There is evidence of the use of masks in Greek theater from the fifth century BC In Greek theater, actors always wear masks. Their use enabled actors to play multiple roles, including female roles. The masks conveyed the character’s primary emotions, making it easier for the audience to ‘see’ the character from a great distance.
Greek comedy and tragedy
Comedy and tragedy were the two primary forms of theater in ancient Greece. There were often going to theater festivals that visited Greek cities. It seems that theater grew out of festivals honoring Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The Greeks believed that Dionysus exhibited a duality of emotions, either laughing rebellion or deep sorrow that they observed in people who were drunk.
The masks in ancient Greece were made of light materials, mainly wood, but also clay, cork and leather. The masks covered the entire actor’s face and had a small opening for the mouth. Some stitches were made with hair. Others allowed the actor to make a wig.
The Greeks actually preferred Comedy and its ability to poke fun at the human condition. Tragedy made it possible for people to experience darker emotions in a relatively safe context. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies.
While masks in theater begin in Greece, other cultures used masks in ceremonies. The Romans imported masks into their theater, as they imported many other ideals from Greece. The traditions of All Saints Day and Day of the Dead involve masks, while Native American tribes such as the Cherokee also wore masks in their ceremonies that mark winter. Mardi Gras, which is popular in New Orleans, is marked by people wearing masks and enjoying one last whine before Lent. Dating back to ancient Greek times, the masks of comedy / tragedy have played a long and important role in theater development. Comedy masks (laughing face) and tragedy masks (crying face) are iconic images. They were even used on the cover of Motley Crues’ 1983 album ‘Theater of Pain’.