Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Masks

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Perhaps the most mysterious costume accessories associated with the pantomimes were masks. Lucian asserted that the pantomime’s “mask itself is most beautiful, and suited to the drama that forms the theme.” But he also insisted that pantomime masks did not look like those used in the performance of spoken tragedies and comedies. The pantomime mask’s “mouth is not wide open, as with tragedy and comedy, but closed, for he has many people who do the shouting in his stead” (Lucian 1936: 241). Yet it is not certain that masks were always part of every pantomime’s performance. Apuleius, in his description of the “Judgment of Paris” pantomime, made no mention of masks worn by any of the many performers in the scene, and other literary commentators on the pantomime avoid explicit reference to masks. Fulminating against the idolatry of the theater, even Tertullian, in De spectaculis (XXIII), treated masking in the pantomime above all as a matter of transvestism (men impersonating women), a worse manifestation of masking than the facial masks of tragic actors in the spoken drama, although he did not explicitly separate pantomimes from the conventional use of masks in performance. In the Porto Maggiore frieze, the figure of Agave holds high a mask designating the head of Pentheus, but she herself appears not to wear a mask [Figure 3]. The mysterious, apparently late Empire silver plate examined by Otto Jahn (1813-1869) appears to depict a pantomimic performance involving the handling of torches by some of the dancers. Masks are displayed but the several performers either do not wear masks or the artist represents the performance as if the spectator cannot distinguish the mask from the performer’s actual face (Jahn 1867: 74-82, Tafel CCXXV) [Figure 30]. Bieber (1961: 231-232), supported by Elia (1965: 177), proposed that a spectacular wall painting at Pompeii, in the House of Pinarius Cerialis, depicted a pantomime representation of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas [Figure 31a]. But although Bieber assumes that masks were a pervasive element of pantomime performance, none of the several figures in the painting, a couple of whom are naked, appears to wear a mask, and the scene does not even contain images of masks as autonomous, decorative symbols, such as appear in so many other paintings. On the other hand, the visual evidence does not seem to reinforce the assertion (e.g., Bieber 1961: 237) that the mimes always performed without masks, for they do wear masks in perhaps the most famous images of them. 

Figure 30: Engraving of an enigmatic performance on a silver plate described by Otto Jahn in 1867 displaying masks in uncertain relation to the performers, late fourth century CE.

The Roman mask culture followed a complicated aesthetic because it arose from an inclination to treat masking as both an efficacious, stabilizing value and an obstacle to clarity of perception. In the 1961 edition of her book, Margarete Bieber provided a comprehensive, though not complete, survey of the archeology and representations of masks in Greco-Roman antiquity. Her evidence reveals that the Roman preoccupation with masks manifested itself in two conflicting ways. On the one hand, masks could possess the status of a kind of fetish object, a thing worth representing in itself because its meaning transcended any relation to an impersonation by a particular person. On the other hand, masks served a performative function to dramatize the belief that a particular person projected “other” or multiple identities and was thus capable of “metamorphosis.” The performative and fetish functions entailed different mask aesthetics.

Figure 31a: First century CE wall painting from the Pinarius Cerialis, Pompeii depicting a pantomime performance of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas, with curtain suspended above the action, from Elia (1965).
Figure 31b: First century Pompeiian wall painting of a woman holding a thyrsus accompanied by a tibia player before a large curtain, with a pair of performers or servants standing outside the curtain. The painting apparently depicts a ritual performance. Photo: Naples Archeological Museum.

But before discussing these two functions, let me examine the Roman preoccupation with masks itself. The Greeks did not share the same preoccupation. For them, at least in the Athenian theater of the fifth century BCE, masks belonged above all in the theater and enjoyed little, if any, importance outside of it in the sense that the Greeks regarded masks as symbols of a basic condition defining humanity. They saw the mask as a device for concealing the identity of the actor, so that audiences would not confuse the actor with the role. The mask allowed the actor to assume roles that otherwise he would be afraid to play, and by freeing the actor from public misperception or censure, the mask also freed dramatists to deal with messy themes, motives, or characters that are independent of those who enact them in a designated space, the theater, at a designated time, the festival. When the acting of plays was the privilege of aristocrats, the mask served to protect the actor from his inclination to play roles that in some way compromised the dignity of his social class. The mask preserved a distinction between a “real” identity and a mythic or imaginary identity. 

