Law Text Culture


Legal scholars have frequently observed that the word ‘person’ and the language of legal ‘personality’ derives from the Latin persona, which was the ancient Romans’ term for an actor’s mask, but they have seldom attended to the theatrical significance of the mask and sought there for insights into the legal idea. To address that lack, this article presents three case studies connected by concern for the passing on of theatrical masks. The first mask was made for a ballet directed by the Hungarian dancer and choreographer Rudolf Laban in Germany in the 1930s. The mask escaped when Hitler burned Laban’s books and was passed from hand to hand until it eventually found its way to England. The second mask is the mask of Pulcinella, one of the principal stock characters or ‘Masks’ of the commedia dell’arte. The focus in relation to this mask is upon its passing to the renowned Italian actor Eduardo De Filippo and from him to his actor son, Luca. The third is the hannya mask of traditional Japanese Noh theatre, which is a demonic mask associated with scorned and jealous women. It features in the cult Japanese horror film Onibaba (Shindo 1964) where it carries a cautionary tale on death, the passing of masks, and the fixing of masks; a cautionary tale that this article carries over to the performance of masks in law. The three case studies suggest that the burden of the mask is most keenly felt when it is laden with the weight of tradition. Whilst taking a broadly positive view of the art and artifice of theatrical masking, it is acknowledged that the benefits of masking depend upon artificial representation through a non-human property and therefore cannot exist without corresponding burdens, including the burdens inherent in property relations, representation, and mediation.