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Reflections of a working writer and reader




There will be time . . .
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; T.S. Eliot

Masks are void of all substance. They hide identity and project the image of another personality.

In tribal societies the mask is used to protect the individual from isolation, and to unite him, say, with his ancestors. Masks are used extensively to connect the individual and the tribe with curative and spiritual beings. The Greek drama is famous for its use of masks, and in Japan they were an essential component in the Plays. Eugene O’Neill used masks in his dramas, as did Yeats in the later plays. In dance and drama the wearer of the mask, no matter what the trauma, is left unchanged.

The funeral mask is used to pin down the wandering soul. In fertility rites the mask is used to reinvigorate the present by relating it to the past. Masks are used to prevent, to protect, and to cure, but they can also be liberators. They leave the individuality behind them free.

Masks sometimes confuse: After plastic surgery she didn’t look like a woman of forty, she looked like a woman of fifty-five without wrinkles.

Willy Loman has become uncertain of his identity. He tells us: “I still feel kind of temporary about myself.” His mask is one of loyalty to the firm, the system, the country, and it rewards him with a sense of emptiness.

On a daily basis we use many different masks: Today I have worn the mask of a writer, a sportsman, a father, a friend, a cook, a spectator and a literary critic. Sometimes the masks we choose to wear become too powerful and can take over, witness the mask of the psychopath, the hypochondriac or the fool.

Psychotherapy, I suppose, is concerned with the stripping away of masks. Something like peeling a perpetual onion.

8 Responses to “Masks”

  1. John Matthew says:

    Hi John,

    Yes we do don a lot of masks. Writer, father, husband, lover, and a lot more. Was great reading about it though.

    jb says:  Hi John, I read somewhere that the wearing of many masks can be the benchmark of what we call normality. The wearing of a single mask to cope with all of our eventualities often looks like some kind of psychopathy, or at the very least, a tremendous handicap.

  2. Isn’t what you are describing here merely the definition of “social role(s)”? What you write towards the end of your post seems to partially imply that what just about everyone has to do in everyday life – assume different roles – is done for reasons of camouflaging (is that a word?) intentions? Or did I misunderstand you?

    Great blog, by the way. I enjoy reading your take on things.

    jb says:  Hi Volkher, thanks for your kind words. I suppose what I am primarily concerned with is to define the different roles of the mask. Although it is used to camouflage intentions, i.e. as a disguise, it is also used for many other reasons, including the opposite, to display or advertise intentions. In the way in which I am using it the mask is laid over the ‘social role’ (or anti-social role) as a personal interpretation of what it feels like to the wearer to be living that role. This personal element complicates things further, of course, because there isn’t just one mask, say, for a father, or a believer, or a thief.

    In the end, as a writer, I’m interested in the uses of masks in delineating character. And I’m asking questions rather than answering them in this realm, observing and cataloguing, listening-in to conversations wearing my invisible-man mask.

  3. Yes, I agree. You reference Eugene O’Neill, whose play “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is the one play that somehow managed to really resonate with me somewhere deep down, on an instinctive (gut) level (although it absolutely needs talented actors to pull it off correctly, especially the female lead … and I’ve seen very few that were able to do that). That final staircase scene of the mom in her wedding dress is just ab-so-lutely stunning when played right.

    If you look at his treatment of masks and, in fact, the painful stripping away of those, what you are left with is a powerful portrait of a family upholding an almost impossible truce.

    There’s also “The Emperor Jones”, which makes the stripping away of the mask it’s central theme. It’s a wonderfully symbolic play, tracing the regression (here used in a positive sense) of someone returning to his roots, at the end having to face a God of his culture, standing in front of him/it, stripped naked, sans any insignia of his former colonial experience. Great stuff.

    I could think of tons more, but this has to suffice (your W. Loman example is also a very good one).

    Both are highly recommended if your readers are interested.

    P.S.: I like that “invisible-man mask” reference. I think that’s where good writing comes from.

    jb says: Thanks for the input. It all adds up.  I’ve never seen The Emperor Jones, and don’t believe that it’s produced very often in the UK. But your remarks about Long Days Journey Into Night bring back memories of the play and make me want to seek it out again.

  4. oleblue says:

    The roles we play in life seem to often force people to place mask upon their personalities concealing the true nature of their spirit.

    jb says: True, but that’s not always entirely negative. It might be a blighted life that had to deal without complexity . . .

  5. AndrewE says:

    Arrived a bit late in the fray on this one. but just as an opening aside, The Emperor Jones was done to great acclaim at the Gate Theatre in London last year. Outstanding production indeed. Hearing good things about Spacey’s Moon for the Misbegotten at The Old Vic, hoping to see it soon.

    You’re right John that the practical application of masks is extremely diverse, perhaps as diverse as humanity itself – they are after all the extension of ourselves. But not just any type of extension, we are talking about body modification here, and ultimately about ‘transformation’.

    In thinking about masks, there is a tendency to focus on facial masks, and the face as the primary interface to the mind and persona. But in my short experience of masks, particularly of making them, I find that ‘mask’ pertains to other parts of the body too. Any exterior artifice that allows for the transformation of the ‘self’ into the expression of ‘other’ is for me a mask.

    I would like to go on and elaborate on this, but right now I’m strapped for time. Perhaps this discussion is grounds for a futre blog post or something. In any case I’m just thankful that the debate goes on.

    jb says: Good to see you here, Andrew.  Good point about the mask not being restricted to the face.

  6. georgia mahoney says:

    i think this website is absolutely fabulous.. i simply loved it but maybe this is because i am a lesbion?

    jb says: Hi Georgia, and I thought you were a country.

  7. Cathy @ 3 at 1 Copying says:

    I have to say this is a great site it so different. Don’t we all wear a mask at some stage in our lives I think that the only time that we don’t is when we feel the most comfortable with certain people in our live were can truly be ourselves.

  8. Amanda | Branded Calendars says:

    Everyone wears a mask at some point its a way of protecting who we are, and not letting people get to close to us its a barrier. A mask can also be dangerous to, worn by those that would rather do bad than good.