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The Mask Maker's Sacred Quest

Lloyd International Honors College
COURSE NUMBER: HSS215 (WI, SI, and GN course)



COURSE TITLE: THE MASK MAKER’S SACRED QUEST

CREDITS: 3:2:3
PREREQUISITES: Must enjoy membership in Lloyd International Honors College

FOR WHOM PLANNED: The course is planned for students in the Lloyd International Honors College.

INSTRUCTOR INFORMATION: Deborah Bell, Department of Theatre, 12A Taylor Building, Office Hours: T/Th 12:15-1pm, 334-4076, deb_bell@uncg.edu


CATALOG DESCRIPTION: Survey samplings of sacred myths that have influenced and continue to influence traditional mask makers worldwide. Concurrently it surveys samplings of masks representing spiritual perspectives of cultures on several continents.



STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES:
Clearly demonstrate a working knowledge of assigned readings from the text, class lectures, and group discussions by describing and analyzing mask styles for ritual performances using the terms sacred, ritual, sublime beauty, art, design, axis mundi, and theatre in appropriate context for course projects.

Create an original mask style for use in a group ritual performance presented in class that is inspired by selected versions of archetypal myths and mask styles previously explored in the course.

Illustrate a interpretation of the sacred in the group ritual performance according to the group’s collective definitions, based on class lectures and previous group presentations.

Assess the success of the group’s ritual masked performance in a critical review based on the critic’s personal definition (or at least the group’s collective definition) of key terms emphasized through the course (sacred, ritual, sublime beauty, art, design, axis mundi, and theatre).



TEACHING METHODS AND ASSIGNMENTS FOR ACHIEVING LEARNING OUTCOMES: After a series of lectures by the instructor that identify early myths often associated with contemporary traditional masks found in cultural communities on several continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, South America, Trinidad, and two regions in North America—Northwest Canada and New Mexico), groups of students will offer extemporaneous presentations based on their own research of specific mask styles. They will describe the mask style of a specific culture and utilize visual aids to show examples of the mask and preliminary considerations of how it functions within the rituals/rites-of-passage of that culture. The instructor will then add to the student group presentations with additional visual descriptions and information regarding how the masks function within the cultural community. Class members will collectively define the terms sacred, ritual, sublime beauty, art, design, and theatre using examples of considerations on mask style and myth within specific performance rituals in order to more effectively understand the mask’s power within the context of artistic and sacred effort. Finally, each student will create his/her own mask suitable for a group masked presentation that attempts to evoke a semblance of sacred sublime beauty found in traditional masked ritual and performance.


STUDENT WRITING/SPEAKING INTENSIVE LEARNING GOALS:

Upon successful completion of this course, students are expected to successfully meet writing-intensive goals by accomplishing the following objectives:

· Demonstrate the ability to write clearly, coherently, and effectively about how masks are able to artfully indicate spiritual values and sublime beauty.

· Prepare a written report that will require at least two drafts (with feedback from the instructor) which will analyze and interpret information on a mask indicating a spiritual/sacred perspective.

· Briefly define in written form, based on preliminary introductory lectures and readings: art, design, theatre, axis mundi, ritual, sublime beauty, and sacred.

· Later in the semester, list examples of these brief definitions, found in the masks that we explore from different countries and tell how the masks function, using these terms in the context of performance and/or ritual.

· Write an essay with two drafts that briefly describes personal cherished values that reflect cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family traditions. (Eventually use this essay for dialogue with the mask presentation group which will collaborate to create a relevant sacred masked presentation for the group.)

· Maintain a weekly journal that regularly uses terms such as art, design, theatre, axis mundi, ritual, sublime beauty, and the sacred to describe the masks and mask presentation from specific countries and cultures introduced in class.


Criteria for good writing are as follows:

· Organized points relevant to each formal written project stated clearly, coherently, and concisely using appropriate grammatical structure and correct spelling.

· Present written work with an emphasis on active verbs rather than passive verbs.

· Use appropriate and specific detail to elaborate on relevant points and/or to persuade the reader.

