People have been making masks for at least
10,000 years. The first ones were probably animal masks made from
the skin and bones and teeth of real animals. They were most likely
used to reenact the stories of great hunts, to scare away sickness
and disease and as objects of worship. And, like most masks throughout
history, they would have been highly regarded and kept in secret
and sacred places.
Today, when masks have little importance
to most people beyond Halloween or an occasional costume party,
it is hard to understand that at one time they were among the most
important objects a family or community could possess. Worn during
ceremonial dances and story tellings, these elaborate "false faces"
helped to celebrate the blessing a community had received, to pass
on its history and beliefs, to coax and sometime scare young people
into proper behavior, and to mark important events such as births,
marriages, and the changing of the seasons.
Many cultures have used masks. To name a
few, masks have played a central role in the art and religion of
Africa, Japan, and Bali. Perhaps no where have masks held a higher
position or have been more skillfully and powerfully made that in
North America by the Eskimos, the Kwakiutl and other native people
of the Northwest Coast. Boldly carved in cedar wood, richly colored
and topped off with headpieces of grass and feathers, many of these
works of art were made with moveable eyelids, beaks, and jaws. Their
lips and eyebrows were often covered with copper and their eyes
were sometimes inlaid with shell. The most magnificent of these
creations were the transformation masks, where an outer face would
suddenly swing open to reveal another face which in turn might split
apart to uncover still a third. Expertly manipulated by skilled
dancers, one can imagine the power of these masks as they swayed
and flickered in the firelight, and magically transformed before
the onlookers eyes.
To the ancient Greeks, theatre, oratory and
sculpture were the most important arts; and their clay, canvas and
stone masks were the ties that bound these disciplines together.
As a story device they empowered a single actor to play many parts
simply by changing masks. The expressions of the masks were not
totally fixed, by seemed to change and reveal more with each new
tilt and turn.
Masks were widely used in the bawdy Roman
plays and the refined and beautiful Noh Theatre of Japan. In Britain,
during the middle ages, wildly disguised "mummers", in a precursor
to today's Christmas caroling or Halloween trick or treating, went
from door to door demanding to be let in for fun and games. In Medieval
France there existed the infamous "Feast of Fools" an annual holiday
when priests and church members would take a holiday from their
beliefs, and cavort in devilish papier mache masks called "larvae",
so named for their metamorphic qualities. Commedia dell arte, the
great improvisational theatre of Renaissance Italy, made use of
leather half masks, which gave a player's upper face a distinct
character while allowing him to joke and grimace with his exposed
mouth and jaw.
Today, the mask is not widely used outside
of a few festivals and theatres. The most important of these is
the Bread and Puppet Theatre, whose founder Peter Schumann is the
great mask artist of the 20th century. Besides touring the world
with his stories of protest and hope, he produces extravaganzas
where audiences can sit and watch masked performers and then turn
to see a twenty-foot mask/puppet float out of the woods to dance
and tell its story. As Schumann's work demonstrates, the mask still
retains much of its original power and potential. After all, to
entertain by covering and uncovering the face is instinctual. Just
watch any baby. The mystery of the hidden face and of the mask that
hides it, with its strange power to reveal what it conceals, continues
to hold us in its sway.