Behind the Mask…?

Anonymity has always fascinated me. It might have started back sometime when I was 10…or 12…and my mom bought me a book of inspirational quotes for some pre-teen milestone or other. I can’t say I recall any of the quotes, as poignant as they may have been, but I do remember that many of them were anonymous. Not just anonymous, as in blank or without a listed author, but anonymous, as in the word ‘anonymous’ was sat at the bottom of the quote, attempting to give the writer (or speaker) some form of categorical identity. From that point forward, the word ‘anonymous’ and concept of anonymity – in all its multifaceted, complicated glory – has seeped into my life, lodging itself somewhere between my subconscious and academic cerebral matter.

In my not-so-distant, pre-teen future, I was presented with the opportunity to experiment with anonymity (albeit, indirectly) through advancing technology…my own email address. To remain as ‘anonymous’ as I could manage, it seemed a username and email address inspired by eighteenth-century writers was the only obvious choice. And so it was. Sophiadox. Gleaming, brilliant, original, uniting the Greek words for knowledge and thinking…and completely weird. But I loved it, and it stuck. My digital mask.

With these little anecdotes now freely floating in the open, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera more times on stage than any other musical. Once in London, once in New York, and three times in Chicago. I will admit, this was inadvertent, but have since realised that it may have been a result of the tricky little ‘anonymous’ beast pulling at my subconscious neurons. The idea of watching a production about an un-named, un-identifiable, masked man and the interactions and relationships he has with those around him (with a whole scene dedicated to a masquerade) is delighting, engrossing, and enchanting every time I take my seat.

The most recent production I attended was in Chicago this past December. There wasn’t enough time to digest the Playbill, which is a custom I don’t lightly overlook but am extremely glad I did. Meeting the Phantom on stage, rather than through his bio in the Playbill, was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as an audience member.

The Phantom was astounding. Breathtaking. Sensual. His voice brought out emotions I had never encountered in previous productions. The range and depth in each song were unfathomable. I was on the literal edge of my seat the entire show. Only about halfway through did I realise I was witnessing something historic. He was the first black phantom.

Derrick Davis, you lovely, talented man. Your performance was awe-inspiring and surreal. The Phantom was so captivating that I almost failed to see the ‘man behind the mask’.

Once the curtain fell my immediate ‘historian’ reaction was to analyse how a black phantom might change the concept of the production, the way dramaturgy might inform it, and the ways character interactions might be different based on contemporary nineteenth-century ideas of race. Simultaneously, my anonymity brain started reeling with questions and ideas about the ways in which unknown identity and masks might function in relation to character and reputation.

In eighteenth-century London, taken from accounts I’ve read in various newspapers, masks seem to give people liberty to act, to say, to be different than who they are in reality. At a masquerade, the grand unmasking at the end of the evening is perhaps just as exciting as initially appearing masked. But if we think of the liberty of the mask in relation the Phantom, it almost seems an oxymoron. The mask does not allow him to be different than he is, or does it? Is he acting to fit the role of the mask? Does the mask make him less of a ‘monster’ and more of a man? He doesn’t really have the option of an ulterior identity, as most other mask-wearers might. If the mask comes off, he is physically seen as a monster.  If the mask goes on, he is seen as an immoral, catastrophic monster. He cannot leave the theatre with or without it. When, if ever, does it become about the truth of the man behind the mask rather than the legend associated with it?

It almost seems that the mask is a character in itself…and might have always been, throughout history. I might be pulling at strings, but maybe the mask is a manifestation of the little shoulder devil who often pops up in cartoons and encourages illicit, libertine behaviour and speech. With the ulterior identity providing a sense of security and protection against discovery, what are the limits?

And really, what is it about masks anyway? They are everywhere. For better and for worse. Darth Vader. Cat Woman. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Darkwing Duck. Mardi Gras. Carnivale. What is the truth behind the mask?

If you would like to hear and see Derrick Davis performs one of the songs from Phantom, here is a delightful little link:


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