Greek drama masks don't refer to the white and gold comedy and tragedy masks you might see hanging over the theater stages of today. In ancient times, masks were used on stage as a part of the wardrobe. They helped symbolize the sex of the actor, creating a certain effect depending up the materials used to make the mask. Understanding the history, materials used and purposes of the masks can help further your appreciation of Greek drama and culture.
Greek masks stem from the Greek Dionysian cult. During worship of the god Dionysus, the God of male fertility and of wine and wine-making, the worshipers would wear masks. Thespis was the first Greek writer to wear a mask. After him the Greek acting fraternity adopted the use of masks on stage. The term "thespian," which is another name for an actor, is derived from Thespis.
Actor to Actress
Much like in Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to act on stage in ancient Greece. This posed a problem for female roles, if it were not for the mask. Actors would don a feminine mask to represent the female character. Additionally, masks provided a quick wardrobe change. Unlike today, it was not unusual for one actor to play multiple roles in the same production. Masks helped signify a character change to the audience.
Greek masks were generally made out of wood, cloth or leather. Creators would also apply human or animal hair to make them look more realistic and help determine the sex of the mask. The front of the mask included painted eyes and other facial features. A small hole drilled into either eye where the pupil would be left space for the actor to see. Some, but not all, masks also left a hole at the mouth for the actor to speak through.
Some academics have theorized that Greek drama masks were also used as a way to amplify the voices of the actors. Others, however, claim that this is unlikely. Those who disagree with the amplifier theory cite the construction of the theater. They argue that, even up to today, an audience member in the last row can hear an actor on the stage clearly because of the way Greeks built the theater to carry sound.