The hidden joy of wearing a mask

    30 July 2020

    In the last few weeks, the word “mask” has expanded its bubble in the National Word Cloud by several orders of magnitude. It is has become the centre of what US TV anchors are, provocatively, calling The Great Mask Debate.

    For many people, masks are a bit of a flash point it seems. An intrusion too far. Others, cannot see the issue (perhaps their glasses have steamed up?). They think we should all mask up, just as we have previously drunk up and buckled up.

    I might be unusual however in actively relishing the creative possibilities with a degree of excitement. But then masks always have been a crucial part of comedy, as well as, of course, the current tragedy.

    In Keith Johnstone’s seminal work Impro, the final section is dedicated to “Mask and Trance”. I learned impro in the 90s, before I got into stand up, and if Johnstone’s book was considered The Bible, “Mask and Trance” was the Book of Revelation.

    The section on masks was genuinely unnerving. It described how to cede your speech and actions to the mask. How to look in the mirror – and into the audience – to see who you had become. How to behave accordingly. How to let the mask have its way with you. When you put on a mask you become someone else.

    Masks were merged with a discussion on the use of trance in performance – the edge of Shamanism, and the drug enhanced rituals that some anthropologists believe explain the origin of human consciousness itself. It reminded me of the kind of briefing you might get before embarking on an adventure with Ayahuasca.

    Could masks allow us to embrace the idea of a ‘persona’? Photo: Getty

    I never worked seriously with masks. Instead I became a stand-up comedian, and developed a persona – which as every Spectator reader will know is Latin for… mask.

    For a comedian, their “persona” is their core proposition, the filter or prism through which their take on the world will be passed. What makes a comedian funny, usually, is the degree to which they can present the world through the lens of this persona.

    A classic joke format is set up – a statement with which no one could disagree – the mother in law is coming to stay – followed by a punchline – a revelation of the comedian’s persona, through an absurdity that only his own view of the world could provide – the mice are throwing themselves on the traps.

    We are laughing at their predictability, as much as anything, at a stubbornness that would amount to a mental disorder in real life. And what better way to demonstrate such inflexibility, metaphorically, than with the rigid features of a mask?

    I understand the aversion to masks in real life. The human face is nature’s captcha, it engages in our brains the highest form of visual recognition software known to man, and is generally reassuring, despite Gary Numan’s sullen doubt.

    As Russian chess grand master Gary Kasparov admitted, we had long thought that it would be intellectual games like playing chess that would fox computers, but it turned out to be recognising a face you’ve seen a thousand times before, from a slightly different angle. Losing this ability hobbles our social instincts.

    And faces engage our emotions. A face can launch a thousand ships, or cause us to recoil with instantly regretted candour.

    This in itself creates some anxiety. “There will be time, there will be time,” as J Alfred Prufrock reassures himself, neurotically, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…”

    In our selfie-orientated era, wearing masks will substitute the anxiety of visibility for the anxiety of blindness perhaps, but I also think we could have some fun with it. Choose a mask that suggests a new persona, and go with it. Let it run. Maybe plague doctor? Maybe cowboy? Perhaps anarchist/antifa/bike courier? This is your chance to explore a new you!

    And with international travel and other traditional means of taking a break now so hard to come by, this could be just the holiday from ourselves we are looking for.

    Just remember to smile with your eyes – and have fun out there!