27 September 2011

"Big Sound"

by Mary Donovan with Marisa Friedman

[On 16 June, I published an article on ROT, “The Sound of Muzak,” about my response to the increasing use of recorded and synthesized music in stage productions. It was prompted by the action taken by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the pit musicians on Broadway, against the producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (That arbitration hearing was scheduled for 20 September.) In the September 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of Local 802, appeared the article below, a sort of follow-up to my ROT post. It compliments the producers of the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, for using a full orchestra for the production and returning to the original orchestrations. Obviously, the musicians’ union isn’t a neutral observer on this issue, but the article by Mary Donovan, Assistant to the Prsident of Local 802 and Supervisor of the Theatre Department, and Marisa Friedman, union rep and organizer for theater and teaching artists, so clearly reinforces my feeling about this subject, I decided to share it with readers of ROT. I hope you all enjoy it. ~Rick]

'Follies' revival on Broadway does it right, with a 28-piece orchestra

When it comes to live music on Broadway, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Kennedy Center’s $7.3 million revival of Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies" is now in previews at the 1,595-seat Marquis Theatre and is set to open on Sept. 12.

"At the first instant of our first rehearsal, the sound of the orchestra took my breath away," cellist Laura Bontrager told Allegro. "I hadn’t expected to feel such a difference from other show orchestras I’ve been in, but I was really knocked out."

The minimum number of musicians required at the Marquis is 19, but "Follies" will be coming in at 9 above that. Best of all, producers have stated that there will be no cuts list, meaning that the size of the orchestra is guaranteed to stay at 28.

(Under the Broadway contract, a cuts list means that producers who engage more than the minimum for that theatre can reduce the size of the orchestra after a certain number of performances.)

"Follies" will also not include any recorded music. The audience will be treated by the original orchestrations and original intent of the 1971 production.

"If you really want to claim the artistic high ground, when the show calls for a large orchestra, give the audience what they want," said cellist Peter Prosser, who played in "West Side Story," and "Gypsy," which both used larger orchestras.

The production opened at the Kennedy Center on May 21 and accomplished a successful two-month limited run.

There was much speculation whether or not the production could make the move to Broadway and retain its large cast of 41 members and its sizeable orchestra of 28 musicians.

We considered these ingredients absolutely essential to a successful Broadway run.

Another consideration was the star-studded cast, which included Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Linda Lavin, and Danny Burstein. Could they be enticed to do the Broadway run?

Three of these top actors were quoted in a recent story in the L.A. Times about what "Follies" meant to them.

As a child, Linda Lavin attended the Broadway opening of "Follies" on May 4, 1971. She said, "I remember the overwhelming sight and feel of it. "It was just this huge, impactful, passionate piece of work…with moments I’ll never forget." Lavin went on to suggest that what makes for a spectacular production, the large cast, orchestra and set may make it unattractive to Broadway backers. We’re glad she was wrong about this!

In the same story, Jan Maxwell said that "Follies" is "a beautiful piece…I’ve never experienced this type of artistic expression in a musical."

Finally, Bernadette Peters warmed our heart when she said, "When I first heard the 28-piece orchestra start playing at a run-through, I just started to cry." We couldn’t agree more.

"I think the producers of ‘Follies’ realize that this show has some of Stephen Sondheim’s most heartfelt music," violinist Robert Shaw told Allegro. "To do justice to Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestrations, a full orchestra was of utmost importance."

The original Broadway production of "Follies" ran for 522 performances and 12 previews. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won seven. It was actually not a commercial success, but ultimately became a Broadway classic as predicted by a young Harvard student named Frank Rich (now a theatre critic for the New York Times).

Critic Clive Barnes wrote that "‘Follies’ has some of the best lyrics I have ever encountered, and above all it is a serious attempt to deal with the musical form."

"Follies" last came to Broadway in 2001 at the Belasco Theatre. That version was significantly stripped down; producers hired only 14 musicians and it was not a critical success. Six years later, a concert version using the full orchestra was produced as part of City Center "Encores!"

Local 802 would like to say to the musicians, cast and crew of "Follies": Welcome to Broadway and welcome to New York City, the live music capital of the world.

And to the producers, a special thanks. They are:

  • The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (David Rubenstein, chair; Michael M. Kaiser, president; Max A. Woodward, vice president)
  • Nederlander Presentations
  • Adrienne Arsht
  • The HRH Foundation
We applaud you for doing it right.

"I am so very happy that this choice has been made," Broadway conductor Kristen Blodgette told Allegro. "I’m thrilled for the orchestra members, the brilliant cast, the wonderful music director Jim Moore…and oh so glad for Mr. Sondheim. I can’t wait to hear it."

