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masks and mysticismAs an acting student I once had to take part in a scene in which all of us wore masks that were drawn by random out of a box. We spent a few moments ‘alone with our mask’ studying it and trying to understand it. We then put on the masks and silently acted out a given scenario. It was beautiful and not a little disconcerting to see how each actor’s body language was transformed as they wore the mask and got into the scene. It was as if the mask wore them rather than them wearing the mask.

The roots of the acting profession are in religion. In the most primitive forms of human civilization the shaman dons the costume and masks of the gods, and often with the help of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs combined with mind bending repetitious drumbeats and chanting, the shaman is subsumed into something greater. He goes into a trance and is overtaken by the spirit of the god itself. In this way the pagan communicates with his gods and propitiates the deity. He becomes a clairvoyant, a seer, and mediates the message supernaturally. If you like, the medium becomes the message. 

It is only a short hop from this most primitive paganism to the ritual drama of the ancient classical world. With mask, stylized speech, ornate costumes and scenery the ways of gods and human heroes were played out on stage. Gods and men wove their tales of suffering and redemption in what amounted to a kind of religious ritual. The theory of vicarious suffering was built into their dramatic understanding, for as the hero or the god went through the ordeal, the audience experienced the cathartic cleansing at the same time. The actor did not so much play out the part of a real human being, but through the unrealistic costumes and the oversized mask he played someone greater than a mere mortal.

In discussing different forms of acting with some high school students, I was surprised that they seemed more intrigued by the expressionistic form of acting instead of the realistic. Realistic acting comes from the Russian drama coach Stanislavsky. Developed by the American director Elia Kazan and the famous acting mentor Lee Strasberg, the so-called “method” trained actors to get in touch with the inner emotions of the character, and allow the outward expressions to flow from the inward emotion. This realistic form of acting seems most appropriate for film with its close ups, subtle visual storytelling, and emotional range.

Expressionistic acting, on the other hand, is almost totally outward in its emphasis. Acting with a mask, or with highly stylized gestures, or with an ornate and unrealistic costume is expressionistic acting. We think of ancient classical actors with their masks, or perhaps the acting associated with opera—with its larger than life characters and situations. My students pointed out, however, that there is a modern film genre which uses stylized acting to great effect: it is the comic book, superhero film.

Like ancient classical drama, the actor in a superhero film wears an outlandish, ornate costume. He acts out the huge themes of guilt, redemption and the fight against evil in a lavish, unrealistic, and un-subtle manner. The comic book hero also wears a mask or facial disguise of some sort. In practically every way the comic book superhero film parallels the tales of the ancient mythic heroes. The superheroes are like the mortals who become gods. They engage with otherworldly, supernatural beings in the struggle between good and evil. They do so in a way that is intentionally broad, universal, and mythic in its proportions. Profound emotions and great subtlety of acting have no place in a superhero movie, and when the directors and actors attempt too much introspective realism the audience is impatient and the film falls flat. We don’t want Superman to be Woody Allen.

It must be remembered that film is still a relatively new art form. It is an art form that gathers up all the other art forms into one powerful, emotional, dramatic experience. It is also a hungry art form. The appetite for new films seems to be insatiable, and as the filmmakers’ art (through ever advancing technology) becomes limitless in its potential, so does the scope for its imaginative breadth. Beginning as merely photographed stage plays, it has developed into a studio for ever expanding expressions of drama and storytelling. Through modern cinema the ancient is melded with the modern in increasingly powerful and ingenious combinations. So, in the modern comic book superhero film (mutatis mutandi) we are seeing a re-birth of the ancient classical drama of the mask—with all its mystery and meaning.

Finally, the stylized drama of the mask, is in some ways, the form of drama that is closest to the liturgy. In both, the individual human being is subsumed into a type that is greater than himself. The ordinary student or newspaper reporter is transformed into a superhero by putting on a costume and a mask. Similarly, the ordinary frail human being (by putting on his vestments) is concealed and transformed into something greater than himself—something that transcends his own limitations: a priest. As the superhero uses stock formula, fights typological villains, and resorts to standard ‘good guy’ behavior, so the priest uses words greater than his own words, gestures that transcend his own gestures, and formulae that are older and more transcendent and powerful than his own repertoire of words.

One does not want to press the analogy too far. Father Sam is not Spiderman, nor is his chasuble a satin cape. Father Barry is not Batman, nor was he meant to be. However, the expressionistic, formal style of acting and the formulaic direction of comic book superhero movies points to a way of communication that sheds light on the celebration of the liturgy, for there too our little concerns, and our personal styles are subsumed not into something comic, but something cosmic. There our small worlds are transformed and our small lives become part of the everlasting struggle for redemption that makes ordinary heroes of us all.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis is an adapted version of an article that first appeared in St. Austin Review and appears here with permission from the author.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Should we also consider how the Mass incorporates also stylized dance (in the movements of the priest and people), or the Chorus (in the responses)? The appeal to all the senses, with incense, music, decoration, etc (yes, the Mass is sensual, like humanity). When the gifts are presented at the altar, the host taken from the tabernacle, is this also (literally) the deux ex machine come to save the day? Looking closer, the form of the mass may be from centuries of Latin influence, but that form comes from the Greeks (there they are, again, with gifts).
    Nothing wrong with this, as we humans tend to be inherently conservative in our culture (even our sins are ancient and of long-standing), but a recognition of the source, while not necessary to truly appreciate what it is we do, does serve to enhance our connection with the past. (And, yes, I know some arch-Protestants who will condemn this as demonstrating the “corruption” of Rome. Poor, culturally-deprived souls, they.)
    Your essay also reminded me of the book by C. S. Lewis, “Till We Have Faces”, for obvious reasons.

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