The many faces of the mask

By Alex Michon


'Though I still turn up my coat-collar in a lonely way and am always looking at myself in mirrors, they’re only habits and give no clue at all to my character, whatever that is. The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally isn’t it? Everything else is artful.'
Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats


If life is a cabaret old chum then surely our invitation to join in comes with some obligation of performative invention. Costuming our personas we engage in the existent psychodramas of our day-to-day existence. Joining in the show of life we dip into our own private dressing up box of pretending, trying on a personality for size and deciding which face we’ll show to the world. In fact the term ‘personality’ popularised by the psychologist Gordon Allport derives from the Latin term persona, meaning mask. Even though the theory of personality is still widely debated within psychological circles, this Latin derivation seems to imply that far from being ruled by purely instinctual urges or Freudian Ids, we are able to make a conscious choice and enact a dramatis personae of our own becoming. This fictional making up and putting on of self-ness finds its metaphorical mirror image in acting.

The two classical masks associated with drama are the symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, with Thalia representing Comedy and Melpomene, from the Greek word to sing and dance, the Muse of Tragedy. Thespis, according to Aristotle, was the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor playing a character instead of speaking as him or herself. He was reputed to have introduced a new style in which a singer or actor performed the words of individual characters in the stories, distinguishing between the characters with the aid of different masks.

In mediaeval England the theatrical tradition of the dumbshow was a masque-like interlude of silent pantomime usually with allegorical content that referred to a play’s theme. The most famous example is the play within a play performed by Prince Hamlet and the players for King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

While the verb ‘to mask’ means to put on a mask, for the purposes of disguise, concealment or to assume a different personality, ‘masque’ was originally the French spelling for a court entertainer, and in Tudor England masques were extravagant dramatic productions of high art. At this time performers were often gentlemen and the theatre was regarded as something vulgar, thus it was usual for them to be disguised by wearing masks to hide their real identities. Yet both terms have about them a whiff of something dark, sinister and inauthentic. Something of this disdain for disguising (an earlier word for the art of acting) remained well into the early 20th century when dramatists and actors began to start de-frocking the masquerade, contradicting Thespis by going back to the idea of speaking in one’s own voice, not only returning to the real but also breaking through the hierarchical artifice of spectator and spectated.

In the 1930s Bertolt Brecht, came crashing through the decadent confines of Das Kabarette, attempting to erase the invisible line between audience and actor. He would constantly remind the audience that what they were seeing was merely an illusion, he was anti–artifice with the actors and acted at, in it together. Another example of participatory collusion is the current vogue for immersive theatre. This involves audiences being led through underground caverns, abandoned warehouses, caravans or even the whole of Islington to take part in theatre as performance art. The more complete, convincing and claustrophobic the environment the better, as reality is realigned, and the discombobulated audience become a physical participant in the drama rather than a passive recipient of it.
Yet the pull of pretending remains a powerful potion. Perhaps it is because we ourselves would always prefer to be someone else, younger, older, thinner or prettier, that we are so drawn to artifice over truth, to the bogus over the bona fide. If we cannot see the end means of the production of our own desiring, how can we make ourselves over into our own special creations? It’s a theory that the cosmetics and perfumery industries know only too well. Selling the dream that this month we will be mostly painting our eyes with violet voltage, our mouths in bewitching coral and our cheeks with light bronze and after and because of this we will be beautiful.

‘Our external symbols must always express the life within us with absolute precision: but how could they do otherwise, since that life has generated them? Therefore we must not blame our poor symbols if they take forms that seem trivial to us, or absurd, for the symbols themselves have no control over their own fleshy manifestations, however paltry they may be: the nature of our life alone has determined their forms. A critique of these symbols is a critique of our lives.’
Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

The apotheosis of pretending, the mirabilis of make-believe, was the golden age of Hollywood. From the silent era to the end of the 1950s, the spectacle of cinema was a dream machine for the masses. In the dark cathedrals of film, audiences could watch with wonder as the most beautiful, sparkling icons with their rustling gowns and their glittering jewels played out their dramas, looming out of the screens like some gorgeous Lilliputian giants, larger than life and more beautiful. Backstage of course, the press agents and studio heads kept the dream alive, erasing out any deviancy, so that the gay Rock Hudson was forever photographed with a succession of lovely leading ladies. More conservative than the Catholic Church the studios conspired to keep their stars permanently sexless in their private lives whilst perversely urging them to ooze sex on the screen. Gloria Swanson said: ‘The public didn’t want the truth and I shouldn’t have bothered giving it to them.’ As Angela Carter reminds us the most difficult illusion is that of being oneself.