[There were three related articles in recent issues of the New York Times. “Sound, the Way the Brain Prefers to Hear It” by Guy Gugliotta appeared in “Science Times” on 6 September. An article about "psychoacoustics"—the science of how we hear what we hear—the point of the article is how acousticians keep trying to replicate the sound of great auditoriums with electronic reproduction and amplification, to capture the experience of being in a live room while listening to a recording in your living room. But what I spotted was the implication that recreating the sound of a live orchestra through electronic reproduction is, first, very delicate and difficult to accomplish, even approximately, and, second, more expensive than hiring the live musicians would be. The ear, as I've heard before the article reinforced this fact for me, is our most precise sense. We can tell the difference in inches where a sound is coming from and how it moves around a space. That means that a single stationary loudspeaker, or even two or three, placed around the perimeter of an auditorium or theater won't really replicate the sound of live instruments on a stage or in a pit to a spectator's ear. It would take dozens of amps placed all around the room, including right in front of the listener—and, therefore, between the spectator and the performance—to come close to the experience of a live pit orchestra. And they'd have to be very precisely adjusted for volume and so on. Anything else is just a pale approximation of the experience of live music, regardless of what any producer says who wants to promote the use of electronic reproduction.

[The second article was “Classic Score by Bernstein Is Remade” by Daniel J. Wakin, on 7 September, about a live orchestra performance of the score of the film version of
West Side Story to accompany the film. (The film has been electronically stripped of the music, but not the singing voices. It's an ironic reversal of the process of replacing live musicians with recordings.) The point of this effort has to do with the fact that apparently Leonard Bernstein hadn't been happy with the orchestration used in the film, but it also points up again the flexibility of live music over recorded sound. On 9 September, the New York Times
ran a review of that performance, “A Beloved Film Gains a Live Sound” by Allan Kozinn. In his review, Kozinn wrote: ". . . the film voices sounded a bit tinny beside the three-dimensional orchestra." My question is, Does anyone think that the reverse is not also true—that recorded or electronically enhanced orchestras sound tinny beside "three-dimensional" singers? Of course they do! Then, if you add the psychoacousitical fact that human hearing is very precise and sensitive, you can be pretty sure that only someone with a tin ear wouldn't hear the difference between a recorded, enhanced, or synthesized orchestra and a live one. QED, I say!

[(This doesn't mean, by the way, that when a show's score is meant to be "tinny" and sound like a recording, say, like
Priscilla’s, that the dramatic or theatrical demands don't impose some manipulation of the music. That's an entirely different argument.)]

22 September 2011

Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director

At this time of year, I get a lot of brochures and announcements from dozens of theater companies for the new season. I go through them and make decisions, usually in coordination with my friend Diana with whom I go to theater, about where I will put my subscription dollars this year. There are also lots of offers from production companies for single plays they’re promoting, offering discounts or other special deals. One that came a month or so ago was from a company whose work I’ve seen a number of times over the years. This company specializes in reviving old plays that have been neglected or even forgotten for decades. I have yet to see anything there that I’ve found more than a theatrical curiosity (and consequently I don’t go much anymore). The season’s usually selected by the company’s artistic director, who in the past has also directed most of the productions. (The company also arranges the publication of many of their scripts and it is the artistic director who makes the selection, edits the texts, and writes the introductions to the published volumes.) I’ve developed the sense that the forgotten plays the company produces reflect the taste of the artistic director with minimal input from anyone else because I’ve invariably wondered why the company decided to revive the plays I‘ve seen there. (It’s been my opinion, as I think I may have said on ROT before, that there’s usually a very good reason that a play’s been neglected or forgotten for years. On rare occasions a gem’s uncovered, but most of the time, “lost plays” prove not to be worth the effort. This theater’s rediscoveries haven’t changed my mind on this score.) Consequently, I’ve always looked on the company as a vanity operation, working to support the director’s ego. (I will admit, however, that their current choice, which I passed over when I got the notice a month or so ago, has gotten nice reviews even though it still doesn’t sound like a play I’d want to spend money on and sit through. That, of course, is purely a matter of taste.)

