The famous faces of drama, denoting comedy and tragedy, have their origins in Greek drama masks, which were commonly worn by all actors in ancient times. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the masks were used to convey emotion, and were considered more effective than a revealed face.
Origins of Greek Drama Masks
While the exact origins of both drama and the use of masks in performance cannot be identified absolutely, it is generally understood that they derived from the worship of the god Dionysus. As a god associated with wine, his followers were naturally passionate and prone to dramatic action.
The musical performance, dancing and storytelling associated with the feasts worshiping Dionysus can be said to be the beginnings of organized theater. Additionally, Dionysus was a god of "otherness" and so, when he was rendered artistically on vases or other crockery, he was shown wearing a mask.
The faces shown for "comedy/tragedy" are said to represent the two sides of Dionysus: that he was full of joy and revelry, but also prone to great sadness.
Finally, the first known writer and performer was named Thespis (hence the synonym "thespian" for actors) and he wore a mask, thus setting a trend for centuries to come.
Uses of Greek Drama Masks
There were several practical reasons for using masks in Greek drama. Masks allowed actors to easily play several different parts, including gods, whose faces could never be represented by a human face.
Masks also allowed actors to believably portray female characters, because of course women were not allowed to perform on stage when the theater began.
In ancient Greece, plays were performed during the day, outdoors in large amphitheaters. The bulk of the audience could not see the actors very well, so a mask projected a character to the cheap seats. Furthermore, the masks were highly stylized and exaggerated, so that a villain or lover was easily comprehended, even by the least-educated audience members.
Challenges of Greek Masks
As liberating as the masks were in allowing actors to slip back and forth through characters and gender, they also presented a great challenge to good performers. Actors spent years learning how to use their bodies to enhance the emotional thrust of a performance and to show the breadth of emotion usually expressed in the face.
Actors also had to master a range of vocal expressions. As hard as it was to learn to project to an open-air audience of 10,000 people with no amplification, an actor's abilities were mostly judged by the emotional strength of his voice. Everything in a character and the story had to come from the spoken words, and if an actor wasn't skilled enough, the story would not be well told and the play was a failure. The mask gave the actors characterizations that were instantly understood, but it was the voice and body that brought the characters to three-dimensional life.
The Masks' Construction
Opinions vary, but it is generally agreed that the masks used in ancient theater were made from clay, wood, linen and leather. A model of marble or stone was used as a mold from which to build the mask, which is how they achieved consistency. A wig was attached that covered the actor's head.
The masks had large open mouths so that the actors could speak easily and be heard throughout the amphitheater. The eyes, which tended to be exaggerated, were fully painted. However, there was a hole in place of a pupil for the actor to see out of.
Unfortunately, ancient Greek masks have not survived, but if you want to try performing a Greek play in masks, Arlecchina's Masks, made by Los Angeles artist Wendy Gough, will be very close to the real thing. The masks are made of papier mache and neoprene. There are nineteen from which to choose, or, if you want something like a Medusa mask, they can custom-make something based on your own design.