· Avoid using such phrases as “I think”, “I believe”, “In my opinion,” in essays, assuming that an essay consistently states one’s personal viewpoint.


Upon successful completion of this course, students are expected to successfully meet speaking-intensive goals by accomplishing the following objectives:

· Prepare and present two group extemporaneous presentations that describe researched examples of masks used by a specific country/cultural community and identify spiritual values championed by that culture within a masked performance ritual. Presentations will be organized and occasionally involve several class members designated to participate as a group. Improved oral presentations should be evident, based on feedback from initial presentation.

· Prepare and present a group sacred performance or ritual using masks created for the event.



Criteria for successful oral presentations are as follows:

· Organized points related to mask style stated clearly and concisely.

· Expression of the topic at hand delivered with enthusiasm and energy.

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

· 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.

· Students will receive written feedback from the instructor on his/her contributions within each group oral presentation. Each student will receive specific feedback on his/her presentation OR contributions within the group presentation related to the following criteria from class members and the instructor using short forms that rank the oral presentations in terms of excellent, good, satisfactory, and needs improvement. The forms will include a short space for written comments and suggestions for ways to improve future oral presentations. Improved oral presentations should be evident, based on feedback from initial presentation.


EVALUATION AND GRADING:

COURSE PROJECTS are as follows:

36 pts: Two fifteen minute oral presentations on masked performance work that underscores sacred values of a specific country/culture.

7 pts: One report undergoing two drafts that analyzes and interprets information on a mask style indicating a spiritual/sacred perspective.

7 pts: One three-page essay on personal spiritual values as they are reflected in “local” cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family historical myths and traditions that will undergo two drafts.

15 pts: Weekly, informal journal readings summarizing selected readings by Joseph Campbell in his book Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God by answering study guide questions. And informally written brief definitions for the terms introduced in class: art, design, theatre, axis mundi, ritual, sublime beauty, and the sacred.

5 pts: Effective/specific evaluations for fellow class member oral presentations.

20 pts: While we cannot expect mere academic exercise to spontaneously conjure a sense of the sacred, we will attempt to create a semblance of the sacred state by creating several group masked presentations using aspects of the artful visualizations we’ve identified throughout the semester.


Each student will create a mask for a group masked presentation that reflects the spiritual values of the group and strives to involve sacred practice and revelation. Each masked individual will participate in the group presentation. It should last no longer than seven minutes. Immediately following the presentation, the rest of the class will describe what they witnessed and the masked group will briefly reflect upon the class members’ reactions.


10 pts: Each student will write a detailed (five-seven double-spaced pages) final critique that identifies one or more universal myths (described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Masks of God) that influenced his/her group’s final masked presentation.



This critique will take the place of a final exam. The successful critique will:

· Demonstrate improved writing based on earlier written assignments, utilizing instructor’s feed back from earlier work

· Describe how this myth/myths function/s to assist in revealing encounters with sacred states and truths.

· Tell how these selected myths were incorporated (either literally or abstractly) in the group masked presentation and how the masked ritual performance functioned in terms of art, design, theatre, ritual, sublime beauty, as inspiration in the quest for sacred masks.



COURSE TEXT: Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, and selected readings on closed reserve. Note: This classic work on primitive mythology introduces one traditional perspective on comparative mythology. One half century after its publication, scholars generally agree that it has maintained popular appeal as an introduction to interpreting mythology from various cultures. Students of the humanities should be familiar with this seminal work as a basis for eventually exploring and comparing more contemporary scholarship on mythology.



REQUIRED TEXTS/READINGS/REFERENCES:

Primitive Mythology: Masks of God. Joseph Campbell. 1959 (Course text)

The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers: Sacrifice and Bliss. Bill Moyers, and J. Campbell.

The Nature and Function of Ritual: Fire from Heaven, ed. Ruth-Inge Heinze, 2000.

Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. 2006.

Speaking of Beauty. Denis Donoghue. 2004.

Sacred Theatre. Ralph Yarrow. 2008.

The Empty Space. “Holy Theatre.” Peter Brook. 1968.