“Vanity productions,” on the analogy of “vanity press,” are ones in which the producer is also one or more of the principal artists, such as playwright, director, or lead actor. Dictionary.com defines a vanity production as one “produced as a showcase for one's own talents, especially as a writer, actor, singer, or composer”; a search of the Internet shows that the term is most commonly applied to the film business (where it most often designates films produced or otherwise backed by stars who want to appear in them), but I’m more familiar with it as a theater designation. In rare cases, there’s a special talent at work (Orson Welles for Dr. Faustus and Julius Caesar in 1937, among others; Geoffrey Holder for The Wiz in 1975; Mel Brooks for The Producers in 2001), but frequently the productions are self-indulgences, mounted because these artists want all the power or because they want to do something they’re not suited for by any but their own standards. Occasionally a vanity production can prove the common wisdom wrong; more often, it proves it right.

There are several permutations of the vanity production on the stage. Sometimes it’s an actor, often a star name, who wants to do a particular part or play and finds a producer and director or a theater the actor can persuade to present the production built around her. Sometimes, as in the revival house I described above, the director of a theater company, often one he founded or co-founded, uses the theater to present plays he wants to direct or act in and everyone else at the company just supports the director’s program. I once served as literary advisor for a small theater run by two women, one a director and the other an actress. They liked essentially old-fashioned plays—mostly ones with happy endings, but basically well-made plays in a realistic style. They had wanted to produce new plays because they thought that would attract critical attention and so they brought me in to find them scripts to meet their needs. I tried to convince them to expand to more adventurous fare because the simple notion that new scripts would be the thing to attract attention had long passed its shelf life, but I soon saw that what the two women were really looking for was plays the director would want to stage and the actress would want to perform in. That’s a vanity theater.

Another permutation is the group vanity production. In my experience, this is usually a troupe of young artists, often new college grads, who began working together somewhere outside New York City, found that they liked working together, gained some successes in their home base, and put together a show, sometimes a standard or classic but most often one they created in house (there’s often a budding playwright in the company, and sometimes a composer and lyricist as well). They decide they have to come to New York and produce their play here and storm the big city. I once took a bread-and-butter job running props for one of these out of Chicago: the cast, director, playwright, and producer (most of whom have never appeared here again) just knew they had the great American drama and so they set up at the historic Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square. The play was mediocre at best (and Chicago’s a great theater town so you’d think these folks would have known better!) and closed very quickly after three performances. I imagined O’Neill, many of whose plays premièred at the Provincetown, rolling over in his grave.

Finally, there’s the actor-director—the director (usually) who decides that no one but he can do the lead role in the play he wants to direct. Most are directors who are also actors, so it’s not that they just decided to give it a shot, but they hadn’t made a habit of directing themselves, something that’s a great deal harder to do on stage than before the cameras. Occasionally it happens the other way ‘round: an actor who has a role she wants to do and decides she’s the best person to direct her in the part. In some cases, not all that rare when this kind of ego gets underway, the actor-director also does other jobs in the production (as we’ll see momentarily) and spreads her talents even thinner. Now, I’ve been an actor and I’ve been a director—though only once at the same time (a small part and I had no alternative)—and I can attest for anyone who’s never done either that these are tasks that each take a huge amount of concentration and focus, even under the easiest of circumstances. Once, while I was directing an Off-Off-Broadway production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, one of the actors told me on short notice that he’d have to miss a couple of performances because he’d gotten a gig in Boston. This is neither uncommon in showcase work nor unethical—paying jobs always take precedence. The short notice, however, was inconsiderate because there was no time to find a replacement and rehearse him, even if he carried a book. As a group, we decided that since I knew the play so well, I’d go on with a script and walk the part. We rehearsed the show a few times—and do you know I couldn’t manage the part! Now, I was a pretty decent actor and a quick study. I once had gone on (off book) in a one-act in college to replace an actor who’d taken ill just before the single performance and all I had was one day’s rehearsal. But I could not handle this role even with script in hand because I couldn’t split my focus and be both director and actor; my head was just in the wrong place all the time—and this would have been just two shows. We had to cancel the performances until the actor returned (for which he was not warmly welcomed back into the company).

Back in the early 1980’s, I was cast in a production of Macbeth at a small theater in TriBeCa where I had done some previous work. A few years earlier, I’d played Don John in a production of Much Ado About Nothing there that had been wonderful from all perspectives—it was excellently cast (if I do say so myself) and well directed; the costumes and set were handsome and well built. It was even a very happy production: everyone got on and we were all well looked after and respected by our fellow artists and the production staff. Strangers in the audience were enthusiastic and complimentary—even another actor I didn’t know who stopped me while we were working together on a film location and made a point of telling me how much he’d liked the show. (The mere fact that he’d recognized me was flattering!) In sum, it had been a terrific experience. So when the same director asked me take a part in Macbeth two years later, I didn’t hesitate. The difference was that this director, and I’m deliberately not naming him or the theater (which is now defunct in any case), was also going to play the title character. Now, Macbeth is a complex play and the character is a huge part (almost 30% of the play, statistically), so I had serious concerns about the same guy taking on two such substantial jobs, directing this script and playing the lead. (He was also artistic director of the theater so he had additional duties as producer.) I also wondered how he’d direct himself, since the Thane’s in almost all the scenes, but he had taken on an assistant director, a man I didn’t know yet.

