On Sunday afternoon, eleven students from liberal arts colleges across the country arrived at Carleton College for the inaugural AALAC* Humanities Lab. My lab, “Mask, Character & Myth,” is investigating the function of masks in Greek tragedy. For modern audiences accustomed to small, indoor theaters and the close-up shots made possible in cinema, masks can seem like an obstacle for actors to overcome. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni summarized this view in the eighteenth century: “The actor must, in our days, possess a soul; and the soul under a mask is like fire under ashes.”
The Greeks, however, found tragedy deeply moving, masks and all — it certainly did not seem “soulless” to them. How, then, can we imagine masks, not as a hindrance, but as a catalyst for creativity?
Each of the five members of my lab has chosen a research specialty to explore; mine is the differences between masks for chorus members and those for main actors. Eric Csapo observes that in artistic representations of the theater, chorus members are more clearly identifiable as “actors,” whereas members of the main cast are often subsumed into their new, mythical identity. Consider, for example, the famous Pronomos vase:
Most of the chorus members are talking to each other while holding their masks, officially out of character. The Heracles actor, however, is labelled “Heracles” and, even though his mask is off, it looks just like his actual face; he has no distinct identity of his own. Are mythical figures like Heracles so strong that they overpower their actors’ own identities? How might the mask’s influence over its wearer change, depending on whether it is a choral mask identical to 11 others, or a representation of a unique, legendary character?
Alongside these academic inquiries, we’ve been getting our hands (and faces) dirty in our lab — because why should science students get all the fun? On Tuesday, we covered each other’s faces in bandages to make masks. It can be a little unsettling to be unable to see, speak, or move your face for nearly half an hour, so the unmasked among us took turns reading Winnie the Pooh aloud to pass the time.
On Wednesday, we poured plaster into those masks so that we can now make masks from those molds, instead of losing eyelashes every time we want to try something new.
Now, we’re hard at work making and painting masks for the characters we’ve chosen. I spent yesterday playing with modeling clay in an attempt to make my face look like an old man’s face, since I’m creating masks for Amphitryon and the Heracles chorus.
Art projects were never a strong point of mine, but I’ll make it work eventually…I hope.
Next week, we’ll start actually performing selections from tragedy while masked, so stay tuned — there’s sure to be a wealth of embarrassing and wonderful photos and videos…
*Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges