Goat Songs and Satyr Plays


“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask,
and he will tell you the truth.” (Oscar Wilde)

So what kind of masks are these? Are they Jungian personae; either alter-egos that allow as Jung says, “little or no concept of themselves as beings distinct from what society expects of them’’ or non-de-plumes that–Jung again says–makes one “blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground [?]” Or could they be like the masks painted by James Ensor, the Belgian expressionist-symbolist, who used them to show–not hide–the baser sides of us?

“Vision changes while it observes.” (James Ensor)

No, they are not so much any of those, they are more tricks of an ancient trade; a mask of tragedy–from the old Greek for “goat song,” when goats were sacrificed before or given as prizes after these events–which is the theater genre where the plot is driven by a combo of hubris and fate making the hero poor/sadder but wiser. And simultaneously a mask of comedy in a satyr play–a short “dessert” tasted after main courses of tragedy– which is a retelling of an edifying myth interrupted by rowdy beast-men; hilarity, of course, ensuing.

So yes, they are props as old as the Greeks with their goat songs and satyr plays. And they are state-of-the-art special effects for use in the contemporary theaters of career and marriage, where one attempts to make seem real as Tolstoy’s fantasy, “One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love.”

 “Humor is the mask of wisdom.” (Friedrich Durrenmatt)

This post, subtitled, “Self-portrait with masks,” is a merging of the two, it’s a tragicomedy, the genre which playwright/philosopher Frederich Durrenmatt said was inevitable for the twentieth century, and to that I’ll add the 21st.  It is a scene in a play where stage right is the theater of marriage; it’s not our actor’s mask we see, but one forced on him by another actor.  And where stage left is the theater of career, where, although the mask is the actor’s own, it faces towards him so only he can see the character he portrays. All others see is an anonymous prop.