Lloyd International Honors College

Carnival! Street Masquerade Worldwide

COURSE TEXT: Carnival! edited by Barbara Mouldin, 2004.
University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA. ISBN: 0-295-98426-0

RECOMMENDED TEXT: Mask Makers and Their Craft: An Illustrated Worldwide Study, by Deborah Bell, 2010. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC, ISBN: 978-0-7864-4399-4.

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Deborah Bell, Department of Theatre

Phone number: 334-4076 E-mail: deb_bell@uncg.edu

Writing-Intensive and Speaking-Intensive

Proposed as a General Education-Fine Arts and Global/Non-western Perspectives Course


Communities worldwide have used masks throughout history as a distinctive theatrical art form. Masks offer similar functions to every culture by disguising or hiding the identity of the performer; transforming the performer’s personality into another personality, animal, or spirit; and protecting the performer (as well as the audience) against harm. Also masks possess distinct characteristics and significance within each cultural community’s aesthetic experience. The Carnival street masquerades found in numerous countries invariably utilize such masks and typically reflect distinctive cultural style and values in its costumes as well.

Historically, Carnival street masquerades took the form of pre-Lenten secular celebrations in preparation for the sacrifices required by Christianity’s Catholic concept of Lent. The Latin root word “carnivale” (farewell to the flesh) actually refers to this break with the rigors of the upcoming Lent sacrifices which fostered atonement with Christ. But also many non-Christian communities have celebrated Carnival-styled festivals/rites of passage as an escape from the winter doldrums and as bacchanal parties acknowledging the advent of spring’s fecundity. Frequently, the Christian Catholic traditions of Carnival have blended with these pagan traditions, creating unique celebrations worldwide.

Regardless of the sacred or secular motivations behind Carnival street masquerades, they still encourage ordinary citizens to display personal, cultural and spiritual values (or paradoxical/controversial values) they hold most dear. “Through ritual masquerade, and play, which exaggerate and invert everyday behavior, the celebrations lead people through this time with irony, disguise, laughter, and revelry, helping to ensure a proper renewal and growth for themselves and their communities” (Carnival! 2004). The masks and/or costumes invariably take on whimsical, sometimes mysterious, but always exotic, exaggerated qualities. During Carnival, the most reticent citizen on the street has the freedom to masquerade as a powerful protector, an idealized beauty, King, Queen, or mythic/heroic figure, a mischievous demon/devil, an esteemed ancestor, or satirical clown. Carnival masquerade need not be confused with Halloween masquerade, which has entirely different traditions and occurs more often for children’s events than for entire community celebrations.

During this course, we will survey some of the well-known Carnivals worldwide and explore predominant themes behind Carnival masquerade. Some of the best known Carnivals invariably blend the cultural influences of more than one country, such as the annual Carnival in Trinidad, representing the Diaspora movements of Indian and Chinese indentured servants, indigenous tribes, and African slaves with eighteenth century French and British settlers. Other Carnivals reflect the clash of historical and religious values between dominant and indigenous cultures such as those seen in the Mexican pre-Lenten pastoral festivals or the French Mardi Gras celebrations. Upper-crust seventeenth century Venetian merchants and aristocrats took time to “play” with the surrounding Italian peasants in the street masquerades of Carnivale in Italy and this continues on today with the addition of tourists. Still other spring non-Christian but Carnival-styled festivals such as the West African Yoruban Egungun masquerades celebrate the rich ancestral heritage of a community. African celebratory traditions and characters frequently morphed into new Carnival masquerade versions as African slaves were brought over to most of the countries associated with Carnival festivities.

We will also examine the traditional significance of “masquerade.” “Masquerade” evokes related meanings and images. Playfully speak the word the word several times and you will hear its resonance in a number of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish root words. Contemporary ritual or musical images also come to mind. For instance, the Greek root word “maza” and the Latin equivalent “massa” mean “to knead/to mingle”—perfect images for lively street theatre (Webster’s 1980: 700). Likewise, the connotations of religion and ritual associated with the Catholic mass point to the sacred origins of Carnival. “Mass” also refers to “a large body of persons in a compact group” or “the body of people as contrasted with the elite.” The French root word “maschera” refers to “partial covering or disguise” (or even the contemporary word for the type of makeup used to decorate a woman’s eyelashes), while the Spanish “mascarada” refers to people at “a social gathering wearing masks and fantastic costumes.” And finally, the term “massa” is an old Southern slave term for “master” or “one that conquers the masses” (Webster’s 1980: 700). “Masquerade! What a sublime name for such street theatre, where much of the energy is in playing the slave, if you already define yourself as a princess amongst the masses (Carnival: Culture in Action 2004: 93, citing David Lovelace in The Dragon Can’t Dance). “Masquerade! How exquisitely appropriate for the sort of street theatre considered vulgar and unacceptable by Trinidad’s elite British citizens during much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Carnival: Culture in Action 2004: 97).

