Greek Theater Mask Facts

by A.N. Pike

Many people think only of the tragedy masks when they think of Greek theater masks. However, Greek masks were not merely the solid, plain masks often used to represent the theater today. From the origination of the masks to how they are still used in modern productions of classical Greek theater, there are many facts about Greek theater masks that most people do not know.

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Origination of Greek Masks

Participants wore masks during certain worship ceremonies and rituals for the Greek god Dionysus. The Greek writer Thespis originally covered his face in white lead during performances. Eventually, Thespis took the idea of wearing masks during ceremonies and incorporated white linen masks into his stage performances.

Reasons for Wearing Masks

There are several reasons why Greeks wore masks during performances. Plays were performed in large, outside amphitheaters. Due to the size of the stage and the positioning of the seating, many audience members were not able to clearly see what was happening on stage. Masks were used as a way to convey emotion to every audience member. Each mask was designed to show a certain emotion through the use of exaggerated facial expressions, which were readable by all audience members. This ensured that all audience members understood the tone and emotion of each character. Greek performers also wore masks because a limited number of actors were allowed on stage. Initially, one performer was allowed on stage at a time. Through the use of masks, different characters and emotions were established during plays. Eventually, three actors were allowed on stage. Also, there were no women actors in Greek theater, so men wore female masks for female roles.

Description of Masks

Masks used in Greek theater were made of plaster-soaked linen, wood or leather. The masks featured exaggerated facial expressions portraying emotions such as happiness, sadness and anger. The mouths were large cut-out or carved openings that enabled actors to speak loudly and clearly. Eyes were clearly drawn on the mask. Pupil holes were punched out so actors could see. Animal or human hair was often added to the mask as facial hair. Masks used to represent female characters featured larger eyes and larger mouth holes.

Finding Ancient Greek Masks

Due to the types of materials used to make the masks, authentic ancient Greek masks do not exist. The masks decayed over time. Fortunately, Greeks depicted people wearing these masks on vases and in drawings. Through research and extensive study, historians have pieced together what the masks looked like.

Greek Masks Today

Greek masks are still used in certain theatrical productions. Many modern directors feel that using Greek masks during Greek tragedy and comedy revivals is essential in capturing the spirit and theme of the play.

About the Author

A.N. Pike has been a professional writer since 2006. She has worked for the "McKinney Courier-Gazette" and her campus newspaper, now freelancing for various clients. Pike earned her associate's degree in mass communications and journalism from Collin College.

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