Masks of Ancient Greek Theater

January 8, 2017 General Studies

Early ancient Greek theater introduced many important elements into drama during its earliest years, approximately 600 B.C.-100 B.C. Advances in the areas of stage, costume, and dance all came from this period. One of the most significant contributions Greek theater made was the use of masks in performance. In the past, masks had been used by the Greeks only in rituals and religious ceremonies. Once the masks were introduced to the theater, they proved vital in the success and production of Greek drama.

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There are varying opinions as to who first brought the mask to Greek theater. The Cambridge Guide to World Theater as well as Kenneth Macgowan, author of Golden Ages of the Theater credits the introduction of the mask to Thespis of Icaria, winner of the first tragedy contest (Cambridge Guide 991)(Macgowan 11). The Cambridge Guide goes on to say that Thespis smeared his face with white lead and red cinnabar during his comedic performances in the 6th century B.C., which quickly led to the evolution of the mask. (Cambridge Guide 991) David Wiles, author of The Masks of Menander, accepts the theory of Andrea Perrucci, a theorist of the commedia del”arte, which states that the Athenians invented theatrical masks in the 6th century B.C. in order to speak of the Macedonians without fear (Wiles 127). Perrucci believed the mask could be used as a vehicle for the expression of taboo behavior, empowering the actor to cast off his own individual identity. (Wiles 127) Whether the credit is given to Thespis or to an entire civilization, the mask became an important part of Greek drama from its introduction.

The masks of the ancient Greek theater had many variations and were crafted from several different materials. Masks were worn by all actors on stage and “the materials used were fragile and almost certainly light” (Ley 18) and could have included linen, plaster, and wood. The mask functioned as a neutral face and obliterated all of the idiosyncrasies which distinguish one individual, or actor, from another (Wiles 68).


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