September 2020

Back to Issue 8

The Space Behind The Masks

By Peter Murphy

One of my earliest memories is a film my mother took me to. There’s a tin dome in the middle of a table – the kind that keeps roast meats warm. Someone lifts it up and is shocked to see the head of a man – but not nearly as shocked as I was at the sight of those leaden eyes, pale skin and unmoving lips.

     ‘There’s someone under it,’ my mother said, to reassure me. ‘And it’s only an actor! It’s not real.’

     I wouldn’t be comforted and after a few reprises of the same moment and image – no doubt a running gag – my mother had to take me out, perhaps in tears. Years later – buffered by distance from the shock of that sight – I was still able to recall that silvery face, as if I’d encountered it in the real world. Later, too, I came to surmise that what struck me about that image was the mysterious nature of the performance embedded in it. The face hadn’t moved (not even an eyelid), at least in memory. How extraordinary, it seemed, to be … dead … to all appearances … and able to remain so … for how long … in the eyes of others …?

     By that stage in the growth of my consciousness I realized … when I became capable of thinking about it … that the image had not been created to terrify children like me but, rather, was part of a game played by adults. I can still see that face, still as a corpse, as if a hand had slowly moved across it, like someone bringing down a curtain, solidifying each feature as it passed. It didn’t occur to me till some time in my adult life that in remembering the scene in this way I was, to a degree, imagining what an actor does.

     My next experience of performance, if not acting, was in a school play in which I was one of four reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. We’d been warned not to lean too close to each other or our antlers might interlock. It seemed such a simple precaution – and then the unthinkable happened. I was afraid the teacher in charge of the event would be furious but, as this was the last day before the Christmas break, he neatly, though angrily, disengaged our horns and said nothing more about it. Thus it happened that while our classmates were singing and the two remaining reindeer were struggling to get Santa across the stage we rushed up to take up our positions with them and performed at least a small part of what we had been meant to do – though, to all intents and purposes, it was too late.

     Then it was all over before we had time to really absorb what was happening – but, just as we’d approached the others in their magical attire and heard their singing as they swayed in a dance, I’d felt the mystery and glamour of their performance. Indeed, the seriousness of the performance excited me. Even though the moment must have been a failure in the eyes of the audience, it had worked for me. I’d been impressed, too, by the sight of fellow students – whether clever, bullies or unremarkable – as if transformed by their actions in the piece.

     A lot of things happen over the years and I suppose there were different directions my life could have taken but chance and friends led me to become a performer. One of these friends was a poet whose performances could arrest the drift of consciousness of an audience. He had a taste for the bizarre and used props – a weird hat or a pair of trick-shop sunglasses, his guise, as it were – to lift himself out of his usual self and take his audience with him … and it was as if he were able to create another world, with its own zones and rules, which his audience might enter with him and inhabit for as long as the performance.

     Inspired by one of his performances, I decided to enrol in an acting course.

     At another of his performances, I remembered a novel in which an actor was trapped in a role and unable to step out of it in order to communicate something critical to a friend, who’d wandered into the theatre, which was presenting some scenes from Hamlet. For some pages, the writer had entertained the reader with the cast’s zany version of the play – till suddenly the actor in question froze on stage, and seemed to stare at the protagonist as if singling him out in the almost empty theatre. A look of horror had come over his face and he appeared to be speaking – or, rather, mouthing – not words in the play but, rather, a warning directed at the protagonist, who, in turn, became quite troubled.  

     In the first year of my course, that image of a performer frozen on stage often came to my mind as I struggled with a subject that required me to do a performance in front of six people. I sometimes regretted discounting the reservations of my case manager and taking on this acting course, which kept its nose above water through enrolling people with some kind of social security funding. Nevertheless, I’d begun to sense that while I mightn’t have the qualities that would enable me to be an actor, my future could still lie somewhere in that direction. A friendship I’d formed with a fellow student, who was everything I imagined an actor to be, helped to confirm this intuition.