By the time the Romans began to consider that theater might be a worthwhile pleasure, in the third century BCE, actors had long since ceased to enjoy a privileged status anywhere in the ancient world. They now belonged to the lowest classes; many of them were slaves. Audiences expected performances that entailed a display of exceptional prowess, glamour, charm, or ingenuity. They required professional performers governed, not by literary ideals, but by audience tastes and commercial motives. It was not to the advantage of a professional actor to hide his identity. On the contrary, success as an actor depended on the extent to which performance was the revelation of the performer’s unique personality. In the pantomime, after all, nudity was a pervasive attraction. Masks did not separate a “real” identity from an imaginary one; rather, they signified how a single personality projected multiple identities. People wore different masks in different situations, so that no mask was a completely reliable image of a person’s character. Indeed, from this perspective, the face itself was a mask, and the concept of a “real” identity implied a dynamism, fluidity, and instability of being. The idea of a  “real” identity as something essential or absolute was a myth or, from the Roman perspective, an illusion. Masks codified a will to self-transformation, and acting was a cultural codification of a human power to achieve metamorphosis. Thus, the pantomimes displayed their masks before wearing them. Thus, actors sometimes wore masks and sometimes did not, or some actors in a play wore masks and some did not. Thus, visual artists represented theatrical scenes in which figures do not wear masks, even if in performance they actually did. The mask was an object that a performer chose to use because it dramatized his own body in a unique way and not because the cultural milieu, seeking to regulate the representation of “character,” imposed it upon the actor as a “convention.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Roman culture tolerated and even encouraged the perception of human identity as something divided by contradictory images of itself. Masks symbolized a constant conflict within the self insofar as they possessed a value independent of their practical use for an actor. To make masks and collect or display them as decorative emblems is to fetishize or objectify a desire to respect, honor, or at any rate appreciate the power of this “eternal” yet masked conflict defining human identity. Bieber presents many examples of bronze, stone, and terra cotta masks and masked figurines that apparently decorated homes throughout the domain of Roman civilization; these examples she supplements with images of masks in paintings. These masks assume stereotypical qualities that easily separate into symbols of either tragedy or comedy, with comic masks much more numerous than tragic. Whether tragic or comic, the masks project a uniform, even monotonous sameness of expression. The tragic mask is always a variation on a cry of horror or dismay, and the comic mask is always a variation of a grotesquely distorted laugh or grin. The bulging or hollowed out eyes, the gaping mouths, the corkscrew hairstyles (tragedy) and balding pates (comedy) that define these masks are actually caricatures of masks rather than of social types. The presence of these artifacts theatricalized an environment. To display a masked figurine or a painted image of a mask or a frieze of persons holding such masks was to announce: “Here we acknowledge the power of masks, independent of whoever wears them, insofar as they are grotesque exaggerations of identity pervasively and eternally imposed on humans by myth or rather, by a human inclination to mythologize a fundamental conflict within all human identity between tragic and comic conditions.” These often elaborately carved stone, marble, terra cotta, or frescoed masks, with their permanence and sometimes monumental dimensions (such as the mask towers at the theater of Ostia [Figure 32]), signified immutable identities or conditions imposed upon people rather than assumed by them. For this reason, the mask artifacts have little connection with the performance masks used by pantomimes. While such fetish masks may bear some resemblance to the masks actually used by mimes and tragedians, their autonomous, rigidifying power merely reinforced the inferior social status of the performers and constrained their ability to represent the power of “metamorphosis.” Indeed, even the tragic masks on actors in representations of theatrical scenes are such caricatures of tragic expression that they often evoke an atmosphere of bizarre comedy or at any rate fantastic remoteness, as if to suggest that the tragic condition was more absurd than anxiety-inducing. This quaint remoteness seems only amplified when tragic actors appear on “stilts” (okribantes) that “elevate” their bodies and attempt to make them “larger than life”; as already noted, Lucian viewed the performance of tragic scenes by actors using stilts and exaggerated masks as “ridiculous.” And Philostratus (Apollonios Tyana, V, 9) describes the provincial performance of a tragic scene in Spain in which the actor, “walking on high stilts” and “with a wide open mouth,” had only to speak to frighten the unsophisticated spectators out of the theater, as if they were “persecuted by a demon.” Philostratus invites his reader to see this confusion of the demonic with the human as amusing. But it is amusing only because the description of the actor’s performance is itself amusing (Philostratus, 1912: 483-485). Certainly the tragic masks seem merely weird compared with the powerful aura of foreboding or doom cast by a masked gladiatorial helmet.

