Just Leather Masks?

Commedia & masks

  • The beauty of the leather maskWhen I finished my course at the International School of Comic Acting, the maestro Antonio Fava gave us all a mask as a token of completing the course. Mine, which I treasured, was of Fosca, or Death, who has appeared frequently in our plays ever since until the mask literally fell apart. Masks were an important part of the great period of commedia in the 16th & 17th centuries. Their function was to do two things: Firstly, to embody the essence of the character archetypally; that is, each one was instantly recognisable within that particular culture (a very important point!) as a certain kind of human being – for example, il capitano with his phallus shaped long nose was the bombastic womaniser who was a coward at heart. Secondly, they diverted the audience gaze away from the domineering nature of the face with all its complex messages to the whole body, because in a sense the ‘mask’ was the whole body. This allowed all the body to ‘speak’. Even the feet could smile or frown.
  • Is the leather mask crucial therefore to a commedia type theatre language today?First of all, it needs to be understood that only some of the actors wore leather masks. The Lovers (or inammorati ) never did. Nor did Pedrolino (who eventually became Pierrot and the ‘white-faced clown’ of circus). Nor did Scapino, Peppe-Nappa (our logo image & inspiration), Mezzetin, the Signora, Tartaglia (except large spectacles), and the unmasked version of Il Capitano called Il Cavaliere, among other characters. The zannis (servants), among them famously Arlecchino (Harlequin), Brighella, Fritellino, and Pulcinella (who became Mr Punch), and the old men (or vecchi ) such as Pantalone (Pantaloon) and Il Dottore (the Doctor), of course, all did, although as commedia dell’arte actors specialised in particular characters and have brought their own whims and foibles to them there are many cases where even these characters didn’t wear masks – for example, the great Martinelli probably played Arlecchino without a mask as Dario Fo has often done in modern times.
  • What happened to the masks? What happened historically, in fact, was that as time went on and the influence of commedia dell’arte spread across Europe further away from Mediterranean culture the masks were used less and less until they almost became extinct. But the white faces and other stylised forms of make-up were continued and developed by ‘modified commedia dell’arte’, such as the Night Scenes, harlequinades, pantomime, music hall, ballet, the many specialist clowns of circus, Vaudeville (with the flood of Italian exiles to America) and the influence of English music hall entertainers like Fred Karno, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin, and eventually silent movies. And, of course, through the silent movies there came an inestimable degree of influence on popular comic actors down to the present day. All of these forms are the ancestors of the commedia dell’arte & yet they have largely not used leather masks.

Why did the leather masks almost disappear?

  • A cultural shift – We, as passionate advocates of commedia dell’arte today, must remember two things from this potted history: Why did the masks almost disappear? And what was even more important than the masks in this history? The masks disappeared because they were rooted in a Mediterranean tradition of masked performance going back thousands of years through Italian Atellan farce, Phlyax comedy, Ancient Greek comedy to primitive religion and magic where the mask as a face covering was the essence of the ‘magic & mystification’ which set the performer or adept of the tribe, apart – and the further away from the Mediterranean performers went the less and less the masks’ meanings could be understood.
  • The search for more depth – Instead there came into play the very simple fact that if you cover up the face, which after all in most human interaction expresses probably 80% of our communication, with a mask which doesn’t have roots in your culture the performance won’t speak to you. So, sensibly, the leather masks were discarded and the more accessible ‘white face’ (or pantomime blanche) and other make-up styles, which did the job of universalising the face’s meanings just as well as the masks did (and were in any case always a part of the original commedia troupes), became more popular – and, what’s more, did so without losing the nuances of the real face and the possibilities of more subtle contact with the audience. The two key functions of the mask – to allow the face to be ‘archetypal’ & to divert attention to the whole body remained the same but more subtlety or maybe more appropriate messaging became possible. The key point is that the ‘mask’ is not just the leather bit that goes on the face & never was, but the whole figure of the performer.
  • Does this mean that masked theatre doesn’t work at all in non-Mediterranean cultures? – The work of companies like Vamos and Trestle demonstrates that great subtlety, beauty & raw power can be achieved using masks, but the point is their imagery is rooted in our culture based as it is on several hundred years of ‘cartoon-isation’ in the North European media. It is about appropriate language.
  • How does it work for The Rudes? – With the exception of Fosca whose imagery really is universal, we choose to use ‘white face’ as that part of our masks, because of in particular the very familiar place of circus in our culture. We complete the mask with the cartoon-isation of what we call ‘wig-hats’ specially made for us by several designers over the years & by bright coloured cartoon-ised clothes. We can achieve what traditional commedia did just the same but in a way more suitable for theatre directed at ‘our audiences’ in mainly rural communities in Southern England.

