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Masks in Ancient Greek Theatre

 

The use of masks in ancient Greek theater draw their origin from the ancient Dionysian cult. Thespis was the first writer, who used a mask.

The members of the chorus wore masks, usually similar to each other but completely different from the leading actors. Picture 1 portrays a sort of mask suitable for the chorus.

Because the number of actors varied from one to three, they had to put on different masks, in order to play more roles.

The actors were all men. The mask was therefore necessary to let them play the female roles. Picture 2 portrays a woman's mask.

Some people claim that the masks had one more significance : they added resonance to the voice of an actor so that everyone in the huge ancient theater could hear him (Baldry 1971). I do not quite agree with that point of view. I think it's enough for someone to attend a modern performance of a play in the ancient theater of Epidaurus to feel the perfection of the acoustics in an ancient theater. Even the audience of the last row can hear a whisper from the orchestra.

An interesting idea (Wiles 1991) is that the mask could give to the character some sort of universality, creating an average figure, so that the audience would judge him on his actions and not his appearance. Certainly that was a result of the use of the mask but I am not quite convinced that it was one of the purposes of its use.

Usually the masks were made of linen, wood, or leather. A marble or stone face was used as a mould for the mask. Human or animal hair was also used. The eyes were fully drawn but in the place of the pupil of the eye was a small hole so that the actor could see.