by C. W. Marshall

Saving Face
The mask is, in many ways, the defining element in Athenian stagecraft and performance. Following a victory in the dramatic competitions, an actor might dedicate a mask to the god Dionysus, and in later times iconic masks became emblematic of the genres of tragedy and comedy. For generations, scholarship did not proceed beyond this recognition of the importance of the mask. Modern work, however, has begun to explore the many ways that masks create meaning on the stage, employing tools from a wide variety of disciplines. This study has followed a number of trajectories, some of which are represented in this special issue of Didaskalia on the Greek mask.

Masks are a crucial component in how an ancient audience perceived dramatic character. The interaction between the actor and the mask creates a unique combination that is presented to the audience. In a 2001 production of Rhesus, directed by George Kovacs in St John's Newfoundland, the four choristers wore identical full-face masks, built off the same mold and painted identically. As far as the audience was concerned, though, as each mask melded against the hairline and was seen against the torso of the actor wearing it, otherwise identical masks became unique personas. This is not precisely analogous to the Greek situation of course, where masks were full headpieces combining a face and a wig, but the observation remains pertinent: an undifferentiated face when attached to different wigs or hairstyles can create a unique effect. Indeed, the same mask when worn by different actors can appear very different. It is the combination of the physical actor's body with the mask that creates the special effect, and it is that same combination that brings the mask to life, when it is worn by an actor aware of the practicalities of masked performance.

Masks also operate as part of a network of theatrical resources that creates dramatic meaning in performance. Within large, open-air theatres, the mask adds scale to the characters created, even if they did not always enhance audibility. Masked acting is intimately bound to the dimensions of the performance space, providing the primary visual markers for an audience to interpret the characters before them. I have elsewhere argued that the faces presented by Greek masks are very plain—that what an audience saw was a generic face, which becomes a unique individual through the combination of performing actor and text. It seems likely to me that if Greek theatre had developed on a smaller scale (with an audience measured in the hundreds instead of in the thousands), that it would not have employed the full headpiece-masks that did evolve: sympotic performances were unmasked, as were the mimes of the Hellenistic/Roman performance traditions.

Much of what I have learned about masks has come through experimentation. Working with masks in performance, one learns how crucial neck movements become. By directing actors in masks, one discovers how a certain head tilt can convey heartbreak. By sculpting masks, in clay and then in papier-mâché, one realises how sturdy the paper towels typically found in university washrooms become when stiffened with white glue. As a piece of art, as a tool for the actor, and a reification of character—as all of these things, the mask gains meaning from familiarity. Comparison with other masked traditions is often instructive, and can be informative both for similarities as well as for differences. The Italian commedia dell'arte, Noh and Kyogen from Japan, and other living masked theatrical traditions represent a comparison group that can provide a means for further insight into how the ancient mask works. The trajectories discussed above are equally relevant to these performance traditions too, though of course observations made about someone wearing a Balinese mask are not necessarily applicable to someone wearing a Haida mask, or a reconstructed Greek one.

Anthropological approaches inform philological choices, and living theatrical traditions provide a comparison group that, if nothing else, can point to the problems in one's academic approach. All of these elements combine as scholarship seeks to understand the mask from a variety of disciplinary approaches. Since its inception, Didaskalia has been exploring the mask and what it means for ancient theatre today. A virtual reconstruction of the Greek tragic mask by Animagic from 1997 is still to be found on the Didaskalia website: this reconstruction makes many choices, but by examining those choices an informed reader can better articulate his or her views of what should be there, what seems to work (or seem historically probable), and what does not. Contributions to this issue combine traditional academic work with experimental attempts to understand performance dynamics of masked acting, and stand beside a manifesto for the full mask and the many possibilities that it represents. Not all the views offered for the masks here are commensurate; but the disagreements and differing emphases enrich interpretations of how we think of the mask contributing to ancient theatre. The possibilities of the mask are only beginning to be understood.

The original idea of an issue of Didaskalia dedicated to the mask came from Hugh Denard, and it is he who provided most of the demanding and essential editorial work as this issue achieved its final form. I am grateful for all of the time he has invested in putting this issue together. I am also pleased to join with him in welcoming Dr Jane Montgomery Griffiths, of Monash University, as the new Senior Editor of Didaskalia, as of January 1, 2008. She will be the third person to hold this position, after Sallie Goetsch, Founding Editor of Didaskalia, and Hugh Denard. Dr Denard will remain with Didaskalia as Editor (Resources), continuing to offer his expert knowledge to the technical side of the operation. I am grateful to him for all that he has brought to Didaskalia during his tenure as Editor, and I know we both look forward to exciting new directions for Didaskalia in the future.

21st December 2007