Thoughts on Theatre: Masks

Every Halloween in this country we see people, adults and children, in costumes, sometimes including masks covering their heads and/or faces. We all know basically what a mask is, yet it is an object we hardly ever consider. Maskaphobia is the fear of masks and it is considered a real phobia that can be diagnosed. Yet, others see masks as fun, even trivial and silly. And, in some cultures, masks are revered, as both significant storytelling tools and in some cases as the vessel for important spirits or gods in sacred rituals and ceremonies. And, in Western cultures, when an actor takes on a role, it is also called a mask.

The meaning of the “mask” has been described by John Emigh in his book Masked Performance: The Play of Self and Other in Ritual and Theate (1996) as a kind of continuum. On one end of the scale is the idea of playing different roles in daily life, such as son, father, employee, citizen. In cases like these you are “yourself” but you are a version of your/self. Are you different when you are with your friends then when you are with your parents?

On the other end of this spectrum are individuals so possessed of a different personality that they are in some kind of state, perhaps a shaman possessed by a spirit. In between these two ends of masks in daily life and full on possession are degrees of the mask. Perhaps slightly more adventurous than masks in daily life would be the use of masks in common holidays, such as Halloween. Someone in a Freddie Kruger mask for Halloween does not think they are Freddie Kruger or particularly pretend to be him. Further on down the continuum we might encounter “actors” in the usual Western sense of performing. Someone being Hamlet in a play is definitely portraying their character (more than any Halloween mask) BUT is not somehow psychotically confused between their self and their character. They are wearing a mask, a mask of Hamlet. Thinking of Emigh’s continuum helps us see that masks are in a way a normal part of life but also can in some situations be very powerful tools or events.

Finally, it is this ability to make your identity ambivalent, to be both yourself and another, that makes masks so powerful. They are a powerful part of theatre, and you can see why this ambiguity might sincerely frighten some people. After all, if the identity of someone around you is fluid and ambiguous, then so is the reality around you, perhaps, and so is your own identity.

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