The Mask and the Self: A historical exploration into the ways in which the phenomena of selfhood and the theatrical mask can illuminate each other

Matt Cawson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This is a historical and philosophical investigation into western theatrical mask practice, looking at the mask in Greek tragedy, focusing on Euripides’ Bacchae, at the commedia dell’arte, focusing on the mask of Arlecchino, and at the neutral mask, focusing on the masque neutre of Jacques Lecoq. This thesis explores the historical and philosophical conditions under which these masks emerged, and enquires into how attitudes to the concept of selfhood and theatrical mask practice are related. The methodology combines the apparently disparate theories of Carl Jung and Michel Foucault in addressing the essential, archetypal factors informing mask practice alongside the historical and the epistemic. From a philosophical perspective, my central thesis is that the mask provides a “third thing” that allows a union of opposites, in this case the self and the other, particularly in the form of the conscious and unconscious self. From a Foucauldian perspective, I argue that the development of the modern concept of the self can be characterised by three historical moments of epistemic crisis that are accompanied by significant developments in the theatrical mask. The mask, at these moments, provides, in Jungian terms, compensation for the rupturing sense of self. The apparent incompatibility of Jung and Foucault belies their common Nietzschean heritage, and I argue for a degree of functional (though not ideological) complementarity between them.
I elaborate my argument to maintain that the theatrical mask has played a previously unacknowledged yet important role in the development of the western psyche, and can provide a unique insight into the development of the self. Within this context, I argue that the mask is poised to make a return to the stage, but that it has yet to find a theatrical form that transcends novelty and revivalism. I argue for the fundamental vitality of the mask as a potential force in contemporary theatre.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Wiles, David, Supervisor
  • Conroy, Colette, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Mar 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Mask
  • Selfhood
  • Tragedy
  • Dionysus
  • Bacchae
  • Commedia
  • Neutral mask
  • Arlecchino
  • Lecoq
  • Nietzsche
  • Foucault
  • Jung
  • Philosophy
  • Tragic mask
  • Pentheus
  • Commedia dell'arte
  • Tristano Martinelli
  • Domenico Biancolelli
  • Martinelli
  • Biancolelli
  • Dominique
  • Evaristo Gherardi
  • Gherardi
  • Tomaso Visentini
  • Thomassin
  • Goldoni
  • Sacchi
  • Amleto Sartori
  • Strehler
  • Harlequin
  • Arlequin
  • Alichin
  • Harlequinade
  • John Rich
  • Archetype Theory
  • Meyerhold
  • Brecht
  • Jacques Copeau
  • self
  • The Bacchantes
  • Helleqin
  • Hellequin le Roi
  • Trickster
  • Soul
  • Psychē
  • sōma
  • autos
  • ousia
  • Prosōpon
  • maschera
  • body-mind dualism
  • Cartesian dualism
  • ego
  • persona
  • collective unconscious
  • analytic of finitude
  • Greek tragedy
  • masque neutre
  • mask noble
  • aesthetics of neutrality
  • tragic consciousness
  • mask of Dionysus
  • thiasos

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