theorist; theatrical icon of the 1960s avant garde; author of The Empty Space (1968); director of many iconic plays and films; reference: The Shifting Point (Harper & Row, 1988)
  • Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) – Russian-born American actor, director, and acting teacher and theorist; nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904); originally a student of Konstantin Stanislavsky; author of To The Actor (1953)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) – British Romantic poet, philosopher, and critic of dramatic literature; major poems include “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1797-98, pubd. 1798) and “Kubla Khan” (1797, pubd. 1816); reference: Chapter XIV, Biographia Literaria (London: Rest Fenner, 1817; New-York : Kirk and Mercein, 1817)
  • Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) – French stage director and acting teacher; proponent of actor-training with masks; founder of Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris
  • Irene Corey (1925-2010) – American make-up and costume designer; references: “To Make a Paper Mask” (Theatre Crafts Book of Make-up, Masks, and Wigs, Rodale Press, 1974), “To Mask Is to Unmask” (Mime Journal, 1975)
  • E[dward] Gordon Craig (1872-1966; sometimes known as Gordon Craig) – British set designer, theater theoretician; prime mover in the New Stagecraft movement of the early 20th century and promoter of renewal of masked theater; son of famed English actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928)
  • Étienne Decroux (1898-1991) – French mime, actor, and teacher; reference: “Etienne Decroux on Masks” (Thomas Leabhart, Mime Journal, 1975)
  • Sears A. Eldredge (b. 1936) – American professor emeritus of drama; chairman of the Dramatics Arts & Dance Department, Macalester College, St. Paul (1986-2000); references: Mask Improvisation for Training and Performance (Northwestern University Press, 1994), “Masks: Their Use and Effectiveness in Actor Training Programs” (Michigan State University doctoral dissertation, 1975), “Actor Training in the Neutral Mask” (with Hollis W. Huston, Movement for the Actor, Drama Book Specialists, 1980)
  • Dario Fo (b. 1926) – Italian mime, actor, and playwright; political satirist; expert in masking, improvisational performing, and physical comedy; Nobel Laureate in Literature (1997); married to actress-playwright Franca Rame (b. 1928); references: “Hands Off the Mask!” (New Theatre Quarterly, Aug. 1989), The Tricks of the Trade (Routledge, 1991)
  • Aaron Frankel (b. 1924) – American director and acting teacher; taught a course called “How To Do Homework” at the HB Studio which I wrote up for ROT (19, 22, 25, & 28 April 2010)
  • James G. Frazer (1854-1941) – British social anthropologist; focused on myth, folklore, and comparative religion; author of The Golden Bough (1890); reference: Totemism and Exogamy (Macmillan, 1910)
  • Jean Genet (1910-86) – French playwright and poet; known for plays characterized by ritual, role-playing, and illusion in which masks often appear prominently (The Blacks, 1959)
  • Ronald L. Grimes (b. 1943) – American professor of religion; teaches courses on religion and the performing arts; references: “Masking: Toward a Phenomenology of Exteriorization” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Sept. 1975), “The Life History of a Mask” (Drama Review, Fall 1992)
  • Tyrone Guthrie (1900-71) – British theater director; instrumental in the founding of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (1953) in Ontario, Canada, and the Guthrie Theatre (1963) in Minneapolis, Minnesota; reference: Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded (with [William] Robertson Davies and Grant Macdonald, Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1954)
  • Joan Halifax (b. 1942) – American anthropologist; socially engaged Buddhist and spiritualist; civil rights and ecological activist; reference: “The Magic of Masks” (John Biggs, Science Digest, Nov. 1985)
  • Ronald S. Jenkins (b. 1952) – American professor of theater; expert in Balinese performance; translator of works of Dario Fo; reference: “Two-Way Mirrors” (Parabola, Special Issue: “Mask and Metaphor: Role, Imagery, Disguise,” Aug. 1981)
  • Michael Kirby (1931-97) – American actor, artist, and theater teacher; editor of The Drama Review; reference: “On Acting and Not-Acting” (Drama Review, Mar. 1972)
  • Jacques Lecoq (1921-99) – French actor, mime, and acting teacher; used neutral masks in his actor-training program which stressed physical performance; reference: “The Mime of Jacques Lecoq” (Bari Rolfe, Drama Review, Mar. 1972)
  • Ralph Lee (b. 1935) – American mask-maker; artistic director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company in Salem, New York; organized the first Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York City, 1974; references: “Fleeting Beasts Collected in a Fantasy Heaven” (Mel Gussow, New York Times, 13 Mar. 1998), “Profiles: Ralph Lee” (Mona Molarsky, American Theatre, April 1998), “Ralph Lee: Masks, Festival Figures & Theatre Designs” (pamphlet for New York Public Library for the Performing Arts exhibition, 6 Feb.-2 May 1998)
  • Pierre Lefèvre (1914-2007) – French-born English actor and acting teacher; taught with Saint-Denis, including at Juilliard; teacher of masked acting; reference: “The New American Actor” (Jennifer Dunning, New York Times, 2 Oct. 1983)
  • Kenneth Macgowan (1888-1963) – American film producer and theater writer; sometimes his last name is spelled MacGowan; author of The Theatre of Tomorrow (Boni and Liveright, 1921); reference: “Masks and Their Meaning” (International Studio, New York, Nov. 1923), “The Magic of Masks” (Chapter One, Greater New York Chapter of ANTA, Nov. 1958)
  • Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) - Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar; his work is cornerstone of media theory; reference: Through the Vanishing Point (with Harley Parker, Harper & Row, 1968)
  • Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) – Russian innovative stage director; student of Konstantin Stanislavsky; introduced Brecht to concept that became the Verfremdungseffekt; fell afoul of Soviet political leaders but became an icon of avant-garde theater in the 1960s; references: Meyerhold on Theatre (Hill and Wang, 1969), The Theatre of Meyerhold (Edward Braun, Drama Book Specialists, 1979)
  • Eric Nuetzel (b. 1950) – American psychoanalyst; practices psychiatry in Saint Louis, Missouri; reference: “Pulling Strings: The Geppetto Effect” (Sarah Boxer, New York Times, 17 Jan. 1998)
  • Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) – American playwright; first U.S. dramatist to earn an international reputation; Nobel Laureate (1936), the only American playwright so honored; reference: “Memoranda on Masks” (The American Spectator, Nov. 1932)
  • Roman Paska (b. 1951) – American puppeteer; references: “Notes on Puppet Primitives and the Future of an Illusion” (The Language of the Puppet, Pacific Puppetry Center Press, 1990), “Pulling Strings: The Geppetto Effect” (Sarah Boxer, New York Times, 17 Jan. 1998)
  • Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) – Spanish artist of many different revolutionary styles, especially Cubism
  • Leonard Pitt (b. 1941) – American mime; student of Étienne Decroux, master French mime; world-wide performer and teacher, based in Berkeley, California; references: “Mask Technique for the Actor” (San Francisco Theatre, Winter 1977)
  • Bari Rolfe (1916-2002) – American mime; studied with Lecoq; considered grandmother of American mime; references: “Masks, Mime, and Mummenschanz” (Mime Journal, 1975), Behind the Mask (Persona Products, 1977), “The Mime of Jacques Lecoq” (Drama Review, Mar. 1972)
  • Michel Saint-Denis (1897-1971; also known as Michel St.-Denis) – French actor, director, and acting teacher; taught at Juilliard in New York City from 1957, helping to launch the drama division in 1968; reference: Training for the Actor: Premises & Promises (Theatre Arts Books, 1982)
  • Harry L. Shapiro (1902-90) – American anthropologist; Curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History (1942-70); reference: “Magic of the Mask” (New York Times Magazine, 15 Apr. 1951); [Harry Shapiro isn’t related to Leonardo Shapiro (below)]
  • Leonardo Shapiro (1946-97) – American experimental theater director; see articles on ROT: “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” (5 Aug. 2009), “Cheerleaders of the Revolution” (31 Oct. 2009), “Brother, You’re Next” (26 Jan. 2010), “New York Free Theater” (4 Apr. 2010), “War Carnival” (13 May 2010), “’As It Is In Heaven’” (25 Mar. 2011), “’Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep’” (7 May 2011); [Leonardo Shapiro isn’t related to Harry Shapiro (above)]
  • Susan Valeria Harris Smith (b. 1945) – American professor of English; author of Masks in Modern Drama (University of California Press, 1984)
  • Julie Taymor (b. 1952) – innovative American film, theater, and opera director; designs elaborate masks and puppets for her productions; best example of her stage work: The Lion King (1997 and still running); trained in several Asian forms, including masked forms, and creative work draws on folk and ritual performance; reference: “A director who can conjure up magic onstage” (Miriam Horn, Smithsonian, Feb. 1993)
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) – French Post-Impressionist painter and poster designer; painted numerous scenes of theater and performing arts, cabarets, and circus; designed theater posters
  • Edwin Wilson (b. 1927) – American theater critic and teacher; critic for the Wall Street Journal (1972-94); author of The Theatre Experience (McGraw-Hill, 1976)
[There are many aspects of masking that I haven't covered here. Some of the sources listed above will lead an interested reader to more information, and a simple search of reading lists and bibliographies of masks will provide more than enough reading material.]


  1. Such a wonderful detailed and informed article, You demonstrate a deep and true understanding of the mask and of the possiblities inherient in the world of the mask as i have come to know it. I have been teaching mask work professionally for 30 years and Pierre was my teacher. I am quite sure you meant Pierre LeFevre as the source of your last quote. I would be very happy to share with you how I use the mask as an acting tool currently. Best, Shelley Wyant

    1. Ms. Wyant--

      Thank you for the compliment. As for the spelling correction, I used the version of Mr. Lefèvre's name as it appeared in the article and in other references I found when I identified him. (Sometimes even the accent appeared and sometimes it disappeared.) It wouldn't be the first time there was a variant spelling in English of a foreign name.

      Thank you for your interest.


  2. Yes ~ this article was quite comprehensive ~ I too studied with Pierre LeFevre ~ Ms. Wyant is referring to the last quote because the first name is " Paul " ( not Pierre ) ~ He was a wonderful man and a gently fearless teacher ~ D.E. Johnson

    1. I must have misunderstood Ms. Wynant's Comment. The second reference to M. Lefèvre was a typo; I have corrected it at long last.

      Thanks for writing in, Mr. Johnson.