     What first drew me to him were his impersonations when we were both waiting for our course interviews. He already knew most of the staff and was able to imitate them so adroitly that when I faced my interviewers I felt I was dealing with shadows of what I’d just encountered. Genre helped to explain this apparent glitch in perception: they’d seemed so real, so immediate as caricatures that observing the quirky (even pitiable) details in their features and manner led me to consider how close satire is to tragedy.

     I don’t know why I hit it off with my new friend, given the differences in our temperaments, but I enjoyed our chats very much over the course of our studies – his being very successful, while my scores never moved much above a basic pass, which nevertheless enabled me to ultimately complete the course. As an actor, this person not only had a tremendous range but was able to give such convincing performances because he ‘lived’ each part in his off-stage life to the point where, when he was playing Raskolnikov in a theatrical version of Crime and Punishment, he had such a desperate look that he frightened even the barista in the college cafeteria.

     I became so accustomed to him shifting between his temporary selves that almost every day I’d try to find out what role he had in what play in order to get a sense of who he might be when I was speaking to him – till ultimately, one day, without even thinking about it, I exclaimed,

     ‘Just who are you today?’

     His response surprised me.

     ‘I might ask you the same question.’

     ‘I just mean who are you playing?’

     ‘I know what you mean … and my question carries as much weight as yours. So … your answer …?’

     ‘That’s easy. I’m me.’

     ‘Which role is that? As there’s no script, I assume you’re making yourself up as you go along?’

     ‘Seriously though, don’t you run the risk of losing yourself somewhere in all these roles. You seem like a different person from one day to the next. I suppose I feel who I am – even when I’m playing a part.’

     ”But so do I, especially when I have a role. Being able to go beyond yourself and be someone else doesn’t make you any less yourself.’

     ‘Even when you seem like someone else?’

     ‘It’s a question of imagination. If you had more of it … or let it take over … you wouldn’t think about these matters.’

     His questions troubled me. I didn’t care about my imagination but was concerned about my identity. I suppose we’re all (for whatever reason) comforted by the thought that there is only one of us in the universe. I remembered hearing in my school days that Thomas More thought of his soul as a space inside his head no bigger than a tennis ball. But was my ‘soul’ – my self, being or whatever – mine in any sense. I’d always considered my thoughts and feelings as being a vital part of ‘me’ and what made me different from others, but perhaps this wasn’t so. Perhaps a lot of other people had the same idea – and we were all misguided.

     It was after this conversation with my friend that I began to seriously consider myself an actor because I found that I was examining the issue of identity as an actor might – in terms of performance. My consciousness was flooded with images of Greek theatre masks – the great eyes, curled mouths, extreme features: stark representations of the whole dial of experience from comedy to tragedy, all referring ultimately to real people, individuals – unless ‘real’, especially in the context of theatre, should always appear in quotation marks.

     Those two iconic masks had always appeared to be key emblems of theatre. Even when I was like everyone else, not a theatre person, they seemed to relate as much to life as to art. Now they seemed to point not just to the space between the mask and the actor, but to that between my performance for others and my performance for myself (my consciousness). And then, at some point, it occurred to me that there was another self, a dispassionate watcher from within, coolly observing, judging and reflecting on my thoughts and actions and (more broadly) on what I am, and have been, and might be, even calculating how many years I might have left on the earth. Was that detached watcher me too – or somehow a part of the empty space that existed before any of us and only became active when a mask of flesh was placed in front of it.

     Once, after a class on Hamlet, I found myself pondering his ‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ soliloquy, where an actor’s ‘false’ show of feeling seems to him so much more … valid … than his own grief about the death of a ‘real’ person, his father. For him at that moment (as for my friend when acting) it seemed right to perceive one’s inner being as existing primarily through feeling – and so I wasn’t surprised to find myself justified in trying to validate my sense of self in this way. By contrast, I felt there was a kind of absence behind my friend’s various masks. He seemed nothing beyond a continual searching for identities – whereas behind my current mask (whatever it might be) there was always essentially the same being, the same me, which I felt in every fibre of my being.

