"Slave of the Mirror", acting, actor, Adventure, Aladdin, classical drama, classics, clowns, comedy, Commedia dell'Arte, Disney, drama, Evil Stepmother, Fiction, Galadriel, Genie, Hellenistic, histrio, Jumanji, Magic, Magic mirror, masks, Middle-earth, Moroni Olsen, persona, pretending, Snow White, The Lord of the Rings, theatre, Tolkien, tragedy
Welcome, as always.
In our last posting, we thought about Galadriel’s mirror.
We began with the mirror in Disney’s 1937 Snow White, and it occurred to us that we have no backstory for this. Where did it come from? How did it know anything? And, perhaps more important for the story, why did the stepmother believe it?
We know how wary we would have been– that Snow White mirror freaked us out as children.
Reconsidering it, we thought it was partially that smoke. But it was also that face. There was a real face behind that mirror, that of the actor Moroni Olsen (1889-1954).
There is also a history behind that face, which appears to be based upon the conventional mask of tragedy, which is often seen paired with that of comedy.
These masks might have come down to us most recently through the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, in which all the comic characters were masked.
The masks are much older, however, coming to us from ancient classical drama. The masks we usually see are later Roman versions,
of which there are seemingly many surviving in several media. Older yet are the Greek masks, the images of which survive in many fewer images, mostly on pots.
These Greeks masks suggest that the original idea was to make lifelike, if stylized, representations. Later ones– Hellenistic and Roman– are often much more distorted-looking, and it has been suggested that the masks were shaped as the equivalent of megaphones and resonators, and certainly the later ones at least suggest that possibility.
Certainly, theatres got bigger and more complex after having begun as simple hillsides.
But we wonder as well about Romans, and earlier non-dramatic uses of masks, perhaps for religious purposes?
The Romans got at least some of their religion from their neighbors to the north, the Etruscans. They may have gotten some elements of their drama from them, as well. A Roman word for actor, histrio, they believed was an Etruscan word, as was the word for mask, persona.
In their religion, the Romans practiced ancestor worship and used images of their ancestors as part of their ceremonies, perhaps even using masks to impersonate them.
And there’s that word persona again, and perhaps that’s what masks are all about: impersonation, pretending to be someone you aren’t.
So, what’s spooky about that mask?
First, there are those empty eyes. Then, there’s that expression, if not fixed, at least limited.
This makes us think about clowns.
We were frightened by clowns as children– maybe still are.
Why are they so scary? Well, for one thing, the clothing is bright and festive, but the face is dead-white and corpse-like, therefore giving a mixed signal of merriment and death at the same time. Perhaps these contradictions should have made the stepmother less trusting (it certainly made us less trusting as children).
After all, this is an empty face– not even eyes behind it.
Why should it be telling the truth any more than a clown?
In the Disney movie, the face is referred to as the “slave of the mirror” and we can imagine that this was an attempt indirectly to suggest why the stepmother trusted the mirror. Presumably, it was like Aladdin’s genie–
in control, at least temporarily, of its possessor– it’s a slave, after all.
Roman comedy, however, and Greek comedy before it, is full of tricky slaves out for their own profit…
What might it be like, we wonder, if the mirror, although saying “Madame Queen”, was actually stage managing the whole thing for his own sinister purposes? After all, the Snow White story always ends with the death of the stepmother. Does her death free the mirror?
Or, as was once the custom, does a palace servant cover the mirror after the stepmother’s death, and, like Jumanji,
must it lie on the wall, waiting for its next victim?
Thanks, as always, for reading.