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Mask-On/Mask-Off, Part II: The Mask

What is a mask? Generally, people think of a mask as a physical object worn over the face to disguise themselves. The mask allows the wearer to exist in a different context, as a different entity. But the wearer of the mask is still present in the entity. The wearer transforms through the mask while maintaining the ability to perceive and respond. Any character that emerges through a mask, no matter how different it is to our day-to-day personality it may be, is still linked to the wearer’s essence. The more we explore the possibility of play in our lives, the more capable we are of truthfully playing a variety of masks. Similarly, five different human beings playing the same mask will find five different personae through it. Different masks reveal different aspects of our selves. The question is how far will an artist allow a mask to take them? How much can an artist give in to the mask, allow it to transform him, and reveal the scope of his own possibilities?

A mask provides a specific lens to perceive the world through. Going back to Commedia dell’Arte, the masks of the old miser, Pantalone, and his simple-minded servant, Zanni, may both look at a beautiful flower and respond differently. Pantalone may speculate how much the flower is worth, while Zanni may want to eat it. One actor can play either mask to reveal different shades of his own soul, and different actors can take on the same mask to reveal the scope of possibilities the lens of that character offers, those shades and possibilities including actions, impulses, responses, etc. Each mask is a means to communicate a perspective on the world, communicable in that an audience recognizes the features of physical mask aligned with the doings of the character.

If the mask is the means toward creative expression, we can explore the concept of mask beyond a piece of leather or neoprene worn over the face. Text in a script can serve as a mask. A musical instrument can serve as a mask. A palette of paints can serve as a mask. Prose or poetry can serve as a mask. A camera can serve as a mask. A mask can be anything that works as a lens to examine the world through a particular perspective.

What is perspective? Perspective is the spectator’s perception. Every living entity has its unique collection of experiences, influences, desires, and tendencies. These create a kind of filter through which they receive and respond to the world. One’s perspective is a collage of that filter and their responses, enforced over time to become habitual and eventually settle in as a world view. If a person has everything handed to them throughout life, they may develop an entitled perspective, or decide not to worry much about anything because in their experience life always works itself out. Whereas, some one who has to struggle for attention in all areas – work, romance, family, etc. – may develop the perspective that life is an uphill climb. 

Certain perspectives appear commonly enough throughout humanity that similar characters begin to consistently emerge. These are archetypes. Many of these archetypes relate to the nature of our desires at different points in life. Essentially, we desire what we need to sustain ourselves and satisfy our natural urges. Our bodies need food and water for energy and sustenance, shelter protects us from the danger of the elements, and eventually we realize our programmed desire to procreate. Every other desire we have ties back to self-preservation, preservation of the species, and preservation of the environment to continue supporting life.

Take the desire for money: Money is a means to an end. The underlying fear behind the desire for money is that we won’t be able to procure food and shelter to sustain and protect ourselves. Therefore, some people focus on making enough money that they no longer have that fear. Eventually, a person may make enough money that they can support a spouse and children without any of them having that fear. A potential romantic partner may be attracted to this wealth because they no longer have to fear being without food or shelter, and even better, they don’t have to fear their own failure to procure them. Hence, people who purposefully “marry rich” and the archetype of the gold-digger. 

While money is only the means to an end, imagine a perspective shaped by the repeated cycle of answering the wanting impulse with money. That’s how money becomes a perceived end, clouding the authentic aim of that wanting impulse. To want is natural. Want grows when it remains unsatisfied or unattended to. Fear is overgrown, disregarded want.

Since money is an established means to those essential ends, it makes sense that a common perspective would develop around a focus on making money. This perspective appears so often in humanity, that it has inspired many archetypal characters, from the ballsy young businessman determined to strike it rich (i.e. Jordan Belfert in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) to the old man who has spent his life hoarding and protecting his wealth (i.e. Commedia dell’Arte’s Venetian merchant, Pantalone). Then, the recurring archetype of the old miser allows Pantalone to re-emerge directly or indirectly over time in such incarnations as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Burns, and countless others.

Each of these characters provides a mask to explore the perspective of the old man who has spent his life focused on generating and maintaining wealth. Commedia dell’Arte troupes designed a mask that evokes the character and inspires the performer to inhabit that perspective. While there isn’t one definitive Pantalone mask, Pantalone masks usually share certain features, such as wispy white hair and mustache, deep set wrinkles, and a hooked nose. Similarly, the character is often physicalized hunched over, perhaps from the countless years of protecting the money bag that hangs from his waist. Over the course of his life, his natural genitalia has been replaced by his purse.

Any performer playing Pantalone is given the chance to discover how they intuitively engage with the world through the perspective that money is the be-all-end-all of life. William Shakespeare played in the mask creating Shylock, adding the piece of perspective from a man who has suffered religious discrimination. Charles Dickens played in the mask writing Scrooge, discovering how a man with his perspective can come to shed his lifelong illusion. The writers, voice actor, and animators of “The Simpsons” played in the mask collaboratively creating Mr. Burns.

Whether it’s a Commedia performer who has spent his entire career playing Pantalone in countless scenarios, or watching Mr. Burns for nearly 30 seasons, our continued curiosity of this archetypal character isn’t the wish for his perspective to change, but rather to see how his perspective plays out in countless circumstances. The archetype of the old miser appears commonly enough in society to be continually worth exploring. If creating art is holding a mirror up to nature, the miser will continue appearing in its reflection portrayed through a variety of masks: Literal masks, Dickens’ pen, Shakespeare’s poetry, Matt Groening’s animation, and so on.

The particular qualities of a mask specify its output. A mask carved to evoke old age will not reveal youth, except perhaps the undying or rediscovered youth of an aged entity. Anything played through a mask of age will propose an entity that has existed for a great deal of time. Similarly, an oboe can only make certain sounds. The choice to orchestrate a musical passage giving the melody to the oboe will evoke something different than if the melody were played on a marimba or a cello. A particular means (the mask) carries certain limitations, but those limitations (suggesting a perspective) combined with present circumstance give rise to all sorts of creative possibilities. I played Feste in Twelfth Night multiple times in my 20’s. A Feste who is wise and perceptive beyond his years can be a fruitful, engaging interpretation of the character, but I look forward to playing him again in my 30’s, my 40’s, my 50’s, and so on to discover how that mask plays with more life under my belt.

With the mask, there are now three ingredients in the creative stew: the outside world, the artist perceiving it, and their chosen lens (mask). Since art is generally intended to be communicable, there must be an intended audience. The audience is a fourth ingredient. Then, it will probably be displayed in a particular setting that may influence how the audience member perceives the art, so the setting is a fifth ingredient. If the creative process was collaborative, then there are multiple artists involved, each of whom add another ingredient given each of their perspectives. Each of those artists may work through a different lens (or have different experiences with the same lens), so now you’ve got the outside world, multiple artists, multiple lenses, the setting, and each member of the audience. Perhaps that’s why it’s so astounding to witness a popular phenomenon. The success of the “Harry Potter” franchise comes as much from the resonance the stories have with all of its readers as from the material itself. How many popular artists became popular years after their creative heyday? Finally, the perspectives of the audience members added complimentary flavors to the overall stew.

Each of our five senses is a lens. Close your eyes and listen to the words of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then plug your ears and watch the staging and movement. You’re perceiving the same story using two different masks: a visually-oriented mask and an aurally-oriented mask. Both of these masks are natural and we are programmed (deliberately or not) to respond through all our masks in particular ways. So, how do we use these masks with intention, to help us articulate a specific expression?

Part III: Mask-On Play

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