The mask – and how it writes for you

Posted on Posted in Drama itself, Dramatizing the world's music, Music and film, My blog

In the chapter on Mask work in his acting book Impro, Keith Johnstone tells of how masks impart their information (physiological, psychological) to actors who wear them, so that no matter the personal characteristics of the wearer, the wearer conforms to the behaviour of the Mask. Says Johnstone:

Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask along to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Park’s laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. Fortunately it didn’t, because the wearer wasn’t very athletic. It really makes no sense that a Mask should be able to to transmit that sort of information to its wearer. – p.165

And yet, I can vouch for the fact that it does. I’ve had some experience with Basle masks and can attest, from my own experience, that an actor can subconsciously take on the characteristics of the mask – put on the face of a sloth-like creature and any actor will move slowly; put on the ‘Capitan’ and any actor will become a bold coward – you don’t even have to look at the mask to inhabit it. Charlie Chaplin claimed that putting on his moustache, baggy trousers, tight coat, oversized shoes and tiny hat, ‘”ignited all sorts of crazy ideas that I would never have dreamt of until I was dressed and made-up as the Tramp”‘ (Johnstone, p.145).

This has made me think about the way scripts are written in Hollywood.

Practitioners in the arthouse world, are very often skeptical of the writing process behind Hollywood films. How can the films be any good if they’re written by one writer after another; surely, a series of writers leads to a dilution of vision? I can’t help recalling the disdainful term ‘creation by committee’ that is often used to disparage art that has been created in a spirit of collaboration, even though creation by committee is quite different from material that has been written in honest service of the material’s premises.

Part of the shocked response of the Arthouse to the way Hollywood scripts are written is, of course, related to the brutal way a human being’s services can be dispensed with (‘They’ll buy your script and then inevitably you’ll be sacked!’). But the process doesn’t result in rotten films, at least as much as the ‘great man’ theory of High Art might lead you to expect.

Why not?

I’ll concede that in film there often is an authorial voice: the director. But I also think it’s because the material itself suggests its own shape. Three Acts suggest their own contours; an audience feels that protagonists and antagonists must behave in certain ways. (We can overlook the fact that Wagner was a bit of a creep because actually Wotan and Brunnhilde (Wagner’s characters) wrote The Ring.) To go on, we can tell if the stakes are not high enough; someone must change the most. It’s all felt instinctually.

And not just by the lone writer. At a script reading I recently attended, all the listeners agreed whose story we were listening to. Initially, the writer disagreed (the story hadn’t started with the little girl) but eventually she came around to the idea that we, the listeners, were right.

There’s another way in which I think this story-disposition works. Actors serve as masks. Whoever writes for Clooney or Julia Roberts writes Clooney or Julia Roberts stuff. A writer needs to see who they’re writing for, put on those actors as masks. Surely it helped Shakespeare to think of Burbage when he wrote Lear or Othello?

Does the same thing happen in music? I started thinking about this when considering ‘completions’ of incomplete works. I do like the way some interpreters stop playing Bach’s Art of Fugue at precisely the spot where Bach died. It really brings you, with Bach, to the edge of a precipice. But last year I heard Henryk Górecki’s posthumous Fourth Symphony and was impressed by a work that had been completed by his son. My guess is that Mikołaj Górecki was completely immersed in his father’s intentions. I’m glad he didn’t allow any inhibitions about ‘tampering’ stop him from bringing an overwhelming piece into the concert hall. And I think it would be totally frustrating if every conductor of Puccini’s Turandot, copied Toscanini and turned to the audience with, ‘At this spot, the maestro laid down his pen.’

In fact, I’d probably boo the arthouse pretension of it and wish that Classical music thought more of the audience and a story‘s life than the ‘individual genius’s voice’.

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