Life Behind the Mask: Theater Practice as an Instrument of Self-Knowledge

By Didier Mouturat

Translated by Roger and Susan Lipsey from Tous les matins, l’énigme… La vie derrière le masque (éoliennes, 2013), with a preface by Roger Lipsey

(Sussex Academic Press, 2016)

Through the French title of this wonderful, all too little known book, Didier Mouturat places himself in the lineage of the poet, essayist, and novelist René Daumal (1908 – 1944). Let’s do some translation. “Tous les matins, l’énigme…”, Mouturat writes. It resists attractive translation, but you might say “Every morning, the enigma…” That has no grace; as translators, my wife Susan and I preferred to work with the subtitle. Now Daumal, in one of his most evocative expressions: “Chaque fois que l’aube paraît, le mystère est là tout entier.” Again difficult to translate. The French is lovely, but what of this English: “At every dawn, the mystery is wholly there.” Accurate, not lovely, and the rhyming paraît / entier is gone… The observation stands: Mouturat feels the presence of Daumal in the background of his work, rightly so. They are both spiritual seekers, they both have the gift of language, and more still unites them.

Life Behind the Mask recounts a classic apprenticeship—in theatrical performance (but it could be nearly any stringent discipline) focused on the use of masks as in traditional Japanese and other theaters. Mouturat’s master of the art of masked performance, Cyrille Dives, taught acting, mask carving, and eventually the requirements of founding and supporting a theater company. Some challenges facing Mouturat called for months of work: for example, walking on stage, responding to the mask rather than imposing on it. The relation of apprentice to master is evoked with spectacular attention to detail, spectacular ability to make the reader feel what the apprentice feels. Like Daumal, a brilliant storyteller and essayist who could express certain things only in verse, Mouturat interleaves freely conceived, haiku-like verse as his tale progresses. His poetic reflections envelope the struggles of the apprentice in a timeless, giving atmosphere.

Later, Dives revealed to his apprentice perhaps the deepest source on which he drew, not for the form of his art but for its substance, its insistence: the Gurdjieff teaching. Dives was a pupil of Gurdjieff in the 1940s, and continued to participate in the teaching after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He was well known to people I have known.

What finally to say of this book? Life Behind the Mask is the beautifully written record of two apprenticeships: of theater and of the search for authentic being in a world that doesn’t much ask that of us. That is the life behind the mask.

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