Western theater tradition is marked by the classic Greek period of the 5th century BCE. The creative output, theatrical imagination, and social relevance of the Attic theater aesthetic have had resounding influence on the development of representational European theater. From Shakespeare to Brecht to O’Neill to Ruhl, the work of the Greeks is still with us. While a relative handful of the original plays presented at the Festival of Dionysos have survived intact, far less has been found to illuminate the exact nature of the masked performance; and when one thinks of Greek theater, one thinks of the mask. Why else does every drama club and prestigious theater award still carry the image of the mask? The mask represents the nature of ‘the thing that is and the thing that is not’ coexisting in the same form; an ambiguous relationship that still captivates the viewer and the performer alike. In the classic Greek what was the function of the masked performer and how did a performer function with a mask?
Why a mask?
When we consider the tropes of ancient masked performance we do two things: we look at current uses of masked performance, and we calculate where the use of the masked tradition originated. In the conclusion of his book on Masked Performance, John Emigh combines this forward and backward glance in this statement:
The masked actor … (works) within a “plane of similitude” to create the amalgam of self and other that may be experienced as characters. Intercultural performances—and, it seems, cultures themselves—depend on similar strategies in order to acquire their dynamic form, significance, and vitality. For me, the most successful intercultural performances of the past twenty years has been Suzuki Tadashi’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women.
This adaptation of Euripides was set in a field in Japan shortly after the atomic bombs had fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The play was performed in Japanese and used masks from the Noh tradition mixed with kabuki face styles, a powerful combination of Western and Eastern aesthetics causing Emigh to remark, “These conventions are never employed literally, but their resonance across the ‘plane of similitude’ Suzuki and his coworkers have found between Greek and Japanese performative traditions act to reshape the form and action of Euripides’ drama, transforming the Greek masks, characters, and action.” The use of the mask reemerges as re-imagined fare.
While the dominating influence of the Greek theater on modern works is evident, the origin of the form is far murkier. The roots of tragedy are believed to spring from early masked rituals devoted to the god Dionysos. Evidence to support this theory comes from the likely origin of the word “tragedy” originating from the word tragos which means goat, and odi which means song. This links tragedy to the dythyramb because some members of the celebrants dressed as satyrs, or goat-men. Other sources claim that “goat-song” derives from the awarding of a goat play as the prize for the best in the early forms of the festival.
Theatricality, the process by which a stage-presentation is rendered, begins to propagate as the 5th century aesthetic is established and codified. In the essay “The use of the body by actors in tragedy and satyr-play”, Kostas Valakas notes how the Greek dramatists refined their art by utilizing the dramatic effect of simple forms:
In both tragedy and the satyr-play the modification of the performer’s body by a simple mask and a more or less elaborate dress produces a theatrical image which is meant to evoke the anthropomorphic world of myth in an unrealistic, but not wholly unnatural, way. Mask, costume (such as a staff, a bow, or a chariot) used in relation to a specific role, the variable voice of the male actor or dancer, and the words of his role… are the differentiating elements of theatricality; they can represent the gender, mythical status, and perhaps the geographical provenance and some individual characteristics of a tragic or satiric character or chorus.
Masks and props are vehicles for understanding, much as music video artists or advertisers rely on symbolic imagery to convey immediate and (they hope) long-lasting recognition.
In an essay describing the influence of the masks on the actors and the Attic audience attending Oedipus Rex, Claude Calame describes the physical attributes of the actor encased in a mask:
(The mask) ‘shifts’ the voice and gaze of the hero, for the mouth and eyes are the two organs which correspond to the holes in the mask’s surface: they let the voice and the gaze of the actor appear to the spectators, beyond the hero he is miming. The mask creates a confrontation between the dramatic action and the public…while mediating this confrontation.
Calame points out that the intent of the mask was not to obliterate knowledge of the performer inside the mask, but to alter that perception, or as Emigh suggests in the aforementioned passage, creates an ‘amalgam’.
David Wiles takes the relationship between the audience and the masked performer a step further. In Attic tragedy of the 5th c the masks were more neutral and naturally proportioned than the stylized masks of the 4th c or exaggerated masks of Rome:
Masks covered the whole head, requiring the spectator to project emotion on to the face and imagine movement in the few simple features tht the mask rendered visible. The actor brought the mask to life through the configuration of the whole body. Later Greek theatre was able to use subtle densely coded masks because the actors stood in shadow, but in the classical period the actors in Athens stood in the circle of the orchestra with the sun behind them.
Depending on the time day, the effect of the sun’s angle could render the actors as silhouettes to some portions of the audience, leaving the understanding of the relationships of the characters to the interpretation of shapes and configurations.
In general, the classical tragic masks were neutral in expression. Richard Green, in his essay “Towards a reconstruction of performance style” explains why:
‘Proper’ Greeks and the gods they created show calm and control even in the most adverse situations, whereas aliens, the outsiders of society, exhibit their emotions. It is an aspect of the ‘classical Ideal’… We should expect that on stage the figures of serious drama also looked ‘proper’. This is surely an aspect of the decorum expected of tragedy.
A god, a king, or a hero would be rendered as ‘ideal’ as possible, and this would mean an appearance of calm or neutrality.
How were the classic masks made?
While very little evidence exists of how the masks of the 5th c were constructed , the images that do exist support the claim that they were representational and not exaggerated. Few written descriptions of 5th c theater production are known to exist, the written records come from later Roman sources who were primarily writing about their current theatrical forms and relying on supposition to remark on classic Greek production values. No masks have survived because they were made from lightweight materials like canvas, cork, leather, or carved wood.
To understand the classical masked performer we rely on painted pottery from the same era depicting actors in performance and in relationship to their masks. Richard Green elaborates on some of the frustration scholars have had in discerning what is theatrical style and what is artist rendering:
All too few pictures survive of classical Greek actors acting tragedy. There are good reasons for this, the principal of which is the convention that vase-painters…were governed by the sense of story conveyed by the performance. Thus what is usually depicted on vases is not the process of performance but what the audience was persuaded to see, as it were the ‘real’ Agamemnon of Greek myth—history rather than the actor playing the role.
While this is frustrating for scholars, it does reveal the realistic effect the masked-performance had on its audience. Had the play been perceived as stilted by the presence of the mask, then I believe the masks would be prevalent on the renderings.
The masks were made by assistants working for the director, and were also responsible for the other aspects of costuming. The masks themselves were made from glued rags, and covered with hair either made from human sources, animal sources, or possibly tow. There are a number of marble mask heads that still survive, although not all are the correct size for matching a mask to an adult. A mask made of linen or cloth could be moulded around the marble form in a process like creating papier-mache objects. In this way a series of masks could be created and either be adorned similarly or with varying hair and coloration.
Why this mask?
The mask presented as part of this project portrays Philoktetes, the lame hero at the center of the 5th century tragedy by Sophocles. Produced in 409 BCE, the play was the second-to-last work by the aged playwright, and the last of his work that he would see staged before his death in 406 BCE. It presents the title character Philoktetes as a man who has been alone on an island for nine years, abandoned by Odysseus as the Achaeans made their way to Troy after he had been wounded by a serpent.
I have attempted to render the mask in a neutral style as befits a hero in tragedy. Originally I attempted an experiment with stiffening linen with glue. I formed the wet-glue cloth over a plastic mask of a human face. It proved impossible to get the wet cloth to remain on top of the form. I imagine what would be needed to mould linen in this way is not just the initial face form, but an indented form that could be placed over the linen to hold it in place while it dried. Another issue with the linen experiment was the way the material folds. I imagine that the linen would have to be cut in such a way that it would dry as a smooth surface, rather than one that buckles and wrinkles as the linen accommodates the shape of the nose and brow. I did manage to get a ghostly image of a face, but it looks like a face pressing itself up against a sheet. It did not render a suitable representation of a face.
To make this mask I used techniques I learned from Dan Potter, founder and director of the Mystic Paper Beasts, a mask/puppet performance troupe that has toured around the world. He enjoys using ‘found’ or recycled objects in his work. I used cardboard reinforced with a coating of glue to make it resilient and less likely to become soggy while applying paint. Masking tape was applied to cover edges and smooth out junctions. This also received a coating of glue and water to make it stronger.
Because the character has been living outdoors on an island for nine years, I wanted to give him a slightly harried appearance. The ‘hair’ is made from homespun yarn to help with this effect. Also, I chose a ruddier complexion for the face, to give the appearance of his many hours exposed to the elements seeking provisions.
Using the information gathered about Attic masked performance I have sought to create a neutral mask with subtle character attributes. The masked performance tradition of the classic Greeks is one of the facets of their enduring drama that continues to fascinate. Their stories and their style of performing are still relevant to our theater today. We have altered the look of the mask—the purpose of the mask—but the masking tradition still holds power and in its presence we listen. By making this mask, I have learned a little more about why these traditions endure.
1. Libby Appel, Masked Characterization, An Acting Process, (Illinois, Southern University Press, 1982).
2. John Emigh, Masked Performance: The Play of Self and Other in Ritual and Theatre, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).
3. Richard Green, Pat Easterling and Edith Hall, ed., Greek and Roman Actors, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
4. Graham Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
5. Don Nardo, ed., Greek Drama, (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000).
6. Stewart Ross, Jill A. Laidlaw, ed., Ancient Greece: Greek Theatre, (Chicago: Wayland Publishers, 1996).
7. M. S. Silk, Tragedy and the Tragic, Greek Theatre and Beyond, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996).
8. Sophocles, Sophokles: The Complete Plays, trans. Carl R. Mueller and Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek (Hanover: Smith and Kraus, 2000).
9. Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Sophocles, (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000).
10. Kostas Valakas, Pat Easterling and Edith Hall, ed., Greek and Roman Actors, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
11. David Wiles, Greek Theatre Performance, An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).