Michael Lippman: “Embodying the Mask: Exploring Ancient Roman Comedy through Mask and Movement”

tl;dr version: experimenting with masks can shed new light on the effect of Roman comedy in performance, and can be a useful activity in the classroom

again, undergraduates might be really interested in some of this, although it is clearly geared toward teachers

stakes: adds to the new body of research on how performance illuminates texts, as well as how it can function pedagogically

In this very useful piece Lippman discusses work with masks during the 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Roman Comedy in Performance, and makes a strong case for their utility in teaching these texts. (I should admit that I started the article already convinced — again, I have worked with students on mask construction and performance — so perhaps I should say that it reinforced, rather than produced, conviction. But still.)

Lippman opens by outlining the barriers to working with masks (e.g. they are not usually part of students’ experience with theater; they are associated in our culture with the frightening/threatening rather than with the comic; etc) but points out that we expect students to cross boundaries linguistically, and see benefits from this kind of stretching of perspectives. Experimentation with masks is simply stretching of a different kind.

While the piece acknowledges the contention around the use of masks in the Roman tradition especially, there is still a good deal of both ancient and comparative material to draw on that facilitates mask work in the classroom. The article lays this out very helpfully, pointing to resources concerning movement and gesture as well as related traditions like commedia dell’arte.

Lippman recounts the experience of the institute participants in a mask workshop led by C.W. Marshall, and then his own group’s work on the use of commedia masks and concepts in their production of the Ballio scene from the Pseudolus. It is clear that mask work brings out elements of the text that are often invisible to students on a first read. The effects of combining stylized body movements with the character types must have produced its own complex but legible set of indicators to the audience about how to react to a given figure.

The final section of the piece lays out a set of classroom activities around the use of masks that many of us can use to bring this material to our students. So try this at home, as he suggests! And post some pictures!