Matchmaker, Heartbreaker, Ringleader: The Master of Ceremonies in Literature and Film

Whenever you are watching a film or reading a book involving a large cast of characters, one character archetype to pay close attention to is the “master of ceremonies.” By master of ceremonies, I mean the characters who seem to be orchestrating everything from a speculative distance. These are the characters that often pass on important information or who bring the diverse cast of characters together. While, at first, these characters might seem like mere plot devices, I feel quite frequently by the end of the story they emerge as the most interesting characters.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate who the masters of ceremonies are and what they do would be to give examples.

The clearest example I can think of would have to be Prospero from The Tempest. For those of you unfamiliar with the Shakespeare play, Prospero is a sort of magician who lives on an island with his daughter. After a group of travelers shipwreck on the shore, he starts orchestrating the events of the story, all to find a suitable match for his daughter and find a way to get them off the island. To do so, he employs his servant, a magical being called Ariel, and his slave, a famous literary character named Caliban, to further manipulate the wayfarers. Prospero himself doesn’t interact with the characters very directly. The thing to take away from all of this is that, without Prospero, none of the characters would undergo change (it’s also important to point out that it’s revealed Prospero caused the shipwreck). The master of ceremonies is the character that is against stasis.

Does the character of Prospero sound at all familiar? If you were one of the many people who were engrossed by the show LOST, you’ll probably recognize in Prospero aspects of Benjamin Linus (played by Michael Emerson). Ben plays a large role in the series as the character who introduces the other characters to characters they otherwise wouldn’t meet. You’ll notice the cast becomes exponentially large when he figures into the series.

The Prospero character has been reworked into many other movies and books as well. In John Fowles’ novel The Magus, the character Maurice Conchis is blatantly a take on Prospero. In The Most Dangerous Game, Count Zaroff, the hunter, is Prospero (he too is revealed to have caused the shipwreck that stranded the characters there).

Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game

Although these characters aren’t quite benevolent, it can be said that they brought characters together in an ambiguous way. Joel McCrea wouldn’t have ever met Fay Wray (I’m speaking of the movie version of The Most Dangerous Game here, which I’m much more fond of) if he hadn’t been stranded on the island. Likewise, Nicholas Urfe in The Magus wouldn’t have had his chance to reunite with Alison if not for Conchis’ constant scheming (although that’s open to interpretation due to the novel’s notorious ambiguity).

The master of ceremonies can also exercise a more subtle and benign form of magic. Sometimes all he or she has at her disposal is the magic of charm and a quick wit. One excellent example of this would be Cary Grant’s role in the wonderful classic film The Philadelphia Story. If you’re not familiar with the film, it’s about a headstrong but narcissistic woman played by Katherine Hepburn who, at the start of the film, divorces from her wealthy husband played by Cary Grant. Some time later, she decides to wed an honorable but stuffy man, but her plans become complicated when she has a dalliance with a reporter played by James Stewart. Things become more complicated when her ex-husband decides to attend the wedding. So what we have here isn’t just a love-triangle, but a love-square.

If you watch the film, pay special attentions to the actions taken by Cary Grant’s character. Watch how, instead of actively confronting the different characters, he takes a more passive-aggressive role. As the master of ceremonies, he is put into the position of frequently passing on information, and sometimes he withholds the information altogether. By doing so, The Philadelphia Story comes to resemble a Shakespearean comedy where every character ends up commiting to love a different character than they originally intended, with only one character being the odd-man out (similar to Jacques in As You Like It). The important thing to note here is that information, when passed on misused, is itself like magic.

In film, the clearest example of a master of ceremonies character I can think of is Octave in The Rules of the Game. Interestingly, the title is highly appropriate because any story involving a master of ceremonies tends to resemble a game. The Rules of the Game is a classic French film (one of my favorite films of all time, by the way) about a diverse group of aristocrats meeting in a mansion for hunting parties and dinner parties. Octave, played splendidly by Jean Renoir, is the character who oversees the affairs of all of the guests in the house, including the “lower” classes.The aristocrats want to live in a separate world, apart from those they view as beneath them, such as the servants, gameskeeper, and a pilot who tries to mix in. The pilot, who is himself highly esteemed, is still considered “beneath” the aristocrats because he has a trade. He is himself in love with the lady of the house. By convincing the lady of the house to at least speak to the pilot, Octave sets the wheels in motion that will lead to many different love affairs. The name “Octave” even spells out his role. An octave in music represents the corresponding note played in a higher or lower range. Octave is likely named so because he moves back and forth between the lower and higher classes, and that he is, as master of ceremonies, above or below the action taking place. Octave is also an interesting example of the archetype because his actions bring about tragedy.