How, we will ask together, might Carnival masquerade reveal the public secrets and fantasies of a society, and how might these have shifted over time? How has migration influenced Carnival performances and people’s participation? How have overseas/Diaspora carnivals and re-imagined aesthetic traditions interacted with those from the original homelands as is the case with Caribbean Carnivals. Is Carnival masquerade morphing into a new electronically-based experience representing the global Internet society at-large?

For instance, renowned masquerade designer Peter Minshall has reached international audiences at stadiums, concert-spectacles, and festival performance events such as those at the Pan American Games, the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, a Parisian Bastille Day Spectacle, and a city-wide concert spectacle in Moscow. Until 2004 he worked locally in Trinidad while also producing major international spectacles seen via television by millions of people. Can such televised masks and masquerades be enjoyed vicariously by worldwide television audiences as Carnival-styled celebrations? Can we experience a “global street community” electronically (by television or as Internet images) or does Carnival flourish best in the “intimacy” of street ritual, street interaction and improvisation, and parade?

Is Carnival as democratic as proclaimed? For example, today Carnival celebrations worldwide exclude no one from participating—as long as spectators can afford the price of airfare. Tourists as well as a community’s citizens all enjoy Carnival basically to escape from boredom. The global economy, while volatile, encourages tourism on an unprecedented scale as well as (at least superficially) democratic participation by the elite and ordinary people.

While Carnival (particularly Carnival in the Caribbean and Brazil) has often carried on traditional and ever-present Saturnalia motifs of bare-skinned, muddied youth at dawn or highly decorative, bikini-clad women that acknowledge, accept, and even celebrate our internal devils, it also often functions as an outlet for dissatisfaction in a community and engages with the broader and frequently controversial social issues. The increasingly cosmopolitan nature of Carnival reflects the more complex tensions of our current global society at-large. Carnival celebrations worldwide search for a more profound sense of community and a quest for better appreciation and care for the earth.

Barbara Mouldin in Carnival! lists eleven European and American communities (several blend Asian and African festival traditions) where Carnival remains an important part of the annual cycle of festivities: Laza, Spain; Rural Bulgaria; Venice, Italy; Basel, Switzerland; Basile, U.S.A.; Tlaxcala, Mexico; Oruro, Bolivia; Recife and Olinda, Brazil; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Haiti; New Orleans, USA. The class will examine carnival traditions from five of these areas, using Mouldin’s book as a text and additional readings.

Students participating in the course, inspired by Carnival celebrations they have explored during the semester, will create their own Carnival street masquerade. Emulating the community groups who typically create Carnival masquerade worldwide, the class members will form committees of three or four people who will collectively choose cherished personal and cultural values that reflect cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions they want to convey with their masquerade and masks.

Like participants of Carnival masquerade worldwide, students will create their masks and masquerade with easily acquired supplies from home, closets, or backyards in addition to mask making materials provided by the instructor (who will use part of the course development grant to purchase such materials.) Each committee will have approximately $50 to supplement their masquerade creation and will select specific inspirational music which will accompany their ritualistic parade/charade—perhaps at an Honors Coffee and/or International Programs festival event? To help establish a sense of community, they will distribute unique “street-food” morsels to the audience (or at least to the judges) as they make their grand entrance.

The invited judges comprised of several international exchange students as well as one or two staff members from the International Honors College and International Programs will select the masquerade that most effectively clarifies its personal and cultural values in its presentation. The judges will base their assessment on the success of the masquerade, and promise not to be unduly swayed by the street-food offerings. After the UNCG Carnival masquerade, the judges will confer, tally their votes, and announce the award-winning masquerade. Photos of the award-winning UNCG Carnival masquerade parade will appear in the News & Record, along with insightful, admiring quotes from the judges and the masquerade’s committee members.

