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Disguise as a means of discovery

Disguise as a means of discovery

In this blog Anna Wheeler contemplates the theology of mask–wearing. 01/09/2020

The wearing of masks has not been without protest – a small piece of material makes for protection, annoyance, discomfort, hostility…or just steamed up spectacles. I’m not here to make a case either way, but I am interested in the existential impact.  The word ‘mask’ has seemingly negative connotations – to hide, conceal, obscure, frighten and disguise – all things which theologically and relationally, are apparently not healthy.   Etymologically it probably derives from the medieval Latin masca, meaning ‘witch, spectre’, and is influenced by the Arabic masḵara ‘buffoon’ (which I associate with professional clowning having worked with one – a professional clown I mean).

On a practical level, you can’t explicitly smile at someone, and cannot see if they are smiling at you.  I felt fairly frustrated the other day when I couldn’t offer a smile to someone on the bus who I felt might have benefited from one.  I instead tried to smile with my eyes and nod my head.  I imagine I looked like I had a twitch but the risk was worth it as the person remarked to me ‘what a day’.  I muffled a reply, ‘I know the feeling’.  So, some sense of empathy and bond was achieved in the sweat and chaos of the busy bus, with lips and speech near invisible.

I’ve always been intrigued by masks, having a background in theatre, and really enjoy wearing them – on stage.  I’m suddenly freer, less inhibited and agree with Oscar Wilde, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’  However, it is horribly ironic of course that the masks we need to wear at the moment are the very element preventing theatre from functioning and I am under no illusion that they are ‘helpful’ to theatres right now; they are not, and the situation for theatre survival is very serious. 

Jacques Lecoq was one of the major figures of Western theatre in the second half of the 20th century, known especially for his teaching of movement, play, improvisation, masks, language, comedy, and tragedy. A key element for him is the neutrality of mask – in his 1987 seminal work Theatre and Movement of Gesture he states ‘The Neutral Mask is the basic mask that drives our understating of all other masks. It is through the Neutral Mask that we are able to wear other masks…It helps us discover the space around us, and the rhythm and gravity of things.’  According to him, masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. There are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche. The mask creates a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious.  A mask is an unconscious other, which we are not aware of – it is hidden, but, essentially, present.  Unconscious, in this instance, does not mean absent; it means ready and open.  The layer of the neutral mask is paradoxically an unveiling because it opens up the space of the actor and makes them available to receive others – it is the starting point for stories of ourselves and of others.  

Where does this all come from? The Greeks in the 5th century had only the word prosopon (‘face’ or ‘countenance’) for mask; in Latin it means ‘person of the Trinity’ – an outward manifestation. Greeks later developed the word prosopeion to separate false faces from real ones, but no such distinction was made in the age of Sophocles (c. 496 – c. 406 BCE), when ‘putting on a face’ was not a negative act of concealment but a positive act of becoming. In the theatre, a mask is part of a costume in which you find your character – you find who you are via ‘the other’, and are also equal to other mask wearers. Thinking about the above definitions, Lecoq’s use of the mask, and having worn a number of different masks myself on stage and off – I’d even venture to argue that a mask has the possibility of allowing you to become more who you are because it makes you more self–aware; more alert to being seen – and the act of seeing.

Now, I guarantee that no one on public transport or in a shop sweating under a mask will think of them the way I do above.  But looking into a sea of mask–wearing–humans has made me feel we are all so totally ‘other’ and by virtue of this, can also be all so totally in community.  Lecoq reminds us that there is unity in this shared uniformity, giving conformity a positive spin: ‘There are three masks.  The one we think we are, the one we really are, and the one we all have in common’.  It’s not as if we all knew and understood each other pre–mask wearing; you could argue it was quite the opposite.  Salley Vickers in her novel The Other Side of You remarks ‘how little of another person’s reality is visible to us. We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen. And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity’.  We miss a person’s face and their expressions, but access to their inner self, or soul – the essence of a person, still takes work – as it did before we wore masks.  In a 1967 essay, ‘Learning to Live’, Thomas Merton, the Trappist Contemplative, explained what he understood by the word ‘soul’. For Merton, it was ‘the mature personal identity, the creative fruit of an authentic and lucid search, the radical self that is found after other partial and exterior selves have been discarded as masks.’

But how do we actually see things, truly?  In John 12:40, Christ remarks ‘lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart‘, indicating we have to go beyond just looking on the surface and go deeper.  Theologian Zoe Bennett talks of the distinction between Eye sight and Heart sight – or between Sight and Insight – the latter is to be sought.  I had to work harder on the bus to communicate, in order to compensate for half of a lost face – but the eyes, as windows to the soul, were the best route in for understanding.  There is revelation to be had in hiddenness, and this is the challenge of faith.  In 2 Corinthians 5:7, we walk by faith, not by sight.  Theatre training taught me much and one thing it has in common with faith is that concealment and apparent disguise need not be sinister; knowability is not always all it’s cracked up to be – disguise is often a means of discovery whether on stage, in faith or with other people we have little knowledge of – we just have to be able to sit with the mystery and participate. 

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 Image: photoagent/

Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler

Anna was formerly Operations and Events Manager at Theos. She was a part of the Theos team from 2015 to 2023. She read Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and later gained a PG Diploma in Theatre.

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Posted 1 September 2020

Coronavirus, Identity, Theatre


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