Figure 32: Mask towers at the theater in Ostia, second or third century CE, displaying masks not worn by pantomimes. Photo: Karl Toepfer.

Julius Pollux (180-238 CE), in his Onomastikon, described 28 types of tragic masks (IV, 132-142) and 44 types of comic masks (IV, 143-155). Bieber (1961: 245) believed this inventory surveyed “the typical wardrobe of the traveling troupes” and as a result could give “only a small selection of those used in different periods.” If this is true, then both tragedy and comedy were the responsibility of the same ensemble and the social status of the actors remained constant whether they performed in tragic or comic scenes. Pollux classified masks for both genres according to social class, gender, and age. But each category of classification contained significant variation. For example, in the “young man” category, the inventory listed eight masks for tragedy and eleven for comedy; tragedy provided eleven “women’s” masks but comedy only five. However, tragedy included no “courtesan” masks, while comedy supported seven, as well as masks for two “young servant maids.” Tragedy inspired masks for six different “old men” but no old women, while comedy had opportunities for nine old men and three old women. Tragedy needed only three “slave” masks while comedy required seven. Pollux’s catalogue implies that the masks used by a single ensemble displayed a much wider range of expressions and differentiating attributes than the fetish artifacts depicted in Bieber’s treatise. Masks served to demonstrate the individuality, not only of characters and actors, but of the mask makers. The fetish masks probably functioned in much the same way as Venetian carnival masks do today: they signified a kind of permissive or carefree atmosphere; they were not an image of a standardized, uniform code of representing characters that spectators expected actors to use. Theater mask makers required pliant materials to carve or mold the details that bestowed individuality upon a face. Perhaps some masks were ceramic or even metallic, but most were probably made of wood or wax, then varnished and delicately painted. Unlike the fetish masks, theater masks were delicate objects that showed the mask maker’s skill at combining unique physiognomic details with expressive textural and color effects. The pliancy of the materials perhaps does not mean the performers wore masks that were “realistic” in the sense of simulating the face of a real person. Rather, performers favored masks that produced a refinement or subtlety of expression one would never expect in a fetish mask. Some actors simply relied on cosmetic coloring of their faces; Maiuri (1953: 94) contended that the actress playing the courtesan in Figure 33 employed “the thickly powdered face of the typical hetaira.” The grotesque physiognomic exaggerations of the fetish mask, especially the huge mouth, were probably not a consistent feature even of the mime or tragic performances of literary drama. A Terence manuscript from the fourth or fifth century CE precedes each play with a miniature display of masks for all the characters in the text. Of the masks displayed, fewer than half have the enlarged mouth, and even in miniatures that purport to depict scenes from the plays, only some actors wear masks with gaping mouths—indeed, some characters, chiefly female, appear not to wear masks at all [Figures 12, 34] (Jones and Morey 1931). The point is that even in the performance of literary drama and farcical mimes, actors relied as much on their faces as on masks to signify the emotional life of characters. A comparison between faces and masks was a fundamental element of performance. 

Figure 33: Masked characters performing a scene from a mime comedy, first century CE wall painting from Pompeii. Photo: Maiuri (1953). 