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

Demonstrate the ability to write clearly, coherently, and effectively about Carnival street masquerade as a distinctive theatrical art form and be able to write about the masquerade’s cultural implications and values.

Prepare a written report that will require at least two drafts (with feedback from the instructor) which will analyze and interpret information on a Carnival-styled masquerade. The student will present information gathered for this report in class.

Answer detailed questions that will assist in planning and designing a masquerade that reflects relevant personal and cultural values for the group. The first draft for this writing assignment will take place at the beginning of the semester. The final draft will be completed before the final weeks of the course. The final draft should reflect insight acquired from exploring worldwide Carnival traditions during the semester.

Write an essay with two drafts that briefly describes cherished values that reflect cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions. Masquerade committee members will eventually share these essays and explore points of common ground as inspiration for their own masquerade experience.

Maintain a journal that will include class notes and descriptions of class activity and how the activity enhances the student’s awareness of masquerade as a theatrical art form. The instructor will periodically review the journal three times during the semester.
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

Present information on a Carnival traditional celebration that continues to thrive today in the form of Carnival celebrations and street masquerades. The student will orally describe cultural and aesthetic values and traditions inherent in the Carnival masquerade celebration s/he chooses by presenting visual data in addition to written material.

o Each student will receive specific feedback related to the following criteria from class members and the instructor using short forms ranking the above criteria in terms of excellent, good, satisfactory, and needs improvement. The forms will include a small space for written suggestions and comments as well. The student should be able to incorporate suggestions for improvement in his/her second presentation as well as in the final masquerade parade participation.

o Criteria are as follows:

· Organized points related to mask style stated clearly and concisely

· Expression of the topic at hand with enthusiasm and energy

· Use of appropriate eye contact between the speaker and class members to help maintain interest

· Ease of demonstration using visual aids to assist in describing aspects of masquerade style

· Topic presented within the time allocated

· Related points made by other members of the group (extemporaneously incorporated when appropriate) to compare and/or contrast points made by   the speaker


30 pts: One fifteen minute oral presentation on Carnival street masquerade presented in class and written as a formal report. (two drafts)

5 pts: One fifteen minute oral group presentation that explores values for the group and the individual

15 pts: One essay on personal and cultural values based on cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions. (two drafts)

10 pts: Journal representing weekly notes/comments. Oral evaluations for class member presentations. Separate sheets briefly describing characteristics of Carnival for different countries.

10 pts: Written responses to questions about planning and designing a masquerade that reflects relevant personal and cultural values for the group. The first draft for this writing assignment will take place at the beginning of the semester. The final draft will be completed before the final weeks of the course. The final draft should reflect insight acquired from exploring worldwide Carnival traditions during the semester.

30 pts: One masquerade presented as a group project for an open forum that is loosely based on the responses to questions described above


Week 1: Introduction to course and textbook. Introduction to expectations for oral presentations and written work. A visit from a representative of the Speaking-Center to talk about oral presentations. Sacred and secular issues generally found in Carnival celebration worldwide. Masquerade as masked street theatre. The commercialization of Carnival— pros and cons. A preliminary exploration of our individual and group values as a class.

*Submit an initial essay (rough draft) that describes personal and cultural values based on cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions.

How might each one of us write our own commencement address? Would sacred or secular issues dominate our address? Conversely, how might anger over disillusionment (of a derailed cherished value) or frustration about living up to cherished values show up on a Saturday Night Live skit?

Elaborate and share with the class during presentations on personal/group values for the class. Use either of these sources (on closed reserve) as inspiration for the upcoming group presentations. Other sources for inspiration are welcomed as well.

Week 2: More exploration on Carnival celebration and masquerade street theatre. Preliminary examination of types of imagery, rituals, music, and foods found in Carnival celebrations.

*Group 1 presentation: on personal/group values--environment

*Written response (summarized and shared with class) to questions about planning and designing a masquerade that reflects relevant personal and cultural values for Group 1 (first draft).

