The origin of masked theater dates back to Ancient Greece, between 550 BC and 220 BC. Initially masks were part of an annual festival dedicated to honoring Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. The festival, named City Dionysia, was held in Athens and the most significant rituals involved masked performances. Inspired by City Dionysia, the Greek acting fraternity soon decided to incorporate the use of masks into theater. Thespis, a Greek actor and writer was the first recorded actor to wear a mask in a play.
It is from him that we have derived the word, “Thespian”, a synonym for actor. Greek masks were made from light weight, organic materials such as stiffened linen, leather, wood or cork. The masks had exaggerated, distorted facial features which allowed the audience to clearly see what character was being portrayed, whether it was a male, a female, a priest or a peasant. The wideness of the mouths also served as megaphone to amplify the actors’ voices in a massive theater. The costumes and props used in Greek theatre differed according to the play and character being presented.
A peasant would wear shoes with a thin sole and a simple toga while a wealthy merchant would wear elevated platform shoes with colorful, embellished robe. If an actor had to play a female, then he would wear a mask with long hair and a chest device called a prosterniad to give the illusion of breasts. Since Greek plays were only performed by a maximum of three men and a chorus of fifteen, they needed versatility to be able to switch seamlessly from act-to-act and character-to-character. Actors needed to be able perform in front of a large audience and have good memorization skills, effective body positioning and spacial awareness.
A loud, clear voice and singing capabilities was also important. The job of the chorus was to narrate and reflect on the action of the play as well as being extras if needed. Two of the most influential types of plays invented by the Greeks were tragedies and comedies. Tragedies were serious plays based on mythology and most often depicted the downfall of a hero or heroine. Tragic masks had mournful or pained expressions. The actors wore boots that elevated them above the actors to show status since the plays often involved depicting social hierarchy. Religious themes were more focused in tragedies while omedies were lighter in message and involved jokes, parodies and slapstick humor. Comedic masks had hugely distorted smiling or leering faces to convey mischievousness and hilarity. Today the tragedy and comedy masks are renowned symbols of dramatic arts. Unfortunately, any physical evidence of a Greek mask has not survived and the only source of evidence is from artworks and written accounts. There were several reasons why masks were incorporated in Greek drama. Masks allowed actors to easily play more than one character, especially since Greek drama had very few actors (no more than three men, excluding the chorus) in a play.
The masks also allowed actors to portray animals and deities, and even female characters, since women were forbidden to act. Additionally, because the division between the stage and the audience of the theater was so vast, the exaggeration and noise amplification function of the masks allowed even the least-educated audience members to easily identify and hear the characters. The performance space itself was a large, open-air structure constructed on a specially chosen slope of a hill. The Greeks always performed in circular outdoor theaters to successfully project the voice of the actors to the immense number of spectators.
Greek theatre is still considered to have one of the best stage acoustics, even compared to today’s theaters. Theaters, such as the Theatre of Dionysus, were built to entertain an audience of up to twenty thousand. They consisted of three principal elements: the skene, the orchestra and the theatron. The skene was a large rectangular building that served as an ancient equivalent of a backstage area. It was a place for the actors to change their costumes and masks and perform the killing scenes since it was considered to be inappropriate to depict a murder in front of an audience.
The skene was also decorated to serve as a backdrop for the play, resulting in the English word “scenery. ” Typically, there were at least two doors to allow the actors to exit and enter the skene and onto the orchestra. The orchestra was a flat semi-circular area where the performance or religious rites tool place. This was the stage where the actors performed on and were on average 25 meters wide in diameter. Some orchestras had an alter specially built for sacrifices dedicated to Dionysus. The theatron were the rows of tiered stones where the spectators sat.
It was curved around the orchestra to allow the audience members to see and hear the play, even if they were at the very top. As Greek architecture continued to improve, the theaters became more elaborate and introduced the parodoi, paraskenion, proskenion, hyposkenion and the episkenion to the skene. Today, all that is left of the original skene of many Greek theaters is an arch surrounding the proskenion, which inspired the proscenium arch. Although Greek theater is quite different to what we have done in drama, we can certainly relate the practice of Greek mask theater to what we have learned throughout our mask unit.
Like the Greeks, we had to learn to exaggerate our movement (through body language, articulation, clocking and tension states) to ensure the audience understood our storyline. We also incorporated the use of costumes and status like the Greeks to make our plays easier to understand. Because the mask concealed facial expressions, everything depended on the body yet we had to learn how to prevent from “talking with our hands”. Very much like the Greek actors who unaccustomed to the mask, suffered disorientation and restriction when masked, learning to perform fluidly with the mask was one of the biggest challenges we faced.
We definitely learned that mask work was not easy. It required skill, patience and practice to create a short play that would capture our audience’s attention. In conclusion, Greek theater has certainly made a substantial impact on modern theater and drama. It is to the Greeks that we owe not only the first great plays of tragedy and comedy, but paved the pathway of mask theater, its acceptance in performing arts and of dramatic construction and theory. Thanks to the Greeks, today we know mask work is a dramatic art form that has centuries of history and should be respected and preserved.
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