William Shakespeare once said: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” And for actors, actresses, and those enthusiastic about theater, this could never be truer. Theater magnifies real life: each action made larger, each feeling made more obvious, and each moment pushed to its limit.
Commedia – Master of Theater and Masks
A specific form of this exaggerated theater art is the Commedia dell’Arte. Having Italian origins, this type of physical theater includes comedy and improvisation. But the Commedia became famous for requiring its actors to wear Commedia masks for representing their stock characters to complete the ensemble.
Each mask will have a specific characteristic —be it a long nose for a character named Zanni, wrinkles for il Dottore—which will make its character easily identifiable among all of the stock personalities in the Commedia. The type of masks will tell audiences what their social status is and what they are expected to do.
Popular Commedia Masks
Some of the well-known characters with distinct Commedia masks include the Pantalone, a wrinkled old man who lives for money. The Pantalone’s nose is usually eagle-like. On the other hand, the Dottore or the learned doctor wears half of a mask on his face, which highlights his large nose.
Another family of distinct masks includes the Arlecchino, whose name translates to “harlequin.” Their masks usually have noticeable bumps on their forehead as a representation of their physical silliness. Their masks’ recognizable features make it easier for audiences to identify their roles while they watch from afar.
Another defining characteristic which makes a Commedia mask special is the emotion it portrays. Since the Commedia is a high-intensity physical performance, the masks’ expressions are exaggerated.
A Bit of History
The Commedia began during the Renaissance following the Black Death, which claimed many lives. The masks are supposed to represent how these stock characters existed in desperate times, where every action could lead to death. Characters in the Commedia were nothing without their masks since the mask magnifies each character’s personality.
While there are specific attributes to each character’s Commedia mask, artists may do their versions of these standard character’s faces when they customize their own. And although leather has been a popular option for mask-makers to use due to similarities to the human skin, others make their masks from papier mache, plaster casts, and neoprene.
But according to Jonathan Becker, a custom mask maker, the Commedia masks work if they are “connected to the level of sophistication” in relation to the rhythmic expressive form of the sculpture. While each mask is sculpted with precision and artistry, its role as a Commedia mask would only be fulfilled if its sculptor has enough skill to shape the material into expressive accessories which would tell the story better.
These masks are not just any kind of mask. They are carefully and masterfully created to express the comedy of life, and the energy associated with imminent despair as most Commedia performances portray. They are the faces which only magnify feelings we already harbor on a day-to-day basis. So, what better way to embrace the high intensities of daily living than having a mask of your own?