Stranger Examples of the Master of Ceremonies:

A majority of director David Lynch’s work involves large casts and multiple plots and subplots. Again, for the characters to meet at all or for the plot to connect to the subplots, there needs to be a master of ceremonies character. With Lynch, it’s never a simple normal character. In fact, it might not seem apparent at all that there is such a character at work in his stories. Sometimes these characters have no apparent motive. For example, in Twin Peaks, I believe it’s the little person in the lounge suit who appears in Agent Cooper’s dreams who is the master of ceremonies. Without his gnomic message, Cooper wouldn’t have sought out the one-armed man, which in turn led him to the real killer, and to meeting so many different townspeople in the process. In the Twin Peaks film Fire Walk With Me, it’s the little person who allows Cooper to meet Laura Palmer. That the little person only appears in dreams creates a lot of questions which is part of the series’ appeal.

In action or thriller stories, the plots are typically entirely linear, which prevents the use of a master of ceremonies character, or so you’d think. Think of the fabled “MacGuffin” in Hitchcock’s films. The MacGuffin is usually an arbitrary object that becomes the focus of the plot. Couldn’t you argue that the MacGuffin is a sort of master of ceremonies? For an example, take the film Notorious with it’s natorious MacGuffin, wine bottles full of a strange black substance used for some sort of weapon (barely explained int he film). If not for the substance, Ingrid Berman’s character wouldn’t have met Peter Lorre or Cary Grant. In other Hitchcock films, the MacGuffin comes with a handler, and the character who holds the MacGuffin might as well be considered the master of ceremonies. For example, think of Mrs. Froy in The Lady Vanishes (she’s the one who vanishes).

Mrs. Froy (left, played by Dame May Whitty) with Iris (played by Margaret Lockwood)

She’s the one who holds the MacGuffin, in this case a melody that contains a coded message. If Mrs. Froyd did not vanish, then Margaret Lockwood wouldn’t meet Michael Redgrave, and the bad guys wouldn’t be conquered, if this old woman couldn’t carry a tune (literally). A dark example would be Janet Leigh in Psycho. She holds the MacGuffin (the stolen cash). If she didn’t meet Norman, her boyfriend wouldn’t meet her sister, and they wouldn’t apprehend Norman.

The point?

I believe in some ways the master of ceremonies characters borders on being mythic. We might question “why do things happen at all?” and from this question comes the master of ceremonies. The character can be the messiah or the anti-christ. More often than not, the character is a catalyst. That the character shows up so frequently in stories from the Western world I think attests to our sense of isolation. There needs to be a person who introduces us to others we wouldn’t meet during our regular routines. At the same time, there’s much anxiety that springs up from the thought of meeting others, which may explain the master of ceremony characters who ruin things rather than fix everything (like the chemist in Romeo and Juliet).

Part of the reason I took the time to write this long article was to hopefully help storytellers who might be having problems with juggling larger casts. It’s definitely difficult. So many stories now feature small casts, attesting again to our relative isolation. If you want to create a story with a better sense of community, different walks of life intermingling, try starting with the idea of a master of ceremonies. Try looking at the stories I’ve already listed (I should probably warn you that Lynch films are pretty explicit). If those aren’t enough stimulation, here’s some other stories that contain good examples of the master of ceremonies character.

A Very Honourable Defeat, by Iris Murdoch (tragic example)

Othello by Shakespeare (tragic example)

And Then There Were None, film by Rene Clair, based on Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie (tragic example)

The Third Man (tragic example)

Sabrina, film by Billy Wilder (happy example, similar to The Philadelphia Story)

Great Expectations (Miss Havisham, would you call this a happy or tragic example?)

Star Wars (this might seem a stretch, but it is Obi-Wan who introduces everyone).

Are there any good, well-known examples of the character type you can think of? If you can think of any, write them down in the comment box.

Please make a point to check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and as an ebook. Also, I’m currently working on a novella involving a master of ceremonies character. It’s a Christmas story that I’m really hoping I can have finished up by the beginning of November (I’m about a third of the way done right now).


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