The human face - and thus the mask - presents a unique concentration of sense organs: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. All clustered in a very small area. And so a mask becomes most alive when its senses appear to be actively engaged in exploring its environment.

There is strong evidence to support the contention that the recognition of the mask is hard-wired into our biology. New-born babies are searching for the human face and registering changes in facial emotions within hours of birth. There are very specific conditions such as prosopagnosia and "super recognition" related to facial recognition. If one stares into the eyes of an upside-down human face one experiences a kind of disorienting "jump" in one's visual perception, rather like that one experiences in certain optical illusions. Suddenly it is not a human face at all, but a kind of monster from outer space.

One should treat a mask with the same respect that one gives to a real human face, handling it gently, not putting it down on the floor or a chair where somebody could accidentally stand or sit on it, and not poking one's fingers into the eyes.

A mask should be larger than the human face. Or smaller, like the Japanese Noh.

There are many superstitions and cultural conventions bound to the use of the mask. In some traditions the mask is always packed away out of sight between uses, and never displayed or hung up on a wall where it would lose its "energy." In some African traditions women are not even allowed to see the mask.

The mask has nothing to do with psychology. It blocks the primary channels of psychological play and insists on a more biologial plane.

One of the secrets of "carrying" the mask is knowing when to hold still and let the mask work for you.

Masks Sacred and Secular

Besides the ritual uses of masks that one finds in many cultures, there are two theatrical approaches to masks which I call the Secular Mask and the Sacred Mask. There is of course a great deal of overlap between the two, but nevertheless, I will will try to distinguish between them.

In the case of the Secular Mask, the mask is what it is. It can be taken at "face value." It does not represent anything, although when well performed it succeeds in creating the visual illusion of becoming something - a human or animal face. The actor animates the mask, and the work needs to be technically skilled and rhythmical. For example, the Commedia dell' Arte.

In the case of the Sacred Mask, the mask functions as an active symbol. It represents its antecedent. The audience accepts the mask as a story-telling convention, and the magic that is experienced is not dependent on a visual illusion, but on the audience entering into the act of make-belief.

There is a resonance to the Sacred Mask that is very similar to the Buddhist prayer flags and temple prayer wheels that are found in Tibet. Every time the flag flaps in the wind, the prayer written upon it flies off to the gods. Meaning is projected into space. Every spin of the prayer wheel reorders the universe. A heightened significance emerges from the enactment of a physical action. In a similar way, the mask moves through space and the story is revealed. The quality of movement is usually slow and sustained. For example, the mask work of "Bread and Puppet Theatre."

(Prayer flags, prayer wheels? The very height of decadence? Hey, we better not moralise about such simple energy-saving appliances. I imagine there are already Apps for your smartphone that will do the praying for you! And why not?)

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010