🎭 Luton Phoenix Players Est 1992 Home of all things musical theatre related 🎭
History Of Theatre Masks (www.costumes.lovetoknow.com)
The tradition of theatre masks goes back to the ancient Greeks, who used masks both for practical needs and dramatic heft. Masks are used in commedia dell'arte, Japanese theatre and have a long history in African culture as well. They can be beautiful or grotesque, but they are always evocative.
In Greek drama, masks were useful devices that allowed actors to play several different characters, including those of different genders. The masks could be seen throughout the large amphitheatres in a way a face could not and were stylized so as to project the soul and emotions of the character. Stock characters were identified via masks so that anyone in the audience could easily comprehend who was a villain, lover or king.
The improvisational commedia dell'arte that originated in Italy in the 15th century also used exaggerated masks to identify characters.
Stock characters like Harlequin, his female counterpart Columbina and the swash-buckling Il Capitano always wore costumes and masks that told audiences who they were, thus setting up pleasant expectations.
Greek Stage Secrets
The adoption of Greek masks allowed male actors to portray female characters in popular Greek plays because women
were forbidden to perform on stage. The same actor may also have multiple roles in the same play, which means changing
masks allowed him that freedom to be associated only with the words and the role and not the actor himself. In today's era of
film, television and stage, actors refer to the masks they wear as the different parts they play, but the allusion returns us to the
ancient masks worn by the Greeks.
How a Mask was Made
Ancient masks were typically created from leather, cloth or wood. The masks would be painted or decorated to be
appropriate to the part. For example, a mask depicting a royal woman might have heavily accentuated features and use decorative stones as jewellery. The masks were more than just facial coverings, they often included hair, either human or animal, to complete the effect of becoming a character in their own right.
The only openings in a mask were the holes drilled for the eyes. So the actor would be required to pitch their voice past the mask obscuring it. Modern hard plastic Halloween masks are a tribute to these Greek masks. They are inflexible, often featuring faux hair (also formed from hard plastic) and openings for the eyes and the mouth.
In Japanese No (or Noh) theatre, masks are worn by the main actor. Dating back to the 14th century, the masks all have names and represent a variety of characters, such as women, nonhumans, children and old men. The masks are standardized as in Greek theatre. They allow the actor to use controlled body movement, even as simple as a turn of the head, to express emotion.
The "Comedy/Tragedy" Masks
The symbol of drama, the exaggerated faces of joy and sorrow are a direct descendant of Greek theatre masks. The use of masks is said to originate from the worship of the god Dionysus, who is always portrayed wearing a mask and whose sometimes violent cult of wine and celebration gives rise to exaggeration, delight and despair.
The two masks were always understood as both separate representations of the two most common forms of theatre, but also intrinsically linked in their representation of the human condition. A play can take its audience through a variety of emotions, often from one extreme to the other, and the millennia-old comedy/tragedy masks are still relevant as the depiction of that journey. Sometimes the mask is referred to as 'Laugh now, cry later'.