one hundred essays I don't have time to write*

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12. Greek Masks and Star Casting

When a star is cast in a play, what does the audience see, other than the play? They also see the actor’s persona, underneath the language, or above the language, which is, in a way, like watching a masked actor. We are watching, superimposed, the three-dimensional mask of all the old photographs of the actor we have seen before in Playbill or People magazine. The actor’s face has been made into an individual mask by all the pictures taken of it. And I believe the big difference between the mask of celebrity and the Greek mask is that the Greek mask has to do with the universal whereas the mask of celebrity has to do with the illusion of being able to know an individual from a distance. When the individual we think we know from a distance is put on stage, we think about all the wrong things. We think about the individual neurosis rather than the primal universal.
In effect, one might argue that the relationship between nobodies and somebodies has now been reversed in the theater. It used to be in Shakespeare’s time that nobodies --actors--would play royalty--somebodies. Now there is no royalty in our culture but for actor-celebrities themselves. So now it is the actors who are somebodies in real life but on stage they pretend to be nobodies. And we no longer write about royalty on stage, we write about the common man.
What does that do to mimesis or to the sense that we are seeing something important on stage? When a nobody pretends to be a somebody it is a magical transformation. But when a somebody pretends to be a nobody are we just watching for a glimmer of the somebody inside the nobody? It means there is no royalty inside the story anymore, only inside the image.
Let it be known that name theater actors are name actors for a reason. They are good actors. I’ve had the privilege of working with actors who began on the stage and then happened to make movies, but they retain their voices from the stage. Name actors on the screen are famous for their faces and actors on the stage are actually famous for their voices. It is the voice we honor on stage. There is no close-up on stage so there is no reason to be particular about faces. Part of the reason videos of theater are so horrible is that in film the voice and the image are severed and then put back together. Whereas in live performance the body and the voice and the air receiving it are all one thing.
If we all wrote mask plays, plays for a Greek chorus, and then cast leading Hollywood ingénues, who are twenty-two or three, with tiny voices, we would have a disaster.
One might argue that in the age of plastic surgery, botox has become our new version of the Greek mask. But I digress…the Greek or non-western mask being placed on top of the face as opposed to the mask being the face, as we have in Hollywood, means differently. If the mask is the face, as opposed to the face being below the mask, then subtext rules the day. That is to say, if botox renders the forehead a mute sculpture, if we are unable to tell what actors are thinking while they are speaking, subtext has even more primacy. For someone like Nicole Kidman (and I don’t mean to pick on Nicole Kidman) the purpose of the face is to not express. The language speaks, and the face hides. The face hides meaning and expresses beauty, and the sound cues and the visual effects create subtext and meaning. Which is, I think, impossible to do in the theater. For the Greeks, the ritual mask exposed the voice, which was a very large howl. We do not howl in the movies. And I think it has become bad form to howl in the theater. Because howls are the enemy of subtext. Which brings me to…

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