Masking the Greeks

As we enter the second (of two) week of rehearsals for our re-mount of The Bacchae, I’ve been revisiting some of the materials that inspired our process when we originally produced this piece in the spring of our fourth season. Perhaps the piece that I returned to the most throughout that process was Peter Hall’s 2000  Exposed by the Mask, an exploration of the form of classical drama and the impact of playing that form.

Hall’s essay on the performance of classical texts focuses (as might be expected from the title of the book) on the mask – interpreted here not just as the physical mask that the actors don, but also as the form, the formalized structure that serves as the “conductor of emotions”. His thesis is not particularly new but it is compelling – he contends that the masks were not simply used because the actors needed amplification (and having stood in the center of the theatre at Epidavros and recited some text, I can tell you they absolutely didn’t), or because the Greeks were a primitive society that could only approach drama through the caricatured enlargement of the human face that a mask provides. Instead, he proposed an alternative:

“They could have used their faces: they had them. But they did not want to use their faces. They wanted to use a mask. Why? I think it is in every case an attempt to know the unknowable, to experience the unspeakable and to enact the repulsive. The mask enables to the audience to contemplate a passion which goes beyond the moment of rejection.” 25

Elizabeth Rimar in the 2009 production of The Bacchae

This is one of the reasons that we elected to have the role of Dionysos in our production portrayed by a mask into which each of the actors steps once. It seemed somehow to presumptuous to have a god who, by his very nature, is manifested many ways, be reduced to a single human form, so we exploded that out as much as we could to try and hint at another aspect of the god – the feeling of possession, of being taken over by a primal life force.

However, as I mentioned earlier, Hall’s book is not just concerned with the mask as a practitioner’s tool, but also as a conduit to the audience – a means by which the viewer of a classical drama can filter and shape human reality into theatre. And it is here that he explodes the definition of a “mask” – no longer is it a piece of costuming that an actor dons, but instead it is the whole experience – the form and content of the piece are also a mask.

“Theatre is a live contract: at each performance, the audience agrees to imagine with the actor. The contract is sealed by the form. It is form that makes the high emotions acceptable or the complex arguments understandable. The form is the style, the metre, the music, the alliteration, the economy – it selects from human reality and gives it shape. It makes art. It makes drama.” (21)

Jen O'Connor in the 2009 production of The Bacchae

And so here I am, again, contemplating the relationship that we have with our audience. A contract, that we will play together – that we will enter the theatre together to live and believe a story that we know is fictional. But also that we will, for the length of time that we are in the theatre, forgo that knowledge. We imagine together.

This is the strength of our art form – the shared breathing space that we create, where the actors and audience are working towards a common goal – the understanding of an idea that is being explored now, at this minute, in a way that it has not been explored before.

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