The Talking Body

  • The eloquence of the ‘whole mask’ – One thing was never lost in this history and is the truly important thing about commedia dell’arte. If you cover up the natural muscle patterns of the face in any way then the responsibility for conveying meaning is distributed to the whole body. So from the very beginning commedia dell’arte actors always had a complex vocabulary of body language, what Antonio Fava says was ‘composed of clear and highly-expressive gestural character’. This was further reinforced by two things: Working outdoors body language needed (as it still does) to consist of bold gestures to communicate across space and in the face of background noise – and as troupes crossed language boundaries or turned to their advantage the plethora of Italian regional dialects the body was made to express what spoken vocabulary could not.
  • The movements needn’t always be ‘big’ – Finally, it is assumed that ‘gestural language’ always needs to be ‘big’, especially outdoors. Often small but pointedly ‘gestured’ movements of the feet and hands were (and are) powerful expressions of meaning – and in commedia dell’arte the language of movement is as complex and subtle as spoken language. It is worth looking at maybe a dozen of Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 movies for Keystone & seeing the difference between Chaplin’s own very subtle & carefully crafted movements in comparison to other actors in the films who have come from a Vaudeville background which where ‘big & bold’ was popular, or maybe it was just Mack Sennett’s direction? Either way Charlie stood his ground eventually & we see the resulting beauty, expressivity & depth in his use of his own body. While the masks, which added deep layers of meaning for the original Mediterranean audiences who could understand them, disappeared, the vocabulary of body language has remained the most expressive part of the tradition.
  • Modern times – Even a cursory look at Charlie Chaplin along with the extraordinary Buster Keaton and, of course, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, countless music hall performers such as Little Titch,  Dan Leno, George Robey & Max Miller & film & television stars like Norman Wisdom, and even Lee Evans and Rowan Atkinson today shows commedia dell’arte’s future inheritance, unwitting perhaps though it may be on the part of some of these performers. John Cleese was not the first actor to realise that legs are funny. Nor Lee Evans. Nor for that matter Jacques Tati & Max Wall. Music Hall kept ‘whole-body acting’ alive in the face of Naturalism and held the door open back to the commedia dell’arte. Of course, all good acting is ‘whole-body’ the difference is in the distribution of weight. Commedia distributes it evenly through the body; naturalism is dominated by the face. The mask tradition makes a point of covering up the natural face and replaces it with an abstraction & universalisation, the fundamental principle of archetypal character creation. Bad naturalism is just neck up & therefore dead acting.
  • One final point – Naturalism never did hold a mirror up to Nature. Shakespeare was talking about character rather than body language. Even the naturalistic experiments in the late 19th & first half of the 20th Centuries culminating in the ‘kitchen sink drama’ of the 1950s didn’t get any nearer to nature’s appearance. The domination of TV & film (different kettles of fish altogether) on acting styles hasn’t brought us any nearer either. In fact it has been a hinderance. The point is theatre is about inner truth; that’s what matters. Commedia teaches us that they are ‘just actors’ and it is ‘just a play’.

Click here to learn more about improvisation in the commedia dell’ arte.