Well, to make a potentially long story short, it was a disaster. This actor-director proved the axiom that if you try to do two jobs simultaneously, you’ll end up not doing either one well. When he was directing, he, wasn’t on stage with us acting. When he was acting, he wasn’t out front directing. The assistant director wasn’t good at seizing the reins, though I don’t know if that was because he wasn’t a strong enough personality or if he hadn’t been allowed to wield any authority. The ultimate outcome was that our Macbeth had trouble learning his lines and business and the rest of us were deprived of a focused director. The three of us who were playing Ross, Macduff, and Malcolm, who all knew each other (and our director/lead) fairly well and respected one another, felt so adrift in rehearsals that we took ourselves off after hours and rehearsed our scenes together, especially the “England scene” (act 4, scene 3), on our own time. (After we opened, all three of us experienced friends and acquaintances who told us that the England scene was the outstanding moment in the play—and no one knew that we’d worked on it independently.) It’s a terrible thing for actors to do—almost unethical, like bringing in a private coach without the director’s knowledge. But we felt we were protecting ourselves artistically and had no choice. This was not a happy experience in contrast to Much Ado.

A number of years later, I was doing a grad school project that involved seeing as many Shakespearean productions in New York City as I could get to. One company’s Hamlet appears to have been another case of this kind of vanity production. (Again, I won’t name the director, whom I’ll designate D, or the theater.) Co-directed by D, at the theater founded by D, with lights and set by D, and starring D, the production demonstrated once again the folly of directing yourself. In law, the maxim is that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client; in theater, a director who casts himself is himself the fool—the actor’s likely to be incompetent.

(A little more about D: He also taught acting, wrote plays, translated plays of Chekhov, and adapted prose works for the stage. He often staged these himself or acted in them or both. D started his theater six years before I saw his Hamlet—he takes credit for editing the text as well—and during that time staged 10 of the troupe’s 15 productions. D’s bio didn’t indicate in how many of those productions he’d directed himself. Oh, and he engaged in several non-theater pursuits as well: short-story writer, reporter for his home-town newspaper, and photographer—a veritable jack of many trades. It’s worth noting that D’s co-director for Hamlet also appeared on stage: he played Horatio—not an insignificant role itself. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.)

Many difficulties, as I described in my Macbeth, can occur when a director casts himself: the show around the actor-director falls apart because he’s not out front to watch what’s going on on stage, or his own acting never matches his co-players’ because he’s devoting his talents to the production and not the role. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and the title character is the biggest role in all the playwright’s works—almost 40% of the more than 4000 lines. Under even the most propitious circumstances, it’s a monumental undertaking just to direct Hamlet or to play the title character, usually considered the Mount Everest of theatrical parts for men (and even the occasional woman). To venture both at once is tempting fate. Usually, as in the this instance and the earlier Macbeth, the result is a combination of these.

The clearest evidence for this split attention was the pacing of the work. The show was slackly paced: long pauses between lines were filled with an actor’s silent reactions. In one scene, Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why they have come to Elsinore. Here’s how that exchange (act 2, scene 2) went in D’s staging:

“Were you not sent for?” asked D as Hamlet.

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Is it your own inclining?” the prince insisted.

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Is it a free visitation?”

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another.

“Come, deal justly with me: come, come; nay, speak.”

Pause. The courtiers looked uneasily at one another. Then Guildenstern said, “What should we say, my lord?”

The moment, which should have taken perhaps ten seconds, took over half a minute. Not being out front to note this, D, whose co-director, like the one for Macbeth, seemed not to have helped, allowed himself and his cast to engage in scene-study acting where time and other performance considerations are put aside while the actors explore the inner values of each beat, each line, even each word.

Within D’s own lines, there were also drawn-out, William Shatneresque breaks. He read many lines like this:

“Would I had met my [. . . break . . .] dearest foe in heaven
“Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!” (act 1, scene 2)

“There’s a divinity that shapes our [. . . break . . .] ends,
“Rough-hew them how we will,—.” (act 5, scene 2)

At first, I thought D was using some idiosyncratic phrasing pattern, though the pauses didn’t seem to be “reaction” takes and I saw no meaning in them. Finally, I decided that D just didn’t know his lines. My first clue came in the second ghost scene (act 1, scene 5), when D’s Hamlet admonished Horatio that “There are more things in earth and heaven . . . ,” reversing the order of those famous words. Even a half-conscious theater pro would never make that mistake! Later, when D delivered Hamlet’s advice to the players (act 3, scene 2), which I used to use as an audition speech so I knew the words pretty well, he made a number of mistakes. After I got home, I checked the script and found that D changed Hamlet’s words in many other speeches, too.

(My family lived in Germany for several years when I was a teenager. My father, who’d learned German as a child because his grandmother spoke only German in her home, told me with great amusement that the German translations of world literature he read as a boy, including the plays of Shakespeare, were often labeled “übersetzt und verbessert”—translated and improved. Maybe D believed that’s what he was doing: improving Shakespeare.)

Splitting his focus between acting and directing, D apparently couldn’t bring the necessary concentration to bear on either task. Unwilling to give up either the role or the directorial reins, he ended up with a 3½-hour Hamlet with a big hole in the center. I’ve expressed reservations about playwrights who direct their own scripts—my experiences with that set-up hasn’t been good, either—but the problems engendered are different. I don’t doubt there’s also an element of vanity in a writer’s decision to act as her own director—no one else can do justice to my words—but playwrights don’t often also run the theaters—aside from D, Emily Mann at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre is the only one I can think of, and she was a director before she started writing plays—and that’s where vanity piles upon vanity. The leader of the revival theater, D, and my Macbeth director all were artistic directors of the companies where they assigned themselves to direct the plays they selected. The revival-house director, though he takes on many jobs, doesn’t cast himself, but the other two gave themselves permission to take the leads in their own productions and, because they also ran the theaters, had no one who could effectively say them nay.

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 Paul 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.]

12 September 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Waterfall

By Kirk Woodward

[My friend and frequent ROT contributor, Kirk Woodward, and his wife, Pat, recently returned from a short trip north to a popular and famous natural wonder. He told me it had been a remarkable experience and he had some thoughts on the visit and the sight that he wanted to mull over and then try to articulate. His articles for ROT always having been interesting at the very least, I welcomed the offer to share his ruminations with readers of this blog. As you will see, he not only didn’t disappoint, but has a few cogent and quirky ideas to impart. ~Rick]

* * * *

"Keep in your mind," the theater set designer Robert Edmund Jones wrote, "some image of magnificence." What kind of image, exactly? He wasn't thinking of brilliant set designs, that's for certain. What he was thinking of, I believe, were natural wonders.

*

There are some things so American it's hard to believe, and some of them are in Canada. Case in point: think of a getaway site, and what comes to mind? There's the beach, of course, and the mountains, and all the places where George Washington is supposed to have slept. All these have various incarnations – which beach, which mountain, which historical marker? But there's only one waterfall that we're all on a first name basis with. That would be Niagara Falls.

*

Quick question: where is the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River in the United States? It's in the center of Paterson, New Jersey, where the Passaic River overflowed so disastrously after Hurricane Irene. Even in good times, it’s quite a sight after a heavy rain. It's not Niagara Falls, though, maybe because there's no Canadian side to it. It's also not surrounded by hotels. It's quite an historical area – Alexander Hamilton is intimately associated with it – and well worth a visit the next time you're in Paterson. But I'm pretty sure it's not the first natural wonder that comes to your mind.

On the other hand, there's a sort of magnetic pull to Niagara Falls, a pull that people have felt for literally centuries. There appear to have been tourists at the falls by the mid 18th century. Today tourists number in the tens of thousands daily, and Niagara surely is the most referenced honeymoon destination.

My wife Pat and I have been married for twenty-seven years, and we honeymooned far from Niagara Falls (we went, actually, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts). But when circumstances combined to give us a free weekend, fewer children at home, and a chance to travel, just the two of us, where we headed was Niagara Falls.

*

What's in a name? The word "Niagara" is so familiar to us that we may not wonder where it came from. I always assumed it was an Indian name, and that apparently is true, except that it’s not clear which Indians we’re talking about. The name may come from the Niagagarega Indians (as the French called them), or it may be Iroquois (a town called "Ongniaahra", supposedly meaning "cutting a point of land into two"), or it may be Mohawk (referring to a neck, like a neck of land).

One wonders how many honeymoon couples arrive at the falls still figuring out what their names are supposed to mean.

*

I got my driving directions on the Web, and followed instructions like a dutiful child. And we got there. My failure to study the map closely, however, meant that I didn't realize that, in terms of my mental geography, Niagara Falls is upside down.

