“Masks have served humankind for centuries as artistic instruments, educational tools and have often reflected and magnified human nature while revealing the inner desires and fears of the human heart. However, as we stand in the 90’s we have little or no need for masks. Theatre has developed and moved swiftly, parents and schools educate children and humankind no longer feels the need to see their true feelings interpreted and portrayed by performers. Masks and mask work must take their place in the relics cupboard as quaint antiquities. They simply cannot withstand the break neck speed of the 90’s- they have lost their appeal and relevancy.”
As society dives headfirst into the 21st century one cannot deny that there are a number of apparently frivolous concepts which are being sacrificed in the name of technology. Peripheral ideals and out-dated innovations such as LP’s, tie dying and the ozone layer are being rightfully pushed aside as the world makes ready for bigger and better things. But the question arises, should masks be included within this list of irrelevant notions? To fully comprehend and reply to this one must have a detailed knowledge of mask throughout history, its educational, theatrical and entertainment value, and most importantly, its current appeal and relevancy in the eyes of today’s society.
To completely understand and appreciate the entirety of mask and the impact it has made one must first know something of its origins and history. It is not surprising that the birth of mask is most apparent in the same country that is credited with the parentage of drama itself, Greece.
Ancient Greek theatre is most renown for its Tragedy and Comedy, including works such as Oedipus Rex and The Wasps. Playwrights such as Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were capable of ‘enthralling their audiences and moving them to strong emotions- apprehension, compassion, sorrow’ and joy (EXTENDED STUDY: MASK). But it was their use of mask that warranted them their success. There are two main components within Greek theatrical mask work, that is the actors and the chorus. The Actors would wear masks to define the general category of person to be portrayed. The mask would also be shaped into an emotional position thus revealing the outcome of the play from the beginning. The mask could also be tilted up or down giving different shades of the one mood. The chorus, however, was the backbone of all Greek theatre. Their demeanor and integrity was the product of a visually unified entity through mask. The combination of these effects led to a dramatically enhanced performance. Overall it is obvious that mask was a crucial element to the development of Greek society.
For centuries Mask has also been used in tribal traditions. Initiation, celebration, marriage, birth, history and death are all examples where the mysterious qualities of mask have shaped and shifted civilisation. ‘Masks appear in the context of periodic celebrations connected with the ancestors, with the mythical or historical origins of the people, with the critical moments in communal work, or with the events of group-life such as initiation and death.’ (EXTENDED STUDY: MASK) In a variety of primitive ceremonies mask is used to ‘invoke a spirit’ (EXTENDED STUDY: MASK) where the mask wearer will become the entity, not just a representative of it. This form of mask work revolves around a transformation event. ‘Masks extend the concept of possession and performers believe themselves possessed as the mask takes over their identity.’ (EXTENDED STUDY: MASK) Mask itself was the central point within the development of these tribal civilisations; it represented the maturation and succession of the individual and was a crucial component to their daily life.
During the 16th Century Mask unveiled a previously unseen and unprecedented facet of its ever-expanding territory. It was known as ‘Commedia dell’Arte’. ‘In certain fiestas the very notion of order disappears. Chaos comes back and licence rules. Anything is permitted… Respectable people put away the dignified expressions and conservative clothes that isolate them, dress up in gaudy colours, hide behind a mask, and escape from themselves.’ (COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE: AN ACTORS HANDBOOK) The Commedia era was undoubtedly the largest impact that a single mask genre has ever made, for it was the first time that mask had been used in a situation that didn’t revolve around a ceremony, god or religious aspect. The Commedia Mask’s of 16th Century society were instantly recognisable to the people of that time; such was the popularity and familiarity of Commedia. In that, the common people were aware and involved with the masks, so they were able to relate towards them. An example is the wart or boil commonly found upon Arlecchino’s face, it is representative of the poor people and their inadequate survival conditions. Masks will often stereotype the bearers through the use of symbol, colour, size and decoration. This is where the main aspect of comedy was most apparent in Commedia. Il Capitano, for example, is often portrayed with a very large nose, which is in fact, a phallic symbol. The colour scheme, consisting of half black and half white immediately relates to the audience the two sides of Capitano’s personality. The first being an apparently strong minded, brave individual, and the other, more truthful one, is representative of his fear and anxiety. Evidently the power and value of the mask is what has sustained the Commedia art form till today. Its undying worth and importance from the past is another example of the endurance and impact of mask throughout history.
Mask in today’s society is currently struggling for it’s rightful recognition. Few, if any contemporary dramatists have explored the possibilities and powers of mask as a central commodity on stage. Playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Eugene O’Neill have incorporated mask as an alienating device in some of their plays, most notably, “The Good Woman of Setzuan” (1941) and “The Great God Brown” (1926), but is this meager mentioning by long dead playwrights sufficient to preserve the magnanimous art form known as Mask? The answer lies within the shrouded artistic circles of modern dramatists. To these people mask will never lose its appeal and relevancy. Although it unlikely that mask will never captivate the entire public over three centuries again, (not unlike Commedia) but the educational, entertainment and shock value of it will continue to be the primary tools at the disposal of actors, directors and other artists. It is evident that the preservation of Mask is not only a worth while cause but also an essential one. That the consequences of a maskless society which is unable to interpret and translate it’s own inner feelings of happiness, despair, courage and fear are too great. The question therefore is not what can mask offer society as it enters the 21st century, but what would a 21st century without mask, offer society? ‘The basic power of mask is that of a mechanism for ordering the world, a capacity at once to transform and yet to fix identity. From such an ambiguous process masks derive the historical endurance to withstand the shift of their symbolic references and to come through to the present day in still recognisable form.’ (MASKS: THE ART OF EXPRESSION)
Ultimately, masks are a crucial part to past, present and future society. Although they are not represented or respected as much as they deserve to be within our modern day civilisation, they are however still as profound and mysterious within the different cultural, educational, historical and theatrical instances as ever. It can be safely guaranteed that within it’s own artistic circle, Mask will never die.
‘The mask is a terrible, mysterious instrument. It has always given me and continues to give
me a feeling of fear. With the mask we are on the threshold of a theatrical mystery whose
demons reappear with static, immutable faces, which are at the very roots of theatre.’
John Rudlin, “Commedia dell’Arte: An actors Handbook’
Bertolt Brecht, “Assorted plays”
“Masks: The art of expression”