… sat down on a nearby bench overlooking the river. So we went to the next seat along and had our sandwiches there. We had apparently arrived just as the character was having his break and were able to observe the person underneath the costume. He turned out to be she and was somewhat older than I might have guessed – but that doesn’t matter.

What struck me was that the person underneath did not look at all as happy as the cheerful grin on the character head. It was not a warm day, the sun was not shining and her expression said it. Add a cigarette to the picture and the depressing effect was complete. After a few minutes (less time than it took me to eat my first sandwich) she had put her head back on and Mickey was back on duty a few feet away from where we were sitting. So I watched.

What I saw was a smiling character waving to passers-by, occasionally having his picture taken with a young child or giggling teenager. From time to time a coin would be dropped into the basket at his feet – he never explicitly asked for any. I saw a contradiction between the smiling mask and the face I knew to be underneath: happy on the outside, sad on the inside.

One of my companions had a different take on the situation. “Look at all the people who enjoyed meeting him”. There were many people who just walked by but there were also plenty of people who waved and smiled or who stopped to have that photo taken. One couple were a bit different as they asked Mickey to take a picture of themselves! So it was that that person brought joy into some people’s lives and if it was a kind of begging at least they had found a creative way of doing so.

While I’m not convinced that that is the best way of earning a living – and I’m sure they would not have got away with taking the head off in public at a more Official Family Attraction – I had to concede the point that he did bring a smile to lots of faces even if it didn’t happen to include mine.

The further point is that wearing a character costume is a literal way of disguising your feelings and perhaps also your intentions. We  understand and expect an actor playing a part to put on a costume and to pretend to have a particular emotion or feelings. That’s because they can better tell us the story or convey the particular idea of the author, director or other artist involved in the play etc. The “mask” they wear is to help us understand.

What is really galling is when people put on a mask in order to disguise their true intentions to the harm of others. One example is the ski mask when it is worn to disguise the features of an armed robber. Worn as a protection against the cold when skiing it is fully justified – but not when worn on the High Street in order to get away with daylight robbery. And then there is the figurative mask when people pretend to feel or think one thing when in fact something else is true. Yes, we might disguise our true feelings in order to protect a vulnerable person such as a child – we hold back, perhaps, quite how angry we are by not lashing out at them but instead calmly explain that that precious vase that got broken was actually rather valuable.

But isn’t it annoying, to say the least, when someone tries to manipulate us by pretending to do, to think or to feel something when in fact it is not true?

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