There's a website somewhere that features "upside down" maps of the world, so that, for example, what we think of as the North Pole is actually the South Pole, and Antarctica and Australia are the north most continents. Those maps give me vertigo.

There's no logical reason I can think of why this should be so, because "north" is just a name we’ve assigned – we could just as easily call it “south” or “hast” or “Timbuktu.” I, like most of us, am simply accustomed to seeing the "North" pole (an arbitrary name for it) at the top of the map.

In the same way, my mind is programmed to assume that Canada is “north of,” and therefore “above,” the United States. As a result of this belief, I pictured the Niagara River flowing north to south from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.

Ah, you say, but doesn't Lake Ontario's name associate it with Canada, and isn't Canada north of the United States? Yes, that's correct, which means that the Niagara river flows north.

To add to the confusion, at Niagara Falls, the Canadian side of the river is actually south of the US side.

This fact means that when I looked out of my hotel window on the Canadian side at the river flowing right to left in my view, it was actually flowing south to north, and not north to south as I believed it was.

I find in this turned-around experience a useful lesson for honeymooning couples. Never be certain you've got the geography of things straight. Surprises are always possible. Emotions, and socks, may not always be where you think they are.

*

Miles before we see the falls, we cross a bridge. In the distance, a giant column of smoke. "There's a huge fire over there," Pat says. "There may be a huge falls over there," I say. I'm right. What we see, miles away, is the spray from the Canadian side of the falls.

When we get to our hotel room, we look out the window and there's the entire Horseshoe Falls laid out before us, much of it obscured by a giant pillar of spray. Things aren't always what they seem.

*

Fancy meeting you here! Niagara Falls is portable. Ten thousand years ago it was almost seven miles upstream – that is, south (not north) of its present location. It's eaten its way through the rock inch by inch, foot by foot, and of course it continues to do so, although the rate of erosion is slower these days, because half the volume of water that used to flow over the falls is now diverted, through huge tunnels, into hydroelectric plants – at night, three quarters of the water is missing.

Because of erosion, the history of the falls is partly the history of buildings that fell down, and often into the river, when the ground under them weakened and finally washed away. You can see what remains of a number of these structures – pieces of walls built into the cliff sides. We've had an effect on the falls, but nature always wins. Change happens.

*

Thanks to my inability to follow simple directions, we took a rather lengthy drive through the American side of the falls before we found the bridge that goes to Canada. Traffic is absolutely abominable in tourist season, on both sides of the Niagara River. There's no speeding in town; you just can't, and the tour busses make the congestion even worse. On the other hand, imagine being a tour bus driver.

Anyway, I apologize for offending anyone, especially with so little information to back up my opinion, but to me the American side looked like a beach town, without the charm. What I saw was, mostly, dives. I was not impressed. On the other hand, I hear that the park on Goat Island, between the American and Canadian falls, is a lovely place, and you can walk down the side of the American Falls – we saw people ascending and descending the stairs along the waterfall all the time we were there.

But Canada! The Canadian side is as built up as the American, but it looks much less seedy, and the riverfront itself is lovely, with stone walls, grass and trees, numerous lookouts, and a corner of the sidewalk, right next to a well-designed lodge, where you can stand beside the falls as the water plunges over the cliff. You can walk down to this level of the hillside, or take a nifty little train car called the Incline that hugs the side of the cliff.

*

More on Canada: my wife and I have recently gone on a binge of watching Canadian entertainment. First we watched the wonderful TV series Slings and Arrows, and were particularly taken by the Canadian actor Paul Gross and his wife Martha Burns. We followed Gross to the TV series Due South, and on to a number of movies. Gross, who will appear with Kim Cattrall this coming season on Broadway in Noel Coward's Private Lives, is a fine actor with remarkable charm and a deftly humorous touch. Many of the pieces he appears in, particularly Due South, have as a theme the nature of Canadians – their patience, their calmness, their all-around niceness.

Our visit to Niagara was the first trip to Canada for both of us, and we expected it to at least in some ways resemble the Canada we had seen on TV. Our first encounter, however, was with a Canadian customs official at the bridge over the river, and he wasn't charming and he wasn't humorous. He seemed offended that we were going to Canada at all, and mystified that we were there for a weekend for pleasure. Why that fact surprised him, I can’t begin to imagine. He definitely had not been hired by the Chamber of Commerce. People aren't always who you assume they are.

Canada – the nation, Canada – owns the casinos on its side of the river, and a classy bunch of casinos they are. On the American side, at night, you see a tall building lit up more or less like, well, a slot machine. This is a casino operated by a Native American tribe. The metaphors for couples going to the falls are piling up, and this one involves taking a gamble.