Ten Minute Individual Interviews outside of class time to discuss the written response

Week 3: Historical traditions of Carnival masquerade in Trinidad and Tobago. A Cultural influences from Yoruba, China, India, France, Great Britain, and indigenous Amerindians. Cultural values magnified, assimilated, and crystallized representing a blending of several cultures in street Trinidadian masquerade, rituals, and performances.

Group A presentation: Trinidadian and Tobagon Carnival

Group 2 presentation: on personal/group values—nuclear disarmament, national defense, responsibilities of a superpower

Week 4: Trinidad/Tobago Carnival celebrations today—typical “modified” masquerade characters based on historical/mythic characters. Peter Minshall’s influence on masmen (masquerade designers and bands) today. Typical factories that produce Trinidadian masquerade themes and costumes for public consumption and participation.

Group 3 presentation: on personal/group values—social support/responsibility

Week 5: Brazil’s Carnival masquerade historical traditions compared to current traditions. The significance of government-sponsored Samba Schools that help perpetuate cultural values. A typical Samba School warehouse for creating masquerade.

Group B presentation: Brazilian Carnival

Group 4 presentation: on personal/group values—religious choice; separation of church and state issues; “conflicts” between science and religion

Week 6: Mexican pre-Lenten pastoral street masquerade celebrations. Religious and indigenous influences. Important distinctions between Day of the Dead street masquerade and pastoral (Carnival-styled masquerade) celebrations.

Group C presentation: Mexican Carnival

Group 5 presentation: on personal/group values—immigration issues, unified language debate

Week 7: Venetian Carnivale street masquerade. The traditional significance of upper-crust merchant/aristocratic Renaissance masque masks/masquerade (fancy dress) vs. “dirty/low-brow/vulgar” commedia dell’arte masks/masquerade perpetuated in current Carnivale.

Group D presentation: Venetian Carnival

Group 6 presentation: on personal/group values—sexuality/gender issues; women’s rights, abortion, gay rights

Week 8: Mardi Gras street masquerade. Historical cultural influences and traditions compared to contemporary traditions. Can Mardi Gras continue to thrive with New Orleans’s disrupted economy and living standards? If so, how is it changing to accommodate/address new tensions?

Group E presentation: Mardi Gras Carnival

Group 7 presentation: on personal/group values—oil conservation issues; new global economic playing field.


Compare and contrast predominant values and characterizations/myths found in the Carnival street masquerades we’ve explored.

Week 10: Discussion forum: Determining our own most relevant personal and cultural values. What do we individually and as a group cherish in terms of our history, social and family traditions, and religious/historical myths? How do they influence our personal and cultural values? What art, film, theatre, fiction, non-fiction topics dominate our popular culture? How does popular cultural taste/aesthetic help define our group values? How do our own tastes differ or blend with popular culture?

Week 11: *Modified second draft (from 2nd week of course) due on personal and cultural values based on cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions summarized and shared with the class. Compare and contrast essays for commonality between participants. Assemble committees based on like-minded goals/agendas describing similar personal and/or group values.

Committee groups meet and plan preliminary goals for their masquerade and how to achieve these goals with individual assignments. Parameters for the masquerade discussed: materials, budget, expectations, and criteria for judging the effectiveness of the masquerade.

Each group summarizes their conclusions to the other class members.

Week 12: Clay molds for masks—designs/visual data brought and shared, tips discussed on modeling the mask, hair, headdress, and/or costume.

*Modified second draft due of written responses to questions about planning and designing a masquerade reflecting relevant personal and cultural values for the group. (First draft written before course content presented at the beginning of the semester. This draft should reflect more detail and insight based on course discussions/presentations.)

Week 13: Papier-mâché work on mask. Creating other elements of the masquerade. Music for masquerade shared with the class.

Week 14: Continue masquerade creation. Decorating the mask. Discuss parade ritual/activity to be incorporated in the masquerade event.

Week 15: Continue masquerade creation. Decorating the mask. Discuss street food to be distributed. THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY

Final Essay on “Our Masquerade as an Artistic Expression”

Week 16: Rehearsals/Preparation for a ritual street masquerade.

Final Exam: Masquerade presented as group projects for a parade in an open public forum where the masquerade design groups will explain their masquerade design process and the values they are expressing with the masquerade. Date to be arranged or presented during the final exam period. A video tape of the event and audience response will be available.


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