Academic journal article Early Theatre

Putting on and Removing the Mask: Layers of Performance Pretence

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Putting on and Removing the Mask: Layers of Performance Pretence

Article excerpt

The simple acts of putting on or removing a mask in front of spectators represent theatrically pivotal moments in the relationships between players and spectators. In those moments of transformation, shared understanding changes. Such changes are those experienced by the performer or spectator within the context of the 'agreed pretence' between player and spectator that are created during performance. (1) The transmitted changes are those which are perceived to be evident to the player and spectator through intended or unintended performed action. (2) These kinds of transition establish the parameters within which new conditions may be developed. Changes of this sort may be literal, practical, symbolic--or combinations of these. Spectator understanding of that which went before is no longer evident and the transformation triggers a new condition which replaces the old one. The spectator is now in possession of new information which permits him/her to deny, refute, or challenge former understandings. Alternatively, the spectator is in a position to acknowledge, confirm, or agree with the changed circumstances.

In this article I propose to examine the fundamental conditions of these pivotal moments and actions through evidence from the canon of English medieval and sixteenth-century plays and the practices of mumming. Because the theatrical or presentational acts of putting on or removing the mask change perceived understandings for personages and audiences, they establish different layers of shared or unshared pretence which influence or condition the developing structure of the play or mumming practice. In addition to referencing the kind of 'mumming' described by Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter as 'courtly mumming', (3) this essay also draws on less formal examples taken from the kind of mumming where participants make 'house visits' and either dance to musical accompaniment or play dice and the more recent practice of performing mummers plays that is reliant on some form of organized and rhyme-spoken text. (4)

I also draw upon eyewitness evidence regarding mumming practice. Although I recognize that these apparently disparate customs and practices differ in eras of time, context, and purpose, they are, and have been, capable of responding to the same kind of moments of transition in donning and removing the mask. Thus, I use evidence drawn from these performed events in their respective periods to explain and analyze the others. The focus of this work is strictly concerned with the moment of transformation and the resultant structural conditioning of plays or mumming in performance. Such simple pivotal moments open up a series of potential layers of pretence from which to develop the theatrical experience of players, personages and spectators.

Throughout, the article uses the word 'personage' in relation to medieval evidence: it replaces any erstwhile reference to the term 'character', for which there is no evidence in medieval records. The term 'character', in its theatrical use, is only recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) from 1664 and its use here would lead to false layers of understanding. Use of the term 'character' in respect of mumming and mummer's plays persons appears from 1777 in John Brand's Observations of Popular Antiquities:

In the North there is another Custom used at or about this Time, which
if I mistake not, was antiently observed in the Beginning of Lent: The
Fool Plough goes about, a Pageant that consists of a Number of Sword
Dancers, dragging a Plough, with Music, and one, sometimes two, in a
very antic Dress; the Bessy, in the grotesque Habit of an Old Woman,
and the Fool, almost covered with Skins, a hairy Cap on, and the Tail
of some Animal hanging from his Back: The Office of one of these
Characters is, to go about rattling a Box amongst the Spectators of the
Dance, in which he collects their little Donations. (5)

Feasibly, therefore, it might seem legitimate to use the term 'character' when discussing named participants in respect of the roles played by mummers. …

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