“I have gazed upon the face of Cordelia!”
No, this is not the message Jubilith Moore wrote to me on the day after the mask arrived. Jubilith is not so pompous. (Note to Jubilith: Do not aspire to become a bombastic nineteenth-century archaeologist.) The message she actually wrote to me was this:
“The mask arrived yesterday. It is stunning. It is big. It smells new. May I be worthy.”
The arrival of the mask was, for a variety of reasons, a numinous event. Many months have passed since Jubilith’s initial Skype and email conversations with mask carver Hideta Kitazawa, and since costume designer Risa Dye traveled to Japan on a Landisman Fellowship, not only to study Noh costume but to meet with Kitazawa-san about the commission. The mask, which represents Cordelia as a warrior, combines attributes of traditional Noh woman and warrior masks and also reflects a fusion of Japanese and western aesthetic elements. (A good place to look for information about classic Noh mask types is the Noh Mask Database on the wonderful website www.the-noh.com .) But the drama surrounding the arrival of the mask was heightened by the knowledge that, a few days earlier, Japan had suffered its devastating 8.9-point earthquake and tsunami, and already concerns about possible radiation hazards were mounting. To hold in one’s hands, in San Francisco, a work of art that had so recently left the hands of an artist close to peril and distress must have been a poignant experience, indeed.
That the mask is stunning should be apparent even from the photograph. That it is large would, however, not go without saying: most Noh masks are relatively small, so that the jowls and beard of an actor–should he happen to have jowls and a beard–are usually visible below and around the mask. And for it to smell new, although the expectation in the case of a specially commissioned mask, sets this mask apart from the majority of Noh masks in use in Japan. It is not uncommon for a mask used by any of the major performing schools to be a precious relic, hundreds of years old and treasured by generations of actors.
“May I be worthy.” It takes very little acquaintance with Jubilith to recognize that she is a humble person, but humility before a Noh mask is not particularly strange. Completely apart from the fact that a given mask might have an illustrious heritage, there is a sense of power about a Noh mask that reflects the sacred origins of Noh and its antecedents. Even now, there is a ritual surrounding the “hanging” of the mask on the face. The shite sits on a special chair, in front of a long mirror in the green room, which in Noh is called kagami-no-ma, or “mirror room.” First he (only rarely she) holds the mask and contemplates it for some time; then he raises it, places it onto his face, and experiences his transformation into the main character of the play. Considering that the main character in phantasmal Noh is nearly always a revenant, the donning of the mask also signifies a temporary passage from life into death…
Noh masks have a number of features that bear special comment. One is that the eye holes in a mask are extremely small, making it difficult for the shite to see. This is one of the reasons that a Noh stage has pillars at the corners; even an experienced shite might otherwise lose his orientation on the stage. Another distinctive feature is that the mask itself has a neutral expression; in order to give the impression of pleasure, for example, the shite must subtly tilt his head upward, while to give the impression of grief, the shite must subtly tilt his head downward. To convey emotion successfully through the mask is very high art. No wonder Jubilith looks upon the mask, and the prospect of animating it, with some awe.