The Living Dead

by Simon Collings

A friend who read my last post about vodou and masks asked me if I had come across the drama instructor and improvisation guru Keith Johnstone. In his classic book Impro (Metheun, 1978) Johnstone devotes an entire section to working with masks and the trance states which are induced by such work. He discusses the use of masks in religious rituals in various parts of the world and makes a number of references to Maya Deren (see previous post.) Possession and trance can of course occur without the use of masks, as in the vodou ceremonies Deren filmed.

I hadn’t come across Johnstone before, but the themes discussed in Impro triggered a number of thoughts. Johnstone describes the sense of being possessed by the character of the mask, of the actor being managed by the mask, and being able to improvise without effort for long periods. He discusses the way the mask liberates a performer, releasing their inhibitions, allowing them to enter states akin to a child’s sense of wonder and possibility. With practice, and particularly in the company of other adept mask users, a performer can quickly enter trance and ‘become’ the mask.

Maya Deren herself became possessed on many occasions while attending vodou ceremonies, often losing awareness. She describes these episodes in her book Divine Horsemen (same title as the film). There are many parallels with the experiences Johnstone reports his students as having.

Masks, and the spirits which inhabit them, can be benign but they may also be frightening. In many religions masks are treated as sacred, possessed of magical powers, capable of harming those who come into contact with them. Johnstone describes one mask he worked with which provoked its wearers into acts of violence and which had to be handled with care.

Equally, possession can be a violent and exhausting affair. The Roman poet Lucan describing a priestess at Delphi around 64AD wrote: ‘…her mouth foamed frenziedly, she groaned, gasped, uttered weird sounds, and made the huge cave re-echo with her dismal shrieks. In the end Apollo forced her to intelligible speech…’ (translation by Robert Graves.)

The inability to articulate words described here, and speech when it comes seeming to emanate from a god are, Johnstone tells us, mirrored in mask work. Actors new to masks frequently experience an inability to speak. The mask has to be helped to find its voice.

Working with masks induces feelings of euphoria and heightened awareness. Our normal ways of being in the world can seem wooden in comparison, Johnstone says. This reminded me of an experience a few years ago in the London underground. It was the rush hour at the end of the day, the platform crowded with people going home. Near me stood a woman suffering from some sort of psychotic illness. She was talking loudly. People ignored her, avoided eye contact, not wanting to become involved. ‘Look at them,’ she said at one point, meaning us. ‘They’re like the living dead.’

Keith Johnstone is 80 this year, but still teaching.