Twenty years ago I had the privilege of seeing Tantalus, a 10-play cycle of the Trojan War, directed by Sir Peter Hall. His opus was my first experience of professional masked drama, and the profound emotion of less-faced actors cut me to the core. Just the opposite of social distancing, the memory of those performances has granted me access to the myth and mystery of our present-day masquerAID.
In drama, masks are not seen as signs of weakness. They deliver the human experience to the precipice of the divine. When actors are masked, they are not hidden; their universality is revealed. Behind the mask’s static, impassive countenance, a very ordinary person with a very common circumstance can suddenly stand in a coliseum and roar with her whole being to the Gods. Masks liberate us from the personal and invite us into the mythic--our unique human hybrid of the animal and the celestial. From this realm, we can rail against injustice, challenge our ethical boundaries, incite our darkest passions, and collapse under the weight of our own hubris.
Most of us grew up with movies and television--media for which face is king--so we rely on the minutia of expression to tell our larger stories. Actors who practice subtlety in their emotions and voice can transport us into the lives of their characters. Without this delicate nuance we feel affectively neutered, unable to communicate with strangers, with anyone who does not already recognize our larger intent and context. While we are masked, then, the physical distance between us becomes a psychosocial barrier where we disconnect entirely in public and retreat to Zoom calls in order to feel connected.
What we have forgotten is that the mask is the great liberator of the power of the body. The mask does not reveal how we are cowed by a virus: it physically frees us to express ourselves with the whole of our being--with a greater scale than micro-expression. What would a walk in the park be like if, instead of looking away in fear and frustration, we greeted each other by throwing our arms up in triumph or beating our chest in sympathy or dropping to the earth in grief? How might jazz hands look to a friend we haven’t seen in a while? Or a flirty pirouette to a spouse or beloved?
In the era of coronavirus, it is not how we are masked. It’s how we are unmasked. We are seeing our lives through a new and shocking portal, and have so much suffering to bear. Consider Cassandra in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon--a woman cursed by Apollo and defiled by Ajax. Her mask was not a barrier to her suffering but a conduit for us to share the burden of her curse. Her mask unmasked the injustice of her plight, and called us all to reckoning.
As temperatures and uncertainty continues to rise, and as our masks grow sweatier and more uncomfortable, I invite you to unmask your deepest humanity to yourself and others. Let that person emerge through your wise body. Be a titan in your kinesphere. Be the queen of flash and nimble greetings. Raise your arms, lower your brow. Deeply bow in praise and reverence. The world does not need you to be small and avoidant. It needs you to be bold in your love and demonstrative.
And if you are struggling to find your way to this level of living, please reach out to me. Each unblocking of energy liberates a corner of the collective consciousness and welcomes the greater power of good into the public arena. This is the form of unmasking we most desperately need.