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Guising: The Historical Uses of Masks and Disguises, Folklore Society, London, 16-17 May 2003

Issue: 
Traditional Drama Forum - No.8

Article type: 
Conference reports

On 16 and 17 May the Folklore Society joined forces with the Warburg Institute, its generous new landlord, to host a conference entitled Guising: The Historical Uses of Masks and Disguises. Speakers were drawn from many parts of the world, including several European countries, north America and Japan. Their papers were equally wide ranging, both geographically (we heard talks on Bolivia, Serbia, southern Africa, Newfoundland…) but also in terms of the topics covered. The speakers had taken the conference organiser at his word when he called for considerations of masking and disguises in art, drama, literature, religion… in addition to the traditional guising occasions familiar to folklorists.

To take oral literature first, Professor Jacobson-Widding, of Uppsala University, used Freudian analysis of southern African folktales to show how the mermaid figure was used both to simultaneously disguise and represent feelings and fears which could not be openly said, perhaps not even consciously thought. Professor Uemichi from Aichi University in Japan, described the traditional forms and occasions for masking in his country, but went on to show how each one had found an echo in some of Japan’s most famous literary works. Kate Heslop from Newcastle University discussed how Grettir, the Icelandic bandit hero of a late medieval saga, used disguise in his interactions with both friends and foes, and in particular highlighted the tension between the renown and immediate recognition due to a true hero, and Grettir’s need to remain hidden. In literature, as in guising practice, disguise must both hide and reveal at the same time. Sarah Sierra from Boston University illustrated how the late nineteenth-century Spanish realist novelist Galdós used fairytale motifs in his writings, particularly in La Desheredada in which the protagonist transforms herself from a poor Cinderella to a rich princess, but the cost of maintaining her disguise eventually ruins her economically and destroys her psychologically. Galdós was only one of several writers at the period, and not just in Spain, who consciously looked to the developing discipline of folklore for material, but also as a guide to human desires and action.

Literature found its way into art in the numerous carvings of Reynard the Fox in English churches, particularly in his disguise as preacher and apothecary with which he fooled his gullible victims. Giles Watson used numerous illustrations in his talk, and himself startlingly performed the role of Reynard, to raise questions about this villain’s presence in sacred spaces, and what it might tell us about medieval humour and popular attitudes to the Church in the run-up to the Reformation. More sedate images were offered by Nina Trauth of Trier University in the portraits commissioned by German aristocrats showing themselves in masquerade costumes. More than just fancy dress, ruling noble families used aspects of eastern dress to construct a vision of themselves through ‘otherness’.

Turning from art to drama, Terry Gunnell, of the University of Iceland, looked at the archaeological evidence of guising practices in pre-historic Scandinavia, and related them both to the descriptions of Norse pagan rituals, and to the continuing traditions of guising in the north sea region. Peter Harrop, known for his writings on English folk drama and now the head of performing arts at University College, Chester, took on the Brechtian notion of ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, the process of ‘becoming strange’ but also of making the strange familiar, and applied it to mumming. It is clear that folklorists will find much fruitful matter in performance studies. Ted Merwin, of Dickinson College Pennsylvania, illustrated one example of ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ with his examination of non-Jews playing Jewish parts on the mainstream stage (a well established practice of which Shylock is only the most famous example). How do non-Jews perform Jewishness, especially when the outward signs of ethnic identity (the Yiddish language, specific forms of dress) are increasingly abandoned by the community they are attempting to guise? How are our ideas about ethnic minorities informed by dramatic performances? What does it mean for Jews when so many of the public performances of Jewishness are performed by non-Jews? Similar conundrums were raised by Janice Henning’s paper on gender and maskwork, for while it appears that in many cultures men are allowed to play with gender identities through cross-dressing rituals and androgynous masking practices, women are not permitted the same freedoms (according to Janice such hostility remains present in mumming troupes to this day). Janice brought in her own masks to show how women might also participate in guising. Tamara Walker, from the University of Michigan, showed how performance escaped the confines of the stage and ritual and walked about on the streets of colonial Bolivia, where slaves borrowed, stole or inherited their mistresses’ fashionable head-to-toe costume, the saya y manto. Dress was particularly important to slaves because their masters attempted to deprive them of all status, rank and individuality by clothing them in uniform. The saya y manto enabled slaves to pass as free persons through the city of Lima, transforming themselves not only in their relationship with others, but briefly experiencing a different sense of themselves.

The papers that focussed on traditional guising practices were in a minority, but just as stimulating. Molly Carter of Sheffield University drew on the analogies between the behaviour and dress of mid-winter mummers and folk stories of supernatural visitors, in particular fairies of the Tom-Tit-Tot variety who likewise came unbidden, caused disruption, tricked and were tricked, and embodied luck for the household. Vesna Marjanovic of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade described and illustrated the variety of masked processions performed in Serbia. Mapping this variety demonstrates that there is not one tradition but rather many, strongly influenced by the Churches (Orthodox guising at mid-winter, but Catholics at Shrovetide) and also by other ethnic groups in the region, particularly the Italianate carnival which seems to have arrived in the region with German migrants. Finally Paul Smith of Memorial University, Newfoundland, brought the news that in that province, the home of so many of the innovatory studies of folk drama, mumming had been banned in 1861! Or had it? Paul’s paper suggested that folklorists need to reconsider the things they think they know, and in particular investigate the relationship between law and practice.

The conference did not reach any conclusions, but that was not its purpose. It did, however, illustrate the potential for cooperation between folklore and other disciplines including performance studies, art history, literary studies, history and even the law.

David Hopkin