I am intrigued by masks. I collect masks. I’ve hung masks in rooms throughout my home. Half masks. Full face masks. Quirky and mysterious and joyous masks.
My captivation was born in my love of theater. At age thirteen, I decided to be an actress and adopted the comedy/tragedy symbols as my own. The masks marked my identity. They served as my totem. Originating in ancient Greece and worn in open-air theatres, the masks represent Thalia, the muse of comedy, and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. The two poles of human emotion: happiness and sadness, joy and grief, a huge grin and an agonized frown, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, The Odd Couple and The Glass Menagerie, Noises Off and A Raisin in the Sun.
As President of The International Thespian Society chapter at my high school, I wore a silver pin with a blue “T” and the two faces. Also in my jewelry box: mask earrings, mask charm bracelet, mask pendant, and mask ring. I no longer act and no longer wear any of the jewelry, but my affinity for masks remains.
I own twenty-five masks. All are decorative and designed for display. Some are wearable. None are old or authentically tribal. I’ve purchased masks at art galleries. I’ve discovered them at art fairs. Four were gifts. Among my collection are seven paper mache Venetian Carnival masks, one a Jester with four jingling bells; a purple polka-dotted clay “dream mask” which the artist J. Jeffrey Zigulis created to scare away nightmares; two Mexican masks, one a multi-colored devil with protruding ears and ten-inch horns; an African mask, hand-carved, magenta, a hippo notched in its forehead; and a small glass art mask adorned with star-shaped glass chips.
I have space for more.
Masks conceal, reveal, disguise, transform, beautify, uglify, embellish, diminish, varnish. Put on a mask and you abandon your carefully-constructed self, the “You” the world sees and thinks it knows, the face you recognize in your mirror. A mask is a license to adopt an identity other than your own, or try one on. To act in a manner you would not otherwise act. To speak words you would not otherwise speak. To reveal what you would not otherwise reveal. As Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Is there any culture without a history of masks? Cave drawings from the Pleistocene discovered in Indonesia and deer masks from the Mesolithic unearthed in England suggest our ancestors wore animal masks as part of hunting rituals. Masks depict humans, demons, warriors, and spirits, as well as animals. They may be realistic or abstract. They are worn in religious ceremonies, in pageants, in the recreations of folk stories. Ancient cultures don masks to celebrate traditions that have endured for generations. During initiation rites for young men, Africans in Zambia wear tall, pointed masks decorated with geometric patterns. During funerary rites, Dogon dancers in Mali wear Kanaga masks, each carved from a single block of wood, a dual cross with short bars towering on top. During temple dances, Balinese wear masks with bulging eyes, wide noses, and huge teeth to scare off evil spirits.
Burglars and terrorists wear ski masks to conceal their identity. Ku Klux Klan hoodlums hide behind white pointed hoods to ensure anonymity. Hockey players wear masks for protection. Wrestlers wear masks to amplify in-ring personas—Rey Mysterio’s is helmet-styled in neon pink, neon green, and black. Practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), decked out in leather, wear masks during sex. Fantasy. Fetish. Wish fulfillment.
Modern Americans wear masks mostly for fun—throughout the U.S. on Halloween; in New Orleans and other southern cities during Mardi Gras; in Philadelphia for the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, when local club members strut down Broad Street clad in fantastical costumes and masks to compete for cash prizes in five categories: Comics, Fancies, Wench Brigades, Fancy Brigades, or String Bands.
Fans flock to anime festivals and pop culture conventions like Comic-Con masked as their favorite characters—Captain America, The Joker, Kylo Ren, Batman, Batwoman, Mileena from “Mortal Kombat.” New identities assumed. Games played. Inhibitions released.
In The Republic of Venice during the sixteenth century, citizens wore masks not only during the masquerade celebration of Carnevale, but as a part of daily life. There, amidst the labyrinthine streets and stately palazzos, Venetians engaged in secret affairs and secret deals, in gambling and sexual promiscuity, in decadence and debauchery, their identities camouflaged.
