In the history of the theatre, masks go back a very long way. They were de rigueur in the days of the ancient Greeks and have proved popular in various contexts ever since.
Most recently two directors with very different outlooks made the most of them. Sir Peter Hall was a strong adherent, making a powerful case for the perceptual changes that were engendered when actors hid their faces behind masks, particularly when he revived some of the Greek classics. For very different reasons, Julie Taymor not only utilised this addition to costume in The Lion King but also on the operatic stage.
Ironically, for obvious reasons, in the past when masks were worn in theatres they covered most or all of a face but never the mouth. While stage masks were designed with no other purpose in mind than to achieve artistic goals, face coverings have taken on a different meaning in the 2020s.
In the United States and now the United Kingdom to a lesser extent, they have become a political weapon, utilised by the right in order to appear macho at whatever cost. That cost has been heavy, since supporters of ex-President Trump have literally died for the cause.
This laissez-faire approach has become more prevalent on this side of the Atlantic, as the ruling party has now clearly issued some kind of directive informing MPs that they should not wear masks in the House of Commons, while they have also been few and far between at the Conservative Party’s recent conference in Manchester.
The average theatregoer could probably not care a fig as to whether MPs or Tory party activists catch coronavirus, as long as they do not share it with the rest of us. It is that last coda that should be most significant to us, since Britain has diverged from almost every other civilised country when it comes to the imposition of mask wearing. This can be seen most obviously by anyone who wishes to make a trip to a city centre theatre.
As a result of politically-motivated legislative changes, it is no longer obligatory to wear masks on public transport. This means that only somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of travellers tend to wear masks at any particular moment. One anomaly applies to the transport system in London, where the Mayor has made mask-wearing compulsory but many seem happy to flout the rules and, once again, the 1/3 to 2/3 figure tends to apply.
The guidance relating to arts venues also transformed overnight in July. Now, theatres can be packed to the rafters, while visitors choose for themselves whether to wear masks or not. That will come as a surprise to the massed ranks of American tourists when they begin to arrive on our shores. In New York, as theatres gradually begin to reopen, while it is no longer a legal requirement for fully vaccinated punters to wear masks, venue managers are highly likely to insist on them as a condition for entry.
To quote from a recent news article “The [New York] state Department of Health still 'strongly recommends' the use of masks indoors when the vaccination status of all the people present is unknown.” As the theatre slowly reopen, New Yorkers are discovering that the pandemic is still a major problem.
If the UK government chooses to abdicate responsibility, then it is left to the rest of us to try and redress the balance. To give one example, Aladdin was forced to close twice in a couple of weeks as a result of cast illness and other shows will surely find themselves following suit in the very near future.
While it may not be legal requirement, many prospective ticket purchasers would be much happier to see theatres enforcing a compulsory mask requirement. This would not only reduce the risk of catching and spreading coronavirus but also colds and flu, the prevalence of which is apparently likely to spiral this winter.
Some theatre managers will undoubtedly bridle at the additional work, while others could put forward the proposition that some potential customers might be put off by the discomfort of having to wear a mask for a couple of hours.
That could be correct, but it is equally likely that at least as many cautious lovers of the stage would be more willing to consider a return if they knew that everyone around was behaving a little more safely.