Theatre Masks from Different Times and Cultures
: Masks In Theatrical Productions
Across our world there are many types of theatre masks.
To travel back in time we can visit the Ancient Greeks, possibly even the Ancient Egyptians.
These cultures will of course have been influenced by their older ancestors.
Today there are several choices of masked theatre, one which springs to mind is Trestle Theatre Company.
In the USA there are many makers and performers of masks. I have been impressed by the work of
Personally the theatre masks I've always found fascinating are Japanese No masks.
I just love the styles and expressions and of course the craftsmanship is of an incredibly high quality.
That of course leads to high priced masks. Quality in this area can be found on the net both as modern and antique masks.
When in London I always try to pay a visit to the Japanese Print Gallery in Kensingtion Church Street.
It is a shop that has always fascinated me because of course I enjoy Japanese prints.
Often they will have one or two, occasionally more, Japanese No masks. What gets to me is the quality of the carving and the beautiful finish.
As opposed to many of the masks in my collection I can imagine comfortably wearing one of these.
See the Noh Masks page
I contrast these Noh masks with a little Bihar Ramayamma mask of a buck toothed girl I have hanging on my wall.
The back of which is so rough that the thought of anyone wearing it horrifies me. You would probably get splinters in your face!
Let's trace the masks historically and geographically.
Theatre Masks can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
There may have been some theatrical masks use in early Egyptian times but there is little specific evidence.
Egyptian uses were probably for religious and healing purposes rather than theatrical enactment. There are no real records of theatre masks before this time.
It can be assumed that masks were used for performance, though it is most likely that they were used in religious or ceremonial ways. See my notes on tribal and carnival masks.
Traditionally the use Greek of