Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: masque or mask from Collins English Dictionary


1 a dramatic entertainment of the 16th to 17th centuries in England, consisting of pantomime, dancing, dialogue, and song, often performed at court

2 the words and music written for a masque

3 short for masquerade

[C16: variant of mask]

Summary Article: mask.
From The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Acting

A sculpted face covering, made from materials such as wood, leather, plaster, paper, plastic, or resin, a mask enables an actor to disguise or transform age, gender, status, or social class with comparative ease and swiftness.

In some cultures in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, the mask is a sacred object. In Bali, for example, mask-making is a revered profession, and the actor adopting the mask must intensively study its shape and colours, allowing the features and character traits to penetrate him/her on donning the mask. There are very specific rules about who can wear a mask, dependent on age, gender, and lineage, with mask-training in both Bali and Japan being serious and intensive. This is due in part to the fact that some of the masks represent gods: indeed, the oldest surviving mask ritual in Bali involves the Barong mask of the mythical lion-dragon, whose restorative life-force battles with the masked character of Rangda, or witch-Death. So holy is the Barong mask that it must not come into contact with the ground.

The power of the mask lies in its ability to transform the actor beneath: the paradox of the mask is that by concealing the wearer, his or her true nature is revealed. In the fifteenth century, the masks of the Venetian carnival released the wearers’ inhibitions to the extent that they often caused chaos and destruction. A return to order was requisite at the end of the carnival. This sense of being ‘possessed’ – i.e. the changing state of consciousness for the wearer and a temporary loss of social identity – adds to the potency of mask work.

Mask work plays an important part in actor training. Copeau introduced neutral (or ‘noble’) masks into his programme as a means of revealing his students’ simple honesty. Lecoq also incorporated the use of the neutral mask into his actor training to help his students find within themselves a state of perfect balance and an economy of movement, since the simplicity of the neutral mask can be extremely expressive.

Both Michael Chekhov and Stanislavsky saw the extensive use of wigs, make-up, false noses, and padding as means of masking their own selves and transforming into characters. The masks of commedia dell’arte served a different purpose of instantly identifying the character, regardless of the actor beneath, and the features of the mask deliberately locked the character’s emotional temperament into a particular type – for example, the melancholic, the gay, or the miserly. It was the fixity of the mask and the inelasticity of the temperament which caused much of the comedy. The masks of ancient Greek theatre again allowed for the audience’s instant recognition of particular characters. In his Onomasticon, the second-century scholar and rhetorician Julius Pollux describes a number of these masks: the leading man’s mask is ‘beardless, fresh-coloured, swarthy, having locks clustering, and black. The Curled [mask] is yellow, blustering, with bushy hair encompassing a plump face, has arched eyebrows, and a fierce aspect. The Graceful has hyacinthian locks, fair skin, is lively, and of a pleasant countenance, fit for a beautiful Apollo. The Horrid is robust, grim-visaged, sullen, deformed [suitable for] the yellow-haired attendant. The Pale is meagre, with dishevelled hair, and of such a sickly countenance as is suitable for a ghost or wounded person.’

One of the most successful British mask companies, Trestle Theatre Company, created solely masked performances between 1981 and 2007, often using whole-head masks to tackle a range of social and cultural issues.

Bella Merlin
© Cambridge University Press, 2015

Related Articles

Full text Article MASK
Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

French masque , from Spanish mascara. A disguise, covering or protection for the face. To appear in social space is inevitably to appear...

Full text Article MASQUERADE
Routledge Revivals: Encyclopedia of Homosexuality

See Mardi Gras and Masked Balls.

See more from Credo