Saving Face: Embodiment and Play Through Masks in Commedia dell’Arte and Kathakali

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Masks, as used in performance, designate the face as a bodily play space, with the mask becoming a facilitator for play and amusement. This concept of fully, yet momentarily embodying someone else to conform with the iconography of a character is a fundamental tenant of theatre performance. Theatre masks serve as a more direct method for performers to ‘become’ their character, wherein the performer is playing with the audience’s perception of identity and suspending disbelief in order to foster a narrative within the performance-reality of the stage. In literally putting a different identity on oneself, there is a clear indication that the mask-wearer has commenced a performance – something to be appraised as distinct from the regulations of reality. On a material level, the way actors interact with the composition of the mask itself in efficiently playing their character – whether that be detachable from or affixed to the face of the performer – conveys a new insight into theatrical embodiment as a whole. Masks serve as a stylistic convention within theatre forms such as kathakali and commedia dell’arte, but their respective uses of the mask in performance extends beyond theatre theory, but into the realm of play. By adapting the mask into a plaything for performance, kathakali and commedia dell’arte embrace the foundations of play that encapsulate theatre performance.
This paper was a runner-up for the 2020 Burgess Award. It was written for Fall 2019 COLL-C 103.
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