Masks originated in Greek Theatre as a means to manifest gods onstage. Originally, the mask was a white, linen full-face mask, but was later made of leather or painted canvas. By this time, masks were not limited to gods, but all characters. They were used to project sound and exaggerated facial features across the theaters. Another primary use was to help establish changing speaking characters. Because the Greeks only used three speaking actors, they each played numerous character. The chorus likely had identical masks. At the end of a performance, the actors took off their masks to present themselves to the judges.
Fabulae Atellanae: the Atellan farce was a full-face masked, improvisatory performance popular in Ancient Rome. Characters wore masks designed to signify which stock characters (Bucco, Maccus, Dossenus, Pappus, Manducus, and Dosseunus) they were. For instance, hair color was an easy identifier: the elderly had gray or white hair, the young had black or dark hair, and slaves were red-haired. Maccus’ mask had a beaked nose and Pappus had a beard and was bald. These masks were also made of linen. Roman actors never took their masks off onstage. The mask gave the actor a certain liberty to feel protected while he performed forbidden or unacceptable content.
Pantomime: This was a silent, solo performer, who wore a closed-mouth mask. The performer had a different masks for each characters he played.
Other uses: masks were put over the faces of notable soldiers who died.
Masks are a very important and sacred part of Noh drama, which are passed down from generation to generation. They are carved out of wood, coated in plaster, lacquered, and gilded by artists called tenka-ichi, which means “the first under heaven.” There are 125 types of masks, which can be categorized as old men, elders, women, men, demons, and spirits. Corrupt rulers where white masks, the righteous wear red, and villains wear black. The masks are made to look neutral and inhabit different emotions depending on the angle at which the actor tilts the mask. For instance, tilting downward generally expresses sadness. The eye holes in the mask are very small, limiting the actor’s vision.
Kabuki and Sanskrit artists use make up to resemble masks, which convey particular characters and personalities. In Chinese Opera, they utilize silk masks and make-up masks. Colors in these performances also indicate the character’s traits. Negative colors include white as mischievous and blue and green as brutal. Positive traits are manifested in black as fair, red as loyal, and yellow as delicate. Finally, gold represents the supernatural.
In medieval mystery plays, stories of the Bible were represented onstage. Masks were worn for characters playing devils, demons, dragons, and the deadly sins. They were made of paper maché. Historians believe the masks were equipped for special effects like breathing fire or smoke from the mouths.
Commedia Dell’arte was an improvisatory type of performance built upon stock characters and scenes. Masks were made of heavy leather and were both full or half-faced depending on the character. The stock characters consisted of:
- Four unmasked lovers
- Capitano (soldier) wore a mask with a strong brow and long nose.
- Two masked old men
- Pantalone (an old merchant) had a made with a hooked nose and prominent eyebrows.
- Il Dottore (the doctor) wore a half-mask with a bulbous nose.
- Three to four masked servants
- The mask was at first a full face mask and later became a half-face mask.These masks always had a very long nose- the longer, the stupider the character. These masks were all black.
- Harlequin’s mask had a puggish nose, devilish and feline features, which sometimes had a bump on the forehead.
- Pulcinella’s mask had a beaked nose.
- Colombina’s mask was an eye mask that developed into the popular masquerade mask.
- Brighella’s mask had a curled mustache and some masks may have had a beard.
Masks fell out of use in modern theatre. It wasn’t until post-World War 1 that masks began to be used again in more experimental forms like surrealism, symbolism, cubism, and theatre of cruelty. Artists like Gerhart Hauptmann uses masks for the grotesque and animals.
A production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown used masks of the actors own faces, pictured on the left.
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