Also – we have to face it – the Canadian falls is much more impressive than the American. It's shaped like a horseshoe, it's much larger, and it isn't half covered with rubble. Some years ago, engineers actually stopped the flow of water to the American Falls to remove the rubble, but they couldn’t. Make of that what you will.

*

How big are the falls? I have a hard time seeing it in itself; I need a standard of comparison. I always found myself first looking at a person, then at the Falls. People look pretty small in comparison.

Another way to compute the height of the Falls is in terms of buildings. The Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls is sixteen stories tall; the American Falls, seventeen. Out there, that's a tall building.

Still another way to get an idea of the magnitude of the Falls is to go to the top of the Skylon Tower, a 520 foot tall observation tower on the Canadian side, and look at it. You see the falls the way you'd look at it on a map. Just remember that north is south, and vice versa. Anyway, the view is something. Seeing the falls – itself of great height – from a great height encourages one to take the long view.

I had difficulty wrapping my mind around one of the oddest geological features of the falls known as the Whirlpool. The Niagara River rushes from the falls, down the gorge, south – I mean, north – into a sort of rock cul de sac. Finding no way out, it dashes against the rock walls, whirls around – sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise – and finally plunges out another channel. I couldn't exactly see this process taking place when I looked into the Whirlpool, but I believe the people who say it's so. Sometimes life makes your head spin.

*

Across the United States, the name Frederick Law Olmstead frequently comes up. He was unquestionably the greatest landscape architect this country ever produced. Olmstead believed that natural areas could be both developed and preserved. His first major completed project was Central Park in the city where I work, New York; he designed the parks in Louisville, Kentucky, and his firm designed Cherokee Gardens, the area in Louisville where I grew up; and his concern for the development of the area around Niagara Falls led to the creation of the first state park in the United States – the Niagara Falls State Park.

In tourist season the falls are illuminated from the Canadian side by giant spotlights with shifting colored gels, and on weekend nights there are fireworks. Our first night there, we walked down by the river about ten at night, and the area was filled with people laughing, talking, marveling. Entertainment doesn't always make one really happy. But this isn't just entertainment. This is Niagara Falls.

*

No account of the falls would be complete without mentioning that periodically people go over them, deliberately or accidentally, in barrels or just in clothes, for better or for worse. It is painful to dwell on the folks who decided to kill themselves by going over the falls, or who died when they accidentally fell in. Slightly better to think of those who went over the falls deliberately, with the intention of surviving, in what we might call a Leap of Faith, and survived (they didn't all). Much better still to think of the child who went over the falls wearing a life jacket, and was rescued by the boat called the Maid of the Mist in the pool at the bottom. Rescues do happen.

*

On our one full day at the falls, on a Saturday, we decided that the best way to see the sights in the area, especially considering the difficulty of driving anywhere, was to take a bus tour. Over six hours we rode south of – that is, above – the falls and saw the old hydroelectric plant and several amazing houses along the wide expanse of water that turns into rapids and then into the Falls itself. Then we walked into a tunnel under the falls, and watched the water crashing by from behind it. On down the river toward the North, we visited the lovely Botanical Gardens, the Whirlpool, and finally took the obligatory cruise on the aforementioned Maid of the Mist.

The company that runs these boats (they’re all called the same thing, and distinguished from each other by Roman numerals) has been in business for over a hundred years, and it knows how to operate an attraction. I thought we'd never get on a boat, the lines were so long. Instead, we got on the next boat, dressed in our biodegradable blue rain hoods. The ride goes past the American Falls – the best view we had of it while we were there – and past the relatively tiny Bridal Veil Falls next to it, and then on to the Horseshoe Falls.

The reason you wear a rain hood, as I'm sure you know, is that as you pass along the Horseshoe Falls you get very, very wet. I took off my glasses, which wouldn't have helped even if they'd had little windshield wipers on them, but at the center of the Horseshoe Falls, there's not much to see except water anyway. Tons, ages, worlds of water. When we got to the very middle, facing the Falls, I felt as if my brain were being rewired.

An image of magnificence, and it’s not a bad way to spend a honeymoon, either – getting your brain rewired.

07 September 2011

“It's Time to Retire 'Kabuki': The Word Doesn't Mean What Pundits Think It Does.”

