It was in Ancient Greece, during the golden age (approximately 500 – 300 BCE) that masks were being worn for comedic and tragic dramatic purposes. The plays that took place in those days were written in honor of the god Dionysus and they were presented in yearly festivals. Thus, this was the birth of ancient Greek theatre.
Masks had many significant functions in ancient Greek theatre. For starters, at that time in history, all of the actors were male. With this being the case, the masks played an imperative role in disguising their manly facial features with a feminine face; therefore allowing them to established the female roles. As well, the number of actors in a play varied from a mere one to three. The masks allowed each actor to play more roles and showed the change in character and mood to the audience. In general, the masks portrayed whether the actor was female or male, rich or poor and the different occupations and status of the character. A relevant example of this is that the members of the chorus wore masks that were similar to one another; however, they were completely different from those of leading actors, such as a priest or a God. This was vital in distinguishing between major and minor characters, as well as their status in the state.
Other interesting comments are that the masks were used to enhance the volume of the actor’s voice, so that everyone in the large theatres of those times could hear their voice. Continuing on, since the facial expressions would only be visible to the closest members of the audience, it only seemed practical to wear these fairly simple and broadly designed masks. The expressions engraved are constant and could be seen, even by the attendants in the furthest row. This also allowed for the audience to judge the character based on his actions, not his appearance. This ties into Aristotle’s concept that the story is based on the plot and actions of characters, not the characters themselves. Generally, the masks of tragedy were of the ordinary, face-fitting size, with wigs attached and open mouths to allow clear speech. They were crucial to show the audience how the character was feeling. The masks were therefore specialized to each character in a comedy or tragedy and displayed emotions such as happy, sad, tired, upset, and scared. This certain idea of distinguishing human types continued to model theatrical presentation well into the seventeenth century in Europe.
In order for the audience to easily identify characters as they emerged onto the stage, masks were made stereotypically. On example of this; young characters had long, flowing hair with rosier colored faces, while old men had pale faces with curly, long, white hair. Extremely pale complexions signified a diseased or dying character. There were even distinct masks for mythological creatures, such as satyrs. These specific characters possessed enlarged skulls with a forehead projecting over the eyes. They had black, curly hair receded so that the top of their heads were bald. There were also tiny horns strategically on their heads.
The masks had to be reasonably light in weight, so that the actors were comfortable. Usually, the masks were made of linen, wood or leather, and even flour paste. Marble or stone face carvings were used as the moulds for the mask, and these are the only evidence of the masks as no originals remain. Unfortunately, no masks could withstand the wears of time from the days of ancient Greek theatre, due to the fact that they were made of materials that could not outlast time and deterioration. Human or animal hair was even used to complete the look and create a natural look. These masks covered the entire head of the actor. An actor usually wore a cap underneath the mask to protect the skull. The mask only had small holes in the place of the pupil so that the actor could see. In general, the female masks had bigger mouths and eyes to emphasize their beauty.
In closing, masks were the most essential part of the actors disguise. They were absolutely pivotal in order to carry out the play.
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