A mask is a facial representation worn by performers and exists in a continuum with puppetry, which often represents the same characters (Harlequin, Punch, Devil, etc.). Emigh (1996, 3, 7) theorizes masks as “transitional objects” that bridge gaps through strategies of play and argues that though in the west the mask is “generally regarded as a cosmetic disguise,” in some non-western areas the mask is “an instrument of revelation, giving form to the ineffable and providing a nexus between the individual and communally defined forces.”
In social, ritual, and theatrical masking, the mask is a “liminal” in Turner’s (1969) sense of the word, doing things the face cannot. Masking normally involves an animal/humanoid head representing a human, animal, ancestral, divine, or demonic figure. In social use the mask is often seen as hiding the reality of the animator underneath, and this mask is most customary in western usage in the post-Renaissance period. In this mode of thinking the mask is conceived of as a “trick” or “lie.” However, in ritual and theatrical use in Asia, Africa, and Oceania, the mask is often seen as a tool meant to reveal an ideal that the material world masks. It represents a hidden and greater “truth.”
The mask transforms the face, helping the wearer signify grotesque, animalistic behavior or inspiring awe. Social uses of the mask invite freedom from everyday decorum. We see masks used in rites of reversal, which may range from the medieval festivals of fools to the modern carnival or Halloween mask. The mask of the devil, animal, ghoul, or clown on the common man eases everyday constraints. Authority is disrupted, sexual and animal behaviors exalted, and death and destruction are put temporarily at bay by the anonymity of the carnival mask. The Fastnachtspiele of Germany or the English Whitsunday appearances of horses, phallic clowns, and cross-dressed men are European models. By temporarily reversing social mores these aberrations may reinforce the nonholiday hegemonies of class and culture. These “safety-valve” uses of the mask may allow the lower-status person (commoner, child, woman) to put on the mask to critique the higher-status one (aristocrat, adult, male). Half masks allow verbal critique. Full masks may invite the mime of sex and mayhem. Mask may also enforce social hierarchy through awe. Male secret societies have sometimes used masks this way. The duk-duk dancers of New Guinea were members of secret societies who wore cone-like masks to visit those who defied the mores of the group. Ku Klux Klan hoods seem an American variant of such a masked society. In such examples, only the initiated (insider males) can wear the mask; audiences (women, children, outsiders) remain passive observers of the power of the image.
As ritual use the mask is popular in shamanic traditions: altering the performer, it allows the viewer to visualize the spirit, illness, or ancestor for whom the shaman/ medium temporarily speaks. The thovil exorcist of Sri Lanka dances 18 demons/masks of disease in his healing rites, diagnosing the “devil” which beset the patient. The elaborate costumes of the teyyam trancer of India transform the spirit medium, who then is possessed by the god. Representations of ancestral or totem figures allow groups from northwest America; north, south, and southeast Asia; Melanesia; and Africa to commune with animal or spirit worlds, for social cohesion, ceremony, or healing. The mask visually “others” the performer, making it useful in ritual performance. Even when groups abandon shamanic beliefs, traditional masks linger. Lion dances continue in Buddhist cultures without the exorcising power they once held. Alligator and reptilian figures (naga) remain important from India and China through the Pacific. Deer and horned masks are associated with helpful fertility in Scandinavian, Khmer, and southwest American (Yaqui Indian) celebrations. Horned masks with their phallic associations in Christian Europe, however, became linked with devils. Ritual trickster types, which may have color imagery of dark and light or white, appear in both the theatres and village ceremonies of south and southeast Asia. Their iconography and coloring may link to both traditional puppet clowns of Europe and the commedia dell’arte.
The transformative possibility of the mask has made it a useful theatre device, allowing an actor to play multiple roles. The use of masks is strong in theatres that prefer a solo artist. The dalang (puppet-master or masker) of Java and Bali is traditionally conceptualized as a solo performer (though in contemporary times multiple performers are the norm). The five major masks of the topeng cirebon of the north coast of Java represent the five directions (the cardinal points and the center), the five ages of man, the five elements (earth, fire, water, air, ether), etc. Voice, movement, character traits, etc., are associated with each mask. Dances allow the individual performer to understand the correlations between the microcosm (dalang) and the macrocosm. Though the performances of the present are theatrical rather than ritual, ideas of a solo artist using diverse masks to portray a story remain strong where Hinduism and Buddhism have migrated. Indonesian topeng (mask) theatre, Japanese noh, Korean talchum, and Thai khon are important mask theatres where mask dancers use multiple masks to tell culturally central stories. The mask image, not the physicality of the performer, defines the character. One performer presents many characters via the mask image.
Greek theatre found masks similarly useful, allowing three actors to play multiple roles. The stylized expression could be “read” over the distance of the amphitheater. Grotesque masks were used in Greek and Roman comedy and the commedia dell’arte of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries favored masks for clowns and old men, while the more realistic ladies and lovers were unmasked. The wart-marked, pug-nosed Harlequino and the sharp-nosed, jowl-cheeked merchant Pantalone dominated the stages of Europe before realistic tastes unmasked them in the 1800s. These characters have sparked other explorations of mask work in the acting training of twentieth-century western teachers like Jacques Lecoq (France) and Carlo Mazonne-Clementi (Italy). But a preference for faces correlates with the current western orientation toward secularism and realism. Theatre masks can represent demons, gods, and animals. They are useful for letting us see ourselves as better or worse than in real life, and work well with music, dance, and poetic flights. Masks make the wearer appear bigger and rougher, or thinner and more refined. But when the aesthetic involves individual psychology, everyday speech, and representation of the real world, the actor’s face and not the mask may be more appropriate.
- Emigh, J. (1996). Masked performance: The play of the self and the other in ritual and theatre. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Kapferer, B. (1983). A celebration of demons: Exorcism and aesthetics of healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Lommel, A. (1972). Masks: Their meaning and function (trans. N. Fowler). London: Paul Elek.
- Oreglia, G. (1968). The commedia dell’arte (trans. L. Edwards). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1961).
- Slattum, J. (1992). Masks of Bali: Spirits of an ancient drama. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
- Teele, R. (1984). No/Kyogen masks and performance. Claremont, CA: Mime Journal.
- Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.