The Power of Masks

Yoroboshi mask, used in the Noh drama of the same name.

One thing I am always happy to see in theater is the use of masks, and maskmaking is something I would like to do a lot more of.  Many of my favorite kinds of theater use (or used) them–Balinese dance, Noh, Greek tragedy.  (I might also count face painting as in Kabuki and Beijing Opera.)  Masks have an inherent, mysterious power, recognized by all cultures, and instantly create a kind of unreality, a separateness from the everyday world.  Wearing a mask can completely change an actor’s performance style–facial expression now fixed, they must focus on body movement and voice.  This can lead to the broadest, silliest clowning, or to the intense subtleties of Noh.

Barong Ket, probably the most famous kind of mask from Bali.

Masks can be very beautiful, often spectacular, but they can often be uniquely unsettling.  I remember seeing a mask of Pangpang, from the Balinese Calonarang dance-drama, when I was a little kid; I think Pangpang is actually a comic figure, but I don’t think anything has ever scared me more.   Expressionless, absolutely neutral masks are often spooky, especially in the contrast between flat expression and passionate emotion.  And especially interesting to me, any mask without eyes or a mouth–a mask that covers and hides the face instead of creating a new one–are eerily compelling.  Veils and shrouds and hoods pulled down low–anything like that which effaces the individual’s features, while often oppressive in the real world (as in hooded prisoners), on stage paradoxically gives the wearer an undeniable authority and power.  (For a ready example, think of Darth Vader.)

Unsettling mask from Undercover's Spring 2005 collection.

 Obviously masks are not appropriate to all productions (wouldn’t really work for Shaw), but they’re a wonderful theatrical tool when they are.

Walu mask from Mali.

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2 Comments

Filed under Réflexions sur le théâtre

2 responses to “The Power of Masks

  1. Freddie

    This blog is so good looking.

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