Acid Trips & Driftwood Masks: Reflections on Julie Taymor

I had about three different interactions with Julie Taymor’s work before I realized exactly who I was dealing with. Some time near the end of my senior year of high school, my best friend showed me Across the Universe, Taymor’s 2007 Beatles jukebox musical/LSD trip extravaganza. Around the same time, in a philosophy class, we watched Taymor’s 1993 production of Stravinsky’s operatic rendition of Oedipus Rex (what the philosophical lesson was, I could not tell you). A year later, in a graduate level Shakespeare class, we watched Taymor’s Titus Andronicus – this was the first time I heard Julie Taymor’s name. It was a while longer before I finally realized that all of those pieces were created by the same woman.

Looking back, it’s surprising that I didn’t notice the through lines in what I had seen, just as much as it makes sense that I wouldn’t have realized all those pieces were Taymor’s work. Taymor’s range of work is remarkable, spanning film, theater and opera; but her style is distinctive. Taymor goes big. Taymor goes psychedelic. Taymor does not cut corners. She does not subscribe to “less is more.” She takes things to extremes – but never without justification.

Perhaps Taymor’s best known work – and understandably so – is The Lion King on Broadway. Taymor received the Tony Award for Best Directing in 1998 for The Lion King, making her the first woman to win the award. She also took home the Tony for Best Costume Design, a sure sign that the risks she took in the production had merit. In later interviews about the project, Taymor remembers her doubts about using extravagant masks and puppets for a mainstream Broadway production, especially for a Disney production: “There was concern that this might disrupt the audience,” Taymor remembered. But she also recalls what then Disney CEO Michael Eisner told her: “The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.” Twenty one years, six continents, and over eight billion dollars later, it seems the risk was in fact worth it. 

Taymor’s first exposure to mask and puppet work came after high school, when she studied for a time at the school of physical theater L’École internationale de théâtre in Paris. She continued to study physical theater during her time at Oberlin College, eventually graduating with a travel fellowship to Indonesia. Taymor’s planned three months in Indonesia became four years from 1975-1979, in which she founded Teatr Loh, a dance company that used masks extensively in their original productions that toured throughout Indonesia. When Taymor returned to New York, she brought what she had learned back with her; she directed at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, the Public Theater, and Theater for A New Audience, incorporating physical theater into all of her work. Her next big project in the world of masks and puppetry came in 1992: she directed and designed a filmed production of Igor Stravinsky’s operatic rendition of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. 

Taymor’s Oedipus Rex, as with most of her work, focused on the metaphorical reality of the opera rather than the literal reality. Oedipus was played by two performers: the opera singer who delivered Stravinsky’s music with passion and depth, and a dancer enveloped in clay. The metaphorical Oedipus was immense, with a representational clay mask above his head and oversized hands, wearing clay plate armor, draped in robes and overtaking the stage as the ruler of Thebes. He is huge, powerful, but he is weighed down by this immensity and by the fate the gods have prescribed for him. Similarly costumed is Oedipus’ mother/wife, Jocasta, wearing another clay mask above her head and clay hands over her own hands. In her death scene, Jocasta hangs herself – as Taymor stages it, the chorus ceremonially wraps red cloth around the neck of her mask, and the cloth flies into the air, bringing her mask and her robe with it. Jocasta stands, the performer’s face betraying the horror of her final moments, while above her, her body hangs from the rafters. Seeing this, Oedipus loses everything, literally and figuratively: his clay hands, his robes, his armor, and finally his mask, leaving only the body of the dancer with strips of blood red cloth flowing from his gouged out eyes. Defeated, Oedipus wanders to the lowest level of the set, into a pool of dark water. He leaves the city of Thebes, trudging through the water, surrounded by the chorus, who watches him pass. 

Taymor’s practice of staging in metaphors continued in her puppet work for The Lion King. The production was an adaptation of a cartoon, after all; the world of The Lion King already divorced from the literal world of the African savannah. But to bring the movie to the stage, Taymor had to abstract it once more: performers in The Lion King are easily visible operating the animal puppets they use, or performing as humans underneath their lion masks. The puppets, costumes, and makeup are not steeped in realism, but instead infuse animal shapes with colors and materials used in traditional African clothing. Taymor uses the same “double event” masking she used in Oedipus – placing the mask above the performer’s head so that both their face and the mask can be seen – and adds makeup to emphasize the performer’s face, rather than hide it. There is no illusion in The Lion King that the puppets are not just that, rigs operated by individuals or groups of actors meant to convey the imagery of animals. Instead, the art of puppetry becomes the beauty of the production; even as we can see the strings and the actors pulling them, we start to see and believe the animals onstage, too. 

Taymor does not cut corners. She does not subscribe to “less is more.” She takes things to extremes – but never without justification.

Taymor uses similar strategies in film to invoke the emotional reality of a piece before the literal reality of it. She is well known for her use of dream sequences as abstract portrayals of moments of emotional significance. In her 2002 film Frida, an adaptation of a biography of Frida Kahlo, Taymor incorporates dream sequences of Kahlo’s paintings into the narrative of the film, showing the circumstances in Kahlo’s life that led her to create her art. In Titus, her 1999 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a mother watches her son die and the screen is filled with flames. Later, the flames return as a woman who has had her tongue cut out and hands cut off finally finds a way to communicate to her father who was responsible for attacking her. Tragedy and horror are portrayed through the emotional reality of those moments, rather than the physical reality. 

Looking back on Across the Universe now that I’ve experienced more of Taymor’s work, I can see how the excess and dreaminess in the movie is just part of Taymor’s tradition of spectacle. In the sequence she designed for the song Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, all of her signature elements are present: giant masks and puppets with oversized heads and hands, all carved as if out of driftwood, humans imposed onto psychedelic visuals, a dedication to the fresh, the funky, the fun. Remembering Oedipus Rex and Titus Andronicus, too, it’s hard to imagine I didn’t see the throughlines in her artistry until later. 

Taymor’s work rings with emotional honesty as much as visual interest. She invites the audience into her world, and demands that they follow its rules. Whether adapting classic stories or devising a narrative all her own, Taymor’s larger-than-life vision has created theatrical and film experiences entirely unknown before. Her work calls to me, as it should to all of us, to reconsider convention and lean into the spectacular.

Words by Hannah Dains
Illustration by Lilia Jimenez

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