In any case, as Lucian insisted, the gaping mouth mask had no practical value for the pantomimes. Such a mask hardly amplified the mood of aristocratic voluptuousness the pantomime sought to cultivate. The physical beauty of the performer was essential to the power of the genre, and only masks that somehow heightened this beauty were acceptable. Following John Jory, Marie-Hélène Garelli discusses in some detail four clay feminine pantomime masks, dating from the second or third centuries CE, deposited in the British Museum and in the Römisch-Germanischen Museum in Cologne that show the mouths closed. “The masks do not appear to show any emotion,” and they come from Dura-Europas, Timgad (Algeria), Arroniz (Northern Spain), and Germany, thus indicating a widespread performance convention of allowing the performer to infuse a scene with a specific emotion through physical action rather than expecting the mask to signify an emotion with a character (Garelli 2007: 220-221, figures 9 and 10; Jory 2001). In the fourth century CE silver plate described by Jahn in 1867, the artist has depicted a mysterious, torchlight pantomime scene of inscrutable solemnity [Figure 30]. Four masks are on display before the scene, but no one in the scene obviously wears one, none of the masks feature the gaping mouth, and when thirteen unmasked performers appear behind four mounted masks, it may be that the masks merely constitute symbolic décor and have no representative function within the performance itself. Or it may be that the masks merely signify that one is viewing a theatrical scene, and without the masks one would not know that the artist sought to represent a theatrical scene, because in the theater it was not easy to distinguish myth from reality—that is, it was not easy to distinguish the actor from the character he played because it was not altogether easy to distinguish mask from face. The sort of “beautiful mask” that achieves this effect of fusing reality with myth appears in a first century CE wall painting from the Casa del Braccialetto d’Oro in Pompeii [Figure 35]. 

Figure 34: Masks on display as depicted in miniatures illustrating the Terence manuscripts from the fourth or fifth centuries, from Jones and Morey (1931).
Figure 35: Roman wall painting from the First Century CE, Pompeii (House of the Golden Bracelet) depicts sexually ambiguous masks with closed mouths. Photo: Public domain.

The painting depicts two masks side-by-side, yet remarkably lifelike, as if to create some uncertainty in the viewer about whether a mask or a face is the object of representation. It’s not even clear if the masks assume male or female identities; perhaps the mask on the right signifies Dionysos. These masks, with their idealized rather than grotesque physiognomy and their refined, mysterious emotional coloring, suggest the kind of masks favored by the pantomimes (Dierichs 1997: 58). When an actor held such a mask next to his face, the effect was much more dramatic than if he held some variation of the gaping mouth mask of comedy or tragedy, for it was always more dramatic to reveal that the difference between the ideal and the real was lessthan the absurd difference between the real face and a grotesque deformationof the face resulting from a fetishized eternal, immutable tragic or comic condition of humanity. Further evidence that the pantomimes used idealizing or at any rate physiognomically attractive masks comes from a fourth century CE ivory relief discovered in Trier (deposited now in Berlin) that depicts a female pantomime holding up three masks in her right hand while holding a lyre in her left [Figure 36]. These masks do not have gaping mouths. Bieber contended that the masks “represent a hero, a heroine and a youth,” while the “sword, crown, and lyre indicate the content of the Fabula Saltica” (1961: 236).1But an especially startling feature of the image is how closely the mask nearest the face of the pantomime resembles her own face. The artist’s effort to carve the three masks together reinforces the perception that each face is the metamorphosis of the other, that the mythic face is embedded in the real face, and that the real face is itself but a mask. Pantomimes used masks to the extent that masks idealized a condition of metamorphosis and the mutability of human identity: masks dramatized the ability of a person to choose or assume an identity rather than the power of fate to determine identity. The Trier ivory relief provides an exquisite representation of this theatrical condition of metamorphosis. The artist places the pantomime’s lyre next to her sword, and, having clothed her in a flowing palla, he nevertheless further contrasts her sword with the nakedness of her belly and navel. With her crown, lyre, sword, masks, and nudity, the pantomime provokes great uncertainty as to what her “essential” identity is. The crown, if that is what it is, perhaps bestows a queenly aura on her. But the important thing is that she embodies the imperial idea of multiple identities absorbed into a single female body.[1]  

[1]Bieber (1920: 125) earlier believed that this pantomime figure was male, but the care with which the artist sculpted the figure’s breasts with a chiton yet insisted on exposing a feminized navel and belly makes it difficult to understand why Bieber even supposed the figure was male.

Figure 36: Fourth century ivory relief from Trier depicting a female pantomime. The pantomime holds masks with closed mouths. Photo: Edith Hall.

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