I imagine living among them. A full moon lights the way as I slip from my residence on The Grand Canal garbed in an elaborate gown and moretta mask—round, black velvet, the mask of seduction. As neighbors peek between curtains, I descend into a gondola. The gondolier ferries me to a ball where I will meet my lover or perhaps be enchanted by a new one. I flirt with a man who poses by a pillar, his face blocked by a white bauta with protruding chin. Who, I wonder, lurks behind that Harlequin mask? I engage in the charade, a woman of mystery, beguiling, bewitching, behaving in a manner I would not dare without my mask.
Venetian masks trace back to the thirteenth century; the earliest mention of Carnevale, in the documents of a doge, is 1092. Outlawed in 1797 under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor and later by Francis II, Emperor of Austria, the Italian government reinstated the celebration in 1979 as the centerpiece of a campaign to revive the history and culture of Venice and boost winter tourism. Now a two-week masquerade party, Carnevale draws about three million people each year. Venetian masks are still handmade from paper mache by “mascherari,” master craftsmen who use techniques from centuries ago. In an interview with travelerbase.com, Carlos Maggio, who has practiced the art for over thirty years, describes the mask mystique: “We must never forget that a mask is a disguise. . . . People dress up because they need moments of freedom, to be free of any sorts of problems.”
My favorite masks in my collection are three Venetian Carnevale masks I purchased on my second trip to Venice in 1994. Ornate and festooned with flowers, crystals, and curlicues, they portray three of the four seasons—pastels for Spring, coppers and reds for Summer, icy grays and whites for Winter. Perhaps I’ll wear one to Carnevale one day. I didn’t buy Autumn; the colors clashed with my décor. I regret it. I’ve since located the design online. Priced one thousand dollars, it now costs five times what I paid for each of the other seasons.
For my 50th birthday, my then husband hosted a surprise masked ball. When I walked through our front door that August 18th evening, thirty-three friends awaited, all attired in finery and masks. Tom, as The Phantom of the Opera, wore one that covered half his face. Deborah, a southern belle, held a lorgnette-style white satin mask. Several others guests glistened in gold masks. Tracy and Phil presented me with a two-tone blue leather mask winged like an exotic bird. Two more guests awaited downstairs—another surprise—my parents who’d traveled from Lorain, Ohio for the party. They wore masks stenciled with the faces of Paul Newman, my favorite actor, and his wife, actor Joanne Woodward. The blue birthday mask hangs in my office, a reminder of that night twenty years ago.
Wizards, healers, medicine men, and shamans in many cultures wear masks as a conduit to connect with ancestors, gods, and demons, sometimes by reaching a trance state. The holy people quell storms, cure illnesses, appeal for fertility, pray for prosperity, perform purification rites, enact initiation rites, and exorcise evil spirits. In the Hmong culture, for one, during healing ceremonies, the shaman wears a red cloth mask that hangs over his or her face fooling those spirits and blocking out the real world to better concentrate.
My shaman mask, created by New Mexico artist Ken Van Brott, is molded from ceramic, painted Southwestern shades—turquoise, violet, gold, berry—and decorated with fur, feathers, and a wispy horsehair beard. I do not wear the mask to conjure spirits. I don’t wear it at all. Perhaps it protects me anyway.
The first time I remember slipping on a mask I was six or seven and celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim. Carnival revelers, especially children, dress up as characters from the story—King Ahasuerus, Queen Esther, her noble cousin Mordecai, the evil Haman. My mother sewed my Queen Esther costume—a silver-trimmed powder blue skirt and royal blue cape, and a square of felt on which she’d crayoned a face and cut holes for my eyes. One year I won a prize as the best Queen Esther.
I’ve since worn many costumes as a child and adult, as an actress and party-goer. I don’t remember wearing a mask with any of them. When I dressed once as a black cat for Halloween, did I wear a black mask like the Lone Ranger’s? I’ve never taken advantage of the opportunity to hide my identity although on stage I’ve assumed new ones—newspaper reporter, kept woman, ditzy chambermaid. I admit that the leopard print, one-shouldered, cut-to-the-waist “Jane of the Jungle” Halloween costume I wore during my twenties and thirties emboldened me, even without a mask.
