Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Originally spelled "mask", a term used in the theatre to describe a form of entertainment, popular at the English court in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, which was apparently earlier known as a "disguising", and even earlier as a "mumming". It was often presented to royalty: the dramas and intrigues acted out in this artificial manner were, as it were, gifts for the monarch to delectate (and any concluding Licenza-like scenes of forgiveness might also flatter the monarch). It was initially danced and acted in dumb show, with masks and costumes (as in the contemporaneous Commedia dell'Arte) designating the identity and nature of the various participants; the tight predictable plot would normally involve elements of Allegory, and the presence of various Gods. In the end, a dance involved both actors and audience.

The great innovator within the form was Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the first to use the French spelling "masque" – in the prefatory matter to his The Fountaine of Self-Love; or Cynthia's Revels (1601) – and whose most famous masque is Oberon the Fairy Prince (1611). In Jonson's hands, the form became very much more elaborate. Hugely intricate scenery and costumes were required, as were professional musicians; and in 1609 Jonson introduced the "anti-masque" (also known as the "antic masque"), in which a violent Revel would be enacted and danced, creating a state of Chaos only the full daylight masque might resolve (>>> Parody). In all of this, the masque worked ultimately to flatter and validate the royal hierarchy – though John Milton's Comus (performed 1634; 1637) depicts the overthrow of the eponymous Wizard. The heyday of the masque was brief; after the start of the English Civil War in 1642, few were performed.

For 20th-century readers and spectators, it is probable that the masque is less interesting than its use as an Icon, or as an inserted sequence, in other kinds of performance or text. There are elements in several of William Shakespeare's plays, most notably The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), where Prospero uses masque-like sequences – like the literal masque in Act IV – to impose Godgame Rituals on the cast. The masques in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) and in Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (1910) are centrally iconic (>>> The Phantom of the Opera). To the extent that the life of inner cities is perceived as a form of theatre, Urban Fantasies tend to incorporate the complex artifice of the masque in plots involving disguises, ruses, foregatherings of masked citizens, Revels, counterplots, revolutions, Hidden Monarchs, crimes or Vengeance. G K Chesterton's The Man who Was Thursday (1908) closes with a literal masque. Dying-Earth tales almost always incorporate an element of the masque, in which the wearing of Masks and Disguises can stand for the capacity of those at the end of time to take on any identity they wish. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.