Carter is the glam rock feminist who famously unpicked many (male dominated) stereotypes in her magically realistic novels. Although her polemic was always fierce her writing shimmers and dazzles like so many of the Biba-esque sequined outfits of the 1970s, the time in which her writing first came to the fore. Michele Roberts in The Independent said: ‘She was critical of conventional femininity, which she saw as a blend of masquerade and of male impersonation’. In this she was joined by the post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler best known for her seminal work Gender Trouble.
Butler considers gender to be the effect of ‘reiterated acting’, a cultural construct sustained by ‘the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions.’ She considers drag performance, the playing of being a woman, as the most honest expression of its performer’s intent since in drag there is a ‘one’ who is prior to gender ‘who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.’

Acting naturally again came to the fore with method acting, influenced by Constantin Stanislavski and created by Lee Strasberg. It is a system in which actors draw upon their own emotions and memories in their portrayals, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and affective memory. The Method alumni, Brando, Monroe, Newman, Dean, et al, all brought a new raw physicality and existential angst to the silly business of dressing up and pretending to be someone else. But it was Montgomery Clift, not technically a Method player, who best personified the psychological unease and straining to simultaneously be both oneself and other. Clift’s acting revealed itself through very defined movements. He was often very still, which highlighted his every tic, muscle and eye movement. His performances evoke a kind of emotional choreography. As Marcello Mastroianni, quoted in Movie Talk, said: ‘He was a restrained performer with the inner tension and those ancient, melancholy eyes... his presence so unobtrusively strong that it lingered even when he was off-camera.’

Clift also did his fair share of stereotype bashing by introducing a new version of maleness, one which was not all about Brandoish blue collar brute strength, but more about intellectual sensitivity and in this he mirrored the male crisis of uncertainty after the end of the World War II. And of course he was breathtakingly beautiful, his turmoil counterbalanced by his beauty made him all the more fascinating to watch. Elizabeth Taylor who worked with Clift and became a great friend said, ‘I loved acting but I never took it serious till I worked with Montgomery Clift. I saw how involved he was with his whole being, he could make himself shake and he would not stop when the director called cut. There was such energy coming out of his body I can only assume it was like sitting next to an electric chair ‘ Taylor herself chose a more restrained path to performance. Unlike Clift she decided not to put herself through such an emotional rollercoaster to get to the essence of a part. ‘In rehearsals I have never cried’ she said ‘I wait until the cameras are rolling.’ Richard Burton, her lover and co-star on Cleopatra said, ‘I was watching her and she seemed to be doing nothing I thought she had had a stroke or something, but when the cameras were on and I saw the rushes I was amazed it was all there.’

It’s a witch’s trick, this personification of otherness, this melding of the inner and the outer, this kaleidoscopic mirror game of doubling, which is further emphasised when an actor takes on the role of a real person. Costume and make up play their parts, but is there something else we look for in these facsimiled performances? A diabolical resurrection maybe, or merely a voyeuristic peek into the lives of the rich and famous? Sam Wollaston writing  in the Guardian about the BBC4 drama Burton and Taylor noted: ‘I honestly don’t know how accurately they portray Taylor and Burton’s off screen relationship… I’d say that while (Helena) Bonham Carter and (Dominic) West might not uncannily become Taylor and Burton they certainly get their claws into their souls.’ Interestingly, in the biopic, Burton says of the movie that started it all off between them: ‘I was acting Anthony but she was Cleopatra’

Although we may not all have the right profiles to be film stars, may not all spend time in draughty church halls am-dram-ing away on any given Sunday, the essence of performance is, as Butler and Carter have shown and psychologists have argued, a part of what we do to be who we are. Whether natural, coquettish, contrived or dug up from some archetypal blueprint, this is all we have with which to mask or reveal the walking shadows, the strutting and fretting of our brief hour upon life’s stage.




Masques is a series of collaborative exhibitions by
Transition Gallery, London & Galerie d'YS, Brussels

10 October - 24 November 24 2013 - Galerie d'YS, Brussels
14 - 19 January 2014 - London Art Fair - Art Projects, London
25 January - 16 February 2014 - Transition Gallery, London