In mystery plays during the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, in Bible dramas past and present, in a multitude of theater traditions, actors wear masks.
Chinese Opera masks telegraph personality traits of characters through color: red signals loyalty, integrity, courage; black, a strong, serious, taciturn disposition; white, a crafty, suspicious character.
Japanese Noh Theater masks are expressionless, almond-shaped eyes staring blankly into space. Actors portray emotions by changing the angle and orientation of their heads.
In Commedia dell ’Arte, an early form of professional theatre originating in Italy and popular in Europe during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, masks symbolize stock characters—Pantalone, a Venetian merchant; Capitano, a Spanish braggart; Dottore, a Bolognese doctor or lawyer; Columbina, a comic maidservant and others. I played Columbina in a children’s theatre show but we performed maskless.
In contemporary western theater masks are rarely worn. How does it feel, I wonder, to play a role deprived of facial expression, so key to conveying emotion?
“The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask,” Agatha Christie said. Our face reveals our true feelings—curiosity, excitement, doubt, disdain—or conceals them.
We put on different faces in different situations, in different company. We perform. We pretend. We adopt a fake persona: the nice girl, the poker face, the intellectual, The Tower of Strength. What face do we wear when we’re furious? When we feign interest? When we outright lie? What masks do I wear?
On a trip to Germany in 1991, I spent two days in Rothenberg, a preserved, picturesque medieval city spared from World War Two bombs. On my second day, I visited the Museum of Medieval Crime. There, horrific torture tools, punishment practices, and execution devices are showcased—rack, thumb screw, spiked chair, chastity belt, dunking cage, branding irons, iron maiden, execution wheel, sword, and axe.
What drew me most were the schandemaskes—shame masks. Common in Europe in general during the eighteenth century and later in the New World, the masks were punishment for those guilty of crimes, more often women—gossiping, gluttony, lying, laziness, eavesdropping, mistreating or henpecking or bossing one’s husband.
Forged from iron, the masks exaggerate human or animal features to personify the crime. Did you gossip? Your mask had oversized ears and glasses, announcing you saw and heard everything. Were you a tattletale, a blabbermouth? Your mask stuck out a long, long tongue. Did you act like a pig? Your mask had a porcine snout.
Criminals were paraded through the streets to advertise their offense and humiliate them. Some masks dangled bells so townsfolk could hear a culprit coming. People jeered, pointed, taunted, ridiculed. The masks controlled behavior, reinforced communal norms, repressed, shamed, shamed, shamed.
I do not own any schandemaskes. They creep me out. They mortify me.
My mask collection is meager and casual compared to Bob Ibold’s collection. Author of the book “Masks of the World,” Ibold is a serious collector. At one point he owned over a thousand masks, genuine masks worn by indigenous peoples, many of them valuable. Masks from Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Gabon, Japan; masks from Alpine towns in Germany; masks from Caribbean Islands; Indonesian masks, Venezuelan devil masks and Guatemalan monkey masks, Native American masks: Apache, Cherokee, Iroquois, Hopi, Yupik. Ibold started his collection as decoration, but he grew interested in mask ethnography—what they represent, their history, the stories surrounding them.
Ibold would likely describe some of my masks as “airport masks,” those purchased as souvenirs by tourists on their way home from travels. I suppose the masks I bought in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Italy could be called “souvenirs,” but none were acquired at airports.
While most masks alter appearance, the death mask freezes it. Ancient Egyptians mummified bodies and buried them with death masks. They believed a mask helped a person’s soul recognize and return to its body. King Tutankhamen’s death mask is Egypt’s most famous. Wealthy Romans displayed death masks of their ancestors. In more recent centuries, the faces of Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell, composers Beethoven and Chopin, actors James Dean and Peter O’Toole, poets John Keats and William Blake, bank robber John Dillinger and body snatcher William Burke have all been preserved for posterity.