Subversive Laughter. “Sacred Masks in Bali.” Ron Jenkins. 1994.

Sacred Symbols. Claire Gibson. 2002.

Myths to Live By. Joseph Campbell. 1972.

Parallel Myths. J. F. Bierlein. 1994.

Animal-Speak. Ted Andrews. 2000.

The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway. Julie Taymor. 1997.

Masks in the Modern Drama. Susan Smith. 1984.

Masks of Bali. Julie Slatum. 1992.

The Other Face: The Mask in the Arts. Walter Sorell. 1973.

Great Masks. Oto Bihalji-Merin. 1970.

Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. Museum for African Art, New York. 2001.

Down from the Shimmering Sky. MacNair, Joseph, and Grenville. 1998.

Eskimo Masks: Art and Ceremony. Dorothy Jean Ray. 1967.

Ramayana in the Arts of Asia. Garret Kam. 2000.

Noh Masks. Nakanishi and Komma. 1983.

Mexican Masks. Donald Cordry. 1980.

Masterpieces: The Arts and Civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Musee du quai Branly, Paris. 2006.

The Nature and Function of Rituals: Fire from Heaven. Ruth-Inge Heinze. 2000.



Articles by Deborah Bell entitled The Mask Maker’s Magic (2005), Bruce Marr’s Masks (2004), Making Contemporary Northern California Masks in a Shamanistic Spirit (2005), Traditional Yoruba Inspiration for Contemporary Mask Makers in Nigeria (2008), Nyau Secret Society Mask Makers for Gule Wamkulu (The Great Dance) in Malawi (unpublished and presented at the 2008 ATHE conference in Denver).



Note: This classic work on primitive mythology introduces one traditional perspective on comparative mythology. One half century after its publication, scholars generally agree that it has maintained popular appeal as an introduction to interpreting mythology from various cultures. Students of the humanities should be familiar with this seminal work as a basis for eventually exploring and comparing more contemporary scholarship on mythology. Also I have included current as well as a number of texts below that are over five years old. For an introductory course on the mythological significance of masks, I think this is quite acceptable, especially when combined with my current eight years of research on this topic, awaiting publication with McFarland in spring or summer of 2010.


TOPICAL OUTLINE/CALENDAR:

Using Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God as a primary text, this course surveys samplings of sacred myths that have influenced and continue to influence traditional mask makers worldwide. Concurrently it surveys samplings of masks representing spiritual perspectives of cultures on several continents. Ultimately the course focuses on the mask’s potential to successfully function as a myth-inspired global art form specifically as it functions in sacred performance and ritual.

Please note: Student presentations on mask styles will always be on Mondays unless otherwise designated. Journals including lecture notes from the previous week and answers to Study Questions will always be due on Fridays and returned on Mondays.


WEEK 1, Jan. 20-Jan. 22:

Introduction to course and textbook. Introduction to expectations for oral presentations, written work, and final masked presentation.

How might we begin an attempt to define complex terms like art, design, theatre, ritual, sublime beauty, and the sacred? How do we typically see these terms functioning in the global art form of masked presentation? Why has the mask traditionally had such universal power to project spiritual and cultural values so immediately and so succinctly?


How do we define the mask? Is it only worn on the face? Why or why not?

Joseph Campbell: The Lesson of the Mask, pp. 20-29, Chapter 1: The Enigma of the Inherited Image, pp. 30-49. Due Jan. 22.


WEEK 2, Jan. 25-29:

Defining the sacred; sacred places, spaces, relics, sacred rituals, and axis mundi.

Do living beings have the potential to be sacred or are only mythic figures and figures beyond the grave sacred?

When can we pronounce an idea or embodiment as “profane?”

Can a theatre event be both sacred and profane concurrently?

Dramatic tensions or the dualities of living and how they relate to the concept of the sacred and the profane as the ultimate duality.

Myths as “masks of God.”


Joseph Campbell: Chapter 2: Suffering and Rapture, The Structuring Force of Life on Earth, pp. 50-61 (due Jan. 25) and Chapter 3: The Culture Province of the High Civilizations, 135-150. Due Jan. 27.

(also optional reading--Campbell’s The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers: Sacrifice and Bliss, pp. 113-150)


WEEK 3, Feb. 1-Feb. 5:

Shamanic spirit masks: Eskimo masks

Sacred shamanic masks for healing

Sacred animal masks/totems: Northwest Canada/Native American Masks

Significance of totems as spiritual protectors and guides

Specific references to characteristics of Native American totems


Joseph Campbell: Chapter 6: The Shaman and the Priest, Shamanistic Magic, The Shamanistic Vision, The Fire-Bringer, pp. 229-267 and Chapter 7: The Legend of the Buffalo Dance, Paleolithic Mythology, The Ritual of the Returned Blood, pp. 282-295, and Chapter 8: The Shamans of the Great Hunt, Our Lady of the Mammoths, The Master Bear, The Mythologies of the Two Worlds, pp. 299-347.


Note: This is a great deal of reading. We’ll divide the sections up between three groups-who will then summarize their assigned section. Due Feb. 3.


WEEK 4, Feb. 8-Feb. 12:

Masks to ensure safe passage beyond death

Nyau Secret Society masks in Malawi for birth, manhood, and funereal rituals

The grave yard and nearby body of water as sacred spaces to create Chewa masks for Gule Wamkulu celebrations

Nigerian Egungun masks

Egyptian Death Masks

Mexican Day of the Dead masked celebrations and rituals

Masks used to signify and evoke simultaneously both womb and tomb

Joseph Campbell: Chapter 4: The Legend of the Destruction of Kash, A Night of Shehrzad, The King, and the Virgin of the Vestal Fire, pp. 151-170. Chapter 5: The Descent and Return of the Maiden, The Mythological Event, Persephone, The Monster Eel, Parallelism or Diffusion?, The Ritual Love-Death in Pre-Columbian America, pp. 170-216. Due Feb. 10.


WEEK 5, Feb. 15-19:

Masks to ensure fertility

Nigerian Osun Festival celebrations using both sacred and profane masks

Osun’s sacred space for celebrations at the river

Native American fertility totems


Joseph Campbell: Chapter 10: The Great Serpent of the Earliest Planters, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East, The Great Diffusion, pp. 384-461. Due Feb. 17.


Discussion of Essay-- on personal spiritual values as they are reflected in “local” cultural/religious myths, historical heroes, and/or family historical myths and traditions that will undergo two drafts.



WEEK 6, Feb. 22-25:

Feb. 22: First Draft of Personal Essay Due

Sacred masks of Bali—and sacred masked clowns of Bali


Joseph Campbell: The Hactcin Clowns, pp. 232-239 Due Feb. 23.


WEEK 7, March 1-5:

March 1: First Draft of Personal Essay Returned: Writing Tips Discussed



MARCH 3 and 5: Class Canceled due to Southeastern Theatre Conference

Use this time to write second draft of Essay, using Writing Tips page at end of syllabus. Extra credit assigned to anyone who visits the Writing Center for advice on problem aspects identified in essay’s first draft.


SPRING BREAK, March 8-12, Class Canceled


WEEK 8, March 15-19:

March 15: Second Draft of Personal Essay due

Sacred clown masks of Bali (cont.)

Laughter recognized as sacred by the masked clowns of the Hopi Native Americans

Ron Jenkins’ book, Subversive Laughter—Sacred Laughter in Bali, which showcases contemporary masked Balinese clowns

Charlie Chaplin’s “mask” as “Everyman” in silent movies: a comic sense of the eternal quest for the divine and the sacred.

Group Discussion on Study Questions: Joseph Campbell: Carnival clowns and tricksters pp. 274-281. Due March 17.

Group Discussions—on Group Values for Final Presentation. Form 4 different groups and choose a leader/coordinator for each group.


WEEK 9, March 22-26:

The Stage as the sacred axis mundi between heaven and earth

Western Masked Performances:

Greek Masked Theatre and its homage to the gods

heroic masked performances Campbell’s theory of the mythic hero found in most cultures

Italian Renaissance Theatre with sculptures of the gods witnessing the performances.


Comic Masks: Italian commedia dell’arte masks and Korean Hahoe masks


Joseph Campbell: Chapter 9: Mythological Thresholds of the Paleolithic (up to

the Capsian-Microlithic Style (c. 30,000/10,000-4000 B.C.E.), pp. 357-384. Due March 24.

Joseph Campbell: Myths to Live By. The Separation of East and West, pp. 61-80.


WEEK 10, March 29-April 2:

The Stage as the sacred axis mundi between heaven and earth (cont.)

Eastern Masked Performances:

Hindu mythic masks

Noh Theatre and Kyogen Theatre, Japan’s homage to the gods


Protector/Guide masks inspired by shamanic practices and Native American rituals: sacred masks of Tibet, more Native American totem guides, Californian Joyce Radke’s (breast cancer survivor) process for healing using guide masks


Joseph Campbell: Conclusion: The Functioning of Myth—The Local Images and the Universal Way, The Bondages of Love, Power, and Virtue, The Release from Bondage, pp. 461-489. Due March 31.

Also: page 18—discussion on the “romance of myth.”

Note: April 2 is SPRING HOLIDAY and class is canceled.


WEEK 11, April 5-9:

Mythic/protector masks that project a sense of the sacred--Masked personalities that conquer or at least protect from evil forces:

Contemporary dramatic works involving sacred masks: New York: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (the angel’s wings as mask), August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Avenue Q, and others.


Contemporary musical works involving sacred masks:

Julie Taymor’s The Lion King

Stephen Swartz’s Wicked

Contemporary Hollywood Films using mythic sacred masks:

Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit movies (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Return of the King)



Modernists Craig, Meyerhold, Reinhardt, Copeau—explorations in masked performance and/or Bread and Puppet Theatre. Ralph Lee’s mythic masked performance work


Joseph Campbell: Last part of Chapter 2: The Imprints of Early Infancy, The Spontaneous Animism of Childhood, The System of Sentiments of the Local Group, The Impact of Old Age, pp. 61-131.


WEEK 12, April 12-16:

Planning our masked presentations—significant myths that will influence masked presentations

Group work, brainstorming

Elements of design for effective masks, assignments for plaster casts, preliminary clay mold work


Optional Reading: Joseph Campbell: Myths to Live By. The Importance of Rites, pp. 44-60. And The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers: pp. 258-287 on how to experience levels of beauty, the sublime, and how to experience “masks of eternity” also pp. 113-122 on recognizing sacred spaces.


WEEK 13, April 19-23:

Clay molds for the masks

Creating the mask

Decorating and Framing the mask

NOTE: MANY STUDENTS WILL WANT TO PERFECT THEIR MASKS DURING THE WEEKEND OF APRIL 24 AND 25—TRY TO RESERVE SOME BLOCKS OF TIME TO MEET WITH DEB BELL IN THE STUDIO DURING THIS WEEKEND.


WEEK 14, April 26-30:

Group work on ritual orchestration with selected music

Rehearsal for masked presentation, April 26.

Performances for April 28 and April 30.

Each student will participate in a group masked presentation (using the mask he/she created) that reflects the spiritual values of the group and strives to involve sacred practice and revelation. Each masked individual will participate in the group presentation. It should last no longer than five minutes. Immediately following the presentation, the rest of the class will describe what they witnessed and the masked group will briefly reflect upon the class members’ reaction.


WEEK 15, May 3: Class discussion on rituals presented the preceding week.


FINAL EXAMATION:

Class members will meet to evaluate the course and submit their final critique. This detailed final critique will identify one or more universal myths (described by Joseph Campbell in his book Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God) that influenced his/her group’s final masked presentation. This critique will take the place of a final exam. The successful critique will:

· Identify one or more universal myths described by Campbell and observed as operating in the group masked presentation. Describe how myths function to assist in revealing encounters with sacred states and truths.

· Tell how these selected myths were incorporated (either literally or abstractly) in the group masked presentation and how it functioned in terms of art, design, theatre, axis mundi, ritual, sublime beauty, as inspiration in the quest for sacred masks.


ACADEMIC HONOR CODE: Each student is required to sign the Academic Integrity Policy on all major work submitted for the course. Refer to the UNCG Undergraduate Bulletin.

ATTENDANCE POLICY: Students are expected to come regularly and promptly to each scheduled class. Attendance is not taken but integrated required class participation logically builds on past course lectures, presentations and activity. Consequently course expectations will not be met without regular, consistent attendance. Each student is personally responsible for any missed class. There is no opportunity to make-up missed group presentations, which automatically reduces the final grade. Missing more than three classes during the semester seriously jeopardizes chances for passing the course. Late work is rarely accepted and only if due to emergency or illness.


A lab fee of $50 is due by the second week of classes to pay for materials necessary to create a mask. Depending on the design and complexity of each mask, individuals might want to spend a modest additional amount to appropriately decorate the mask


UNDERLYING CONCEPTS FOR THIS COURSE:

The illusionary quality of masks and their stories have revealed the figurative rhythms of birth, death, and regeneration since primitive times. The illusion of masking to imply, evoke, or become another character/spirit invariably requires a state of pretending. By pretending, the masked performer/storyteller and viewer/listener can share an experience as an exaggerated state where reality becomes “more real than real.” This heightened quality of the successful masked performance transports the viewer into a more universal, eternal, divine level of reality. In its most poignant state, the successful masked performance allows its audience to enter the realm of sublime beauty.


Too often, we witness unsuccessful masked performances. Perhaps in these instances, the masks lack appropriate proportion and fit the performer poorly. Or perhaps they lack significant dramatic tension and clarity. Sometimes the performer lacks the technical ability to display appropriate gesture and diminishes rather than enhances the mask. Or conversely, the mask dominates the performer’s gestures. Instead of a successful masked presentation, the performer can look as though he/she has a lampshade on the head. Regardless, even when a masked performance has superior, well-synchronized techniques involved in the craftsmanship of the mask and the performance of the mask, many traditional mask makers I have interviewed have remarked that the most effective masked performances are those that allow for spiritual moments and require a receptive audience open to spiritual nuance.


Masks have existed at least since the ancient beginnings of mythology. The elemental echoes of our subconscious (subliminal) desires and fears found in masks and mythic stories serve as the basis of all art. Masks, like myths, use the illusion of metaphor/imagery as a fundamental way of expressing and examining ultimate mysteries about the human condition.


Joseph Campbell states that myths (which he refers to as the primal “masks” of god) initially developed as primitive man confronted his impending death. Campbell suggests that the early mythic stories attempted to understand the related consequences of death, particularly humanity’s yearnings to maintain some sort of spiritual connection with the dead. Mythic stories also assisted humanity with its need to cope with the concept of its conflicted duty to kill [if only animals] in order to live.[i] The acknowledgement and fear of death demanded some sort of spiritual/eternal level of reality to transcend the limitations of life on earth. Remnants of weapons, special clothing, and jewelry have been found in sacred burial caves dating back to Neanderthal man, who placed the regalia alongside the dead person to serve him in the spirit/afterlife world of the dead.[ii] Campbell convincingly proposes that a similar spiritual identification occurred when the hunter somehow possessed the animal’s eternal spirit while wearing the animal head during the hunt or in preparation for the hunt.[iii]


No one really knows whether the Paleolithic “literal” masks of animal spirits came before or after the earliest mythic stories of the gods in the spiritual realm—the storytelling of Campbell’s detailed life-long comparative study. But at some point masks helped to identify the earliest mythic gods as well as animal spirits. Indeed some of the animal spirits identified were treated as gods. Masks ushered in some of the earliest known ancient artistic renderings. The successful mask and its mythic story, utilizing exaggerated physical illusion and metaphor, had a power of “sublime beauty” as a way of becoming “more real than real” on a spiritual, eternal level.


Consider how a totem mask resembles a real tiger. It renders a spiritual/eternal idea of the tiger, not an actual tiger. And, depending on how the mask maker focuses on emotive qualities of the tiger—its ferociousness, its feminine feline qualities, its authoritativeness—the mask will reveal various levels of the tiger’s spiritual/eternal reality. The spiritual reality of the mask comes from the frozen yet vitally expressive state of the mask. Peter Brook succinctly describes this concept when he talks about the traditional mask as a portrait of a man without a mask—a soul portrait—the ultimate metaphysical (spiritual) quality of the mask.[iv]


Most traditional mask makers still typically consider (either consciously or subliminally) metaphorical aspects of myth, the mask’s earliest sister art form, as a way of evoking the spirit of the mask. Almost all of the mask makers I have interviewed incorporate mythic stories and characters related to their own cultures. These stories invariably balance such dramatic dualities as good and evil, power and vulnerability, love and hate, the old and the young. The mythic stories of any culture present a struggle to understand our basic fears and desires as they relate to these dualities.


In this course, we will attempt to create divine heroic protectors under the guise of a group masked performance or ritual. I doubt that an academic exercise of this sort will reach the realm of the sacred as a sufficient effort toward sublime beauty; however we might better appreciate the tremendous factors involved in the journey toward the successful orchestration and creation of such an event. This artful journey, at some level, underpins much significant artistic effort. Ultimately we might have a glimpse of a sacred path toward sublime beauty. At the very least, we will have a greater understanding of any creator’s quest toward the divine. Campbell vividly describes the poetic, sacred thrust of ancient and on-going myths with a concluding statement at the end of our text:


Mythology—and therefore civilization—is a poetic, supernormal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone—the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.[v]


Creating a sacred protector or guide with our masked presentation:

Universally speaking, myths often project divine heroes, gods, animal totems, and other great protectors and guides to assist with fertility, passage beyond the grave, and quests for vital wisdom and knowledge. In spite of the existential emphasis in our contemporary cynical world, we still yearn for divine intersection in our lives. Skilled performers energize current versions of traditional archetypal protector masks (such as those created by primitive cultures) in such masked characters as Mufasa (The Lion King), Elphaba (Wicked), Batman, Yoda, Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore, or Ari, the Eleanor Roosevelt of Planet of the Apes (Ebert, online).[vi] The contemporary commercial masked performers, like the ancient masked performers can project tremendous power by imaginatively connecting the literal world of vulnerable audiences to the divine, eternal aspects of protection, using masks to conger tutelary spirits and characters that we recognize as universal, but also as aspects of these spiritual assistants within us.


Masked performance can also offer “sacred humor” as the Balinese clowns have recognized for centuries. In his book, Subversive Laughter, Ron Jenkins describes their satirical yet sacred propensity to publicly engage in open dialogue and debate with their gods concerning life style and threatening forces. Modernists like Edward Gordon Craig, Meyerhold, Reinhardt, and Copeau consistently referenced and resorted to explorations in potent masked performances that often projected a sense of the divine within the context of the human condition. For three decades in New York at St. John the Divine and in surrounding towns, mythic mask maker/performer extraordinaire Ralph Lee has continued in the Bread and Puppet Theatre tradition with huge masked mythic forces representing cultures worldwide.


The masked protector performer’s sacred quest operates much like the romantic lover. The truths generated by the personality and skills of the performer (masker) as well as those generated by the romantic lover demand the illusionary sublime guise of harmony, guided more by instinct than reason. Romantic love songs invariably evoke the fragile state of “pretend play” created by the lovers focusing on exaggerated truths that promise integrity, balance, and wholeness. The masked protector performance, like the courting rituals of the lover, somehow artfully suspends the imperfections of living into a larger context which offers resolution at a sublime (subconscious) level.


Webster’s Dictionary defines Romantic as: “having no basis in fact, imaginary” also “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of the heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized”, and “characterized by an emphasis on subjective emotional qualities and freedom of form” (Webster’s, 1004).[vii] The search for heroes is often a search for mythical or legendary figures, frequently of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability, such as an illustrious warrior. Sacred heroes are consummate protectors in the same way that magnificent, magical ancestral totems and tutelaries protected primitive communities. (They are not necessarily appealing in the “light” of rational reality as Shakespeare’s Titania realizes when she awakes lying next to an ass.)


Yet current playwrights like Tony Kushner continue this sacred Romantic quest for divine guidance (amidst the late cynical postmodern twentieth century). Kushner’s 1992 Angels in America dramatically incorporates protector ghost and angel characters. Just as romantic love songs often beckon dancing lovers in the softer shadows of moonlight, Prior’s ghosts (protectors/lovers) romantically insist on dancing with him in the night as he approaches his death accompanied by the music of a lone oboe playing in the background, evoking a dream-like, illusionary state. At the end of the dance, the messenger Angel comes to aid Prior on “The Great Work” of his final journey. While these ghost and angel characters do not wear actual masks, they must appear as “real” apparitions. The spreading great opalescent grey-silver wings framing the Angel’s face (and arguably serving as a mask as do a devil’s horns), suspended in the air, theatrically and effectively evoke a protector/guide more real than any real human.


Traditional protector masked performance assumes a level of divine protection for its audience that compares closely with Romantic utilizations of conscious states. The Oxford Anthology of British Literature, Volume II, describes “High Romantic consciousness as a search or quest for the Sublime, a realization that internalizes the quest-pattern of the ancient literary form of the romance, or marvelous tale, suspended in its context halfway between natural and supernatural realms.


Frequently, ancient protector/guides have been animals or inspired by animals. Ted Andrews notes that, “There was a time when humanity recognized itself as part of nature, and nature as part of itself. Dreaming and waking were inseparable realities; the natural and the supernatural merged and blended. People used images of nature to express this unity and to instill a transpersonal kind of experience” (Andrews, 4).[viii] Because primitive societies often believed they were descendents of animals, they owed their existence to these omniscient totems (Gibson, 28).[ix] Occasionally the powerful animal ancestor totem (considered to be father of the fathers) is worn as a mask on top of the human protector mask, suggesting even more strength.


Whatever his/her cultural background, the mask maker recognizes the value of incorporating masked performance with music, dance, and theatrical performances that emerge from the rhythmic dramatic states of tension found in storytelling. Mask makers (unless making masks for tourists) rarely intend for masks to hang on walls. They create masks to be part of a more elaborate artistic presentation and purpose. The mask brings life to the wearer and wearer brings life to the mask. The mask maker must create a mask that is relatively easy to wear: one that allows for adequate visibility and that also helps to accentuate the rhythmic gestures of the performer. We most often find successful masks in performances or rituals where music and gesture transcend dialogue, yet invariably the group is well aware of the mythic stories which have inspired the event.


After exploring ways that the successful masked ritual/performance has traditionally and artfully awakened sacred states, this course will encourage a safe haven where class members can understand our “hard-wired” human quest toward the sacred. Collectively class members will agree on spiritual values they share. They will select music and gesture that, when combined with their individual masks help to acknowledge and give form to their own divine protectors/guides to artfully encourage them on their own quests toward the sacred. And if nothing but “sacred” laughter follows, we can all laugh together, perhaps in a greater state of wisdom.


[i] Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth (New York: First Anchor Books, 1991), 39,90. (Originally published in 1988.)


[ii] Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God (New York: Penguin, 1991), 339-44. (Originally published in 1959.)


[iii] Ibid., 257, 258, 282-86.


[iv] Brook, Peter, ‘The Mask: Coming Out of Our Shell’ in The Shifting Point: Theatre, Film, opera 1946-1987 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 218.


[v] Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God (New York: Penguin Compass, 1959), 472.


[vi] Ebert, Roger. 2001. “Planet of the Apes.” Chicago Sun-Times. 27 July. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dl/article?AID=/20010727/REVIEWS/107270305/1023.


[vii] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: G. &C. Merriam Company.


[viii] Andrews, Ted. 2000. Animal-Speak. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications.


[ix] Gibson, Clare. 2002. Sacred Symbols. Glasgow: Chartwell Books, Inc.