By Jon Lackman

[A little over a year ago, a friend sent me a column from Slate, the on-line journal. At the time, the word Kabuki was making the rounds in political punditry as a term meaning ‘affectation’ or ‘pretense’ and the columnist, Jon Lackman, thought it was being overused by the chattering class. (The word Kabuki, though derived from three Chinese characters that mean song, dance, and acting skill, as a whole means ‘something abnormal or askew’ in the sense of deviating from the ordinary. Kabuki, therefore, actually means ‘off-beat performance,’ something deliberately outrageous.) I think my friend sent me the column in part because I’d studied about Kabuki and liked it as a theater form; I imagine he thought this particular article would amuse me. He was right. I’ve been waiting for a suitable slot in the ROT schedule so I can share it with the readers, and now that we’re about to lurch into another presidential campaign season, I suspect the word may have another burst of popularity among political commentators. Lackman’s original column appeared on Slate in “The Good Word: Language and How We Use It,” a regular column in the journal, on 14 April 2010 (http://www.slate.com/id/2250081/).]

Judging from op-ed pages and talk radio, American pundits know a lot about Kabuki, the 400-year-old Japanese stage tradition with the Lady Gaga get-ups. Health care reform recently brought Kabuki to mind for both Rush Limbaugh—"what you have here is 'Kabuki theater' "—and New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "[I]f I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit." For The New Yorker's George Packer, all the capital's a Far Eastern stage, and all its men and women merely players. "I looked for answers outside the Kabuki theatre of Washington personalities."

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done." But there's nothing "kabuki" about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I'll have you know, is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it's nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it's far from empty and monotonous. As the scholar A.C. Scott has written, a great Kabuki actor's performance will "contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition." Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabuki concerns not the present so much as a "dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious," to quote critic Shuichi Kato.


Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have "an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate . . . and policy making is little more than a process of collusion." For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

But how did Kabuki, one of Japan's most revered arts, come to signify loathsome fakery? Kabuki escaped derision only so long as no one had heard of it. The Japanese initially considered it too difficult to export; indeed, seeing a Kabuki play cold is like tuning into Lost midseason. Consequently, the word didn't appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan's government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. As historian Barbara Thornbury has written, "spectacular, larger-than-life kabuki was seen as having the potential to reignite America's nearly hundred-year-old romance with exotic Japan." This concept, alas, failed miserably. Although America's urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.

According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabuki acquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, "[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan's kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki." Six months later, Taylor struck again, "Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes' political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and 'had mentioned it informally to the president.' "

Writers have enlivened their prose with Kabuki ever since. Usage increases whenever Japan is in the news for disingenuous behavior—as in the early 1990s, when it turned out that Japan's go-go economy was an elaborate sham. It's been cropping up most recently due to the Toyota recall, which has made some Americans question the Japanese car company's commitment to safety. "Toyoda Is Wary Star of Kabuki at Capitol," blared the Wall Street Journal. The word is also on the ascendant whenever fakery seems particularly rife in American politics. Kabuki loves itself a Senate nomination hearing.

It may seem P.C. or peevish to ask writers to resist kabuki. (Is Kabuki resistance itself Kabuki?) The request is impractical, I admit. If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can't be trusted to use it properly, who can? This is one of those writerly words that is helpfully absent from ordinary conversation, that says, "Stand back, pundit here!" (Slate writers, by the way, have also abused Kabuki—repeatedly!) But how would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers’ quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet? How many Americans today steer clear of actual Kabuki (it is regularly performed here) because of the word's reputation? And there's a final reason to ditch it: Posturing is far too tepid an indictment of contemporary American politics. I'd sooner opt for Grand-Guignol, which Wikipedia aptly defines as "graphic, amoral horror entertainment." It is seppuku time for Kabuki.
© 2011 The Slate Group, LLC

[Back in November 2010, I published a column on Kabuki theater, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” followed by the republication of an old review I’d written on the performances in New York City of the Grand Kabuki company in 1985 (1 and 6 November 2010 on ROT, respectively). In the first article, I said of the theater form: “Kabuki is a world of wonder—a world of poetry, color, spectacle, grace, energy, and artistry.” That’s a far cry from the implications about which Lackman is writing above. At the end of my 1985 review, I asserted, “Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.” I think, like Lackman—who seems to know Kabuki himself—that most Americans who toss around the word derisively have never marveled at an actual Kabuki performance. I’ve been in and around theater most of my life, perhaps as long as 55 years as spectator, actor, director, teacher, and writer. I was on my second grad school go-round when I first encountered Kabuki, so I was no novice to theater—and I fell madly in love with the performance form immediately. It is, in my opinion, one of the most astonishing and remarkable forms of art—not just performance—I have ever experienced. For those of us who know the art, misusing its name as dismissively as do the pundits Lackman deplores is more than unfortunate and misleading. It’s a mark of ignorance.]