Cast in wax, plaster, or bronze, the death mask is modeled by taking an impression of a corpse’s face. Before the invention of photography, artists used them as a reference to paint or sculpt portraits of deceased nobles and famous people. Sometimes the faces of unidentified dead bodies were preserved as masks so relatives searching for a missing person might recognize their loved ones. Historical death masks are exhibited in The Metropolitan Police Crime Museum in Scotland Yard in London. Death masks are incorporated on tombstones. They are hung on family member walls. Nick Reynolds, a London sculptor who molds death masks, says some people actually keep them by their bedside and talk to them. In an interview with CNN’s Nick Glass, Reynolds describes his work as capturing “a sublime moment between life and death, a snapshot of the soul.” He thinks there’s something magical and mystical about death masks; they’re a way of “cocking a snook at death.”
I’ll settle for preserving my face in photos.
In Medieval towns during the Bubonic Plague, those who collected bodies of the dead wore masks, the dominant feature an exaggerated nose. The nose was not a symbolic design element as in schandemaskes. Nor was it intended as a disguise. Stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs, the nose concealed the stench of death and helped prevent contagion.
Now, in 2021, during our modern plague, Covid-19, we wear masks to protect ourselves from infection; to protect our family, friends, co-workers, and strangers we encounter; to save the lives of frontline workers as they save the lives of the sick. We wear N95 masks or blue surgical masks or cloth masks like those I purchased from Old Navy—navy blue with tiny white flowers—and Vida—two layers of 100% cotton, adjustable straps, integrated metal nose–piece, and filters to add inside.
Lady Gaga posted a selfie in a black mask decorated with spikes and chains and embroidered with pink-glittered letters spelling “Chromatica,” the name of her latest album. Celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kerry Washington posted Instagram photos for the “Wear a Damn Mask Challenge.” Fashion designer Christian Siriano mobilized his staff to sew masks and donated them to New York State—almost 100,000 as of May 2020. Other designers—Burberry, Collina Strado, Michael Ngo—sell upscale masks, even lace bridal masks, some adorned with sequins and beads. Japanese designer Rieko Kawanishi offered masks composed entirely of real pearls. The world’s most expensive mask cost over 1.5 million dollars. Israeli company Yvel Jewelers fashioned the showpiece for an undisclosed buyer from 18-karat white gold and 3,000 black and white diamonds.
On Etsy, a global online marketplace of independent artists and crafts people, you’ll find over 600,000 results for washable face masks. Take your pick of colors, patterns, and messages: lips, stars, planets, “Patriots,” “Trump,” “Not today, Karen,” “Will Remove for Wine,” the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Ahh, yes.
For the past eight years, when flying on a plane, I’ve worn a mask. I’ve also packed anti-bacterial wipes for swabbing seat belts, seat backs, arm rests, tray tables, magazines, overhead controls, and monitors. Other passengers no doubt labelled me germophobic, paranoid, or nuts. But I grew weary of flying and, a few days later, developing a cold. Airplanes are petri dishes. Between-flight cleaning, at least before Covid, was cursory. Air is recirculated. I’ve sat next to passengers who coughed or picked their noses or wiped snot with their hands. My niece Rebecca once sat next to a woman who attempted to diaper her baby on her tray table.
Initially, I wore the standard paper surgical mask. Then I purchased a cotton mask infused with an antibacterial substance. And at the end of 2019, I bought a box of twenty KN95 masks, the Chinese version of N95, before most of us had heard of them. Before we knew they were best saved for doctors and nurses and firefighters. I cherished those masks. I rationed them. Now that Covid is rampant, no one who sees me masked thinks I’m germophobic or paranoid, or nuts. It’s those without masks who we question.
Of course, I could choose a more fitting face covering. If I wear my grinning jester mask when I stop at Safeway, will other shoppers think I’m laughing in the face of Covid? If I wear my dream mask, will it prevent my recurring nightmares? What if I wear my devil mask?
Will it scare the pandemic away?