     Then something appeared to upset my friend, some problem with a relationship I thought, though as he was chameleon-like by nature I wasn’t surprised that he kept the matter close to his chest … though, paradoxically, the more I sensed a change in his manner, the more I sensed the possibility of a ‘real’ self emerging. Or so it appeared at that point in time – though subsequently I came to wonder whether the troubled persona I believed I’d encountered was entirely him or perhaps, more accurately, an amalgam of his misfortunes and the various templates of grief he had at his disposal. Certainly, the face whose empty eyes met mine appeared more than an accidental mirroring of the turned-down mouth in the mask of tragedy. Furthermore, the lack of suppleness in his features and a diminishing of the usual quickness in his movements seemed to confirm more than anything else my belief that something really had happened and he was anything but his usual self. However that may be, it wasn’t too long before he seemed himself again … a modified version of this, it’s true, but so close to the original I may have been the only person who’d noticed anything – and I may have been mistaken.

     Eventually I had to do my performance – and my awareness of this course requirement became increasingly oppressive as the date approached.  The prospect of being on stage began to possess my mind. Actually, there wasn’t a stage in the examination – at least, not in the traditional sense of a raised performance area, props, curtain, etc. However, it certainly did exist in the primary sense of a space in which you do something in front of others, requiring their support or complicity in acknowledging you as the ‘show’.  In thinking forward to my examination, I found myself thinking back to times in my life when performances of various kinds figured greatly in my consciousness but none of them helped me imagine myself doing what I had to do – so, in the end, I decided to embed my performance in the only fragment of theatre which seemed capable of helping me think through the issues that were confounding me, Hamlet’s ‘What’s he to Hecuba’ soliloquy. Indeed, it mattered to me not just for what it had to say about theatre but also for the way it linked in with my own desultory life and my concern as to what was missing in it … and in myself. (I did have feelings but they were too mild; not sufficiently intense to be really tasted and enjoyed for themselves or strong enough to drive me towards satisfactions I craved – though ‘craved’ seems too strong a word for something that was more a matter of mind than heart.)  

     Ironically, considering the troubled way in which Hamlet’s soliloquy explores the power of artifice I found the strange music of the lines and the delightfully unexpected words and phrases so deeply satisfying that the issues they addressed seemed to evaporate as I rehearsed them, leaving me no nearer an understanding of any kind. I remembered an insurance policy which explained that if I put in a false claim my policy would be deemed to have never existed … (and, I suppose, implicitly, it would be deemed that I …) Nothing was changed, of course, as those incredible clusters of words crossed my mind: I simply felt as if my problems in this area, all my problems in fact, had ceased to exist.

     For all that, my performance in the examination was successful, at least at the basic level that enabled me to remain in the course, one of my assessors commenting that I seemed more interested in the nature of performance than in performing myself. I could see how she might have reached that conclusion, but for me the issue seemed elsewhere. The more I sensed that the rest of my life lay in performance, the more I was persuaded that I would not have a successful career in acting – and the more I puzzled over this the less I could understand what an actor was, to the point where the lack of something I felt within seemed, by a reverse process, to point to qualities I could not name which made others successful actors.

     And then I found myself in a relationship which was ultimately like my friend’s – except that it began well before ending in difficulties. Paradoxically, it was precisely in its best moments (when I might have expected to have been most authentically myself) that I felt closest to being the actor I was never meant to be. Perhaps my problem was (obsessed as I was with acting) that I treated the person I thought I loved as an audience and attempted to provide the kind of performance I thought she expected … not so much of me as of life … and I was later to conclude that her approach mirrored mine, though she had no interest in acting. I was never sure whether this was a travesty of love or its apex, but, in any case, the relationship failed, apparently for no reason.

     Ultimately, I was not surprised to find myself drifting into a career in which I taught others how to act, chiefly in courses designed to help people create a kind of identity that might be useful in the worlds in which they hoped to move. Nor have I been surprised to find that as the experience of theatre continues to become more and more miraculous for me its ultimate nature has become more mysterious than ever, so that it now seems totally hermetic.

     I’ve lost touch with my friend, though I think of him often – or, more accurately, what he represented and, in my mind, I still see that mask, the emblem for me of his many faces, but now my point of view is from behind the mask, not in his company – as he was always essentially absent – but in the company of whatever it is that gives meaning and difference to our faces and gazes through those empty spaces we call eyes.