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by Archaeology Newsroom

Theatrical masks

Masks were used in all three categories of ancient Greek theatre, that of tragedy, satiric drama and comedy. They originate from the Dionysiac feasts during which the participants used to paint their faces with the dark coloured dregs of the new wine and to decorate their heads with leaves and branches. In ancient Greek theatre female roles were acted by men, while the gender was also indicated by the flesh colour, white for women, black for men. The mask was made of cloth dipped in gypsum and pressed on a matrix so as to obtain the desired form. Then it was covered with a thin layer of plaster and finally the features of the character were painted over it. The shape of the mask was like that of a helmet since it covered not only the face but also the entire head. The mouth was made very big so as to facilitate speech, while the opening provided for the eyes was, on the contrary, very small. Indicative of the size of the mask’s eyes is that not only were the whites of the eyes painted but, occasionally, even the eye itself. Characteristic of the tragic mask was the size of it, especially the upper part of the mask in a shape that contributed a lot to the impressive appearance of the actor. During the Hellenistic period masks obtained a strong portrait character. According to Pollux (Onomasticon), there were 76 types of masks. 24 in tragedy, 4 in satiric drama and 44 in comedy. Masks did not correspond to a specific personality but represented individual characters therefore they must be regarded as phsychographs. It is quite probable that certain plays required the use of two masks by the hero, indicative of his situation as in the case of Oedipus, before and after his blindness, but this probability remains only a hypothesis due to the scarcity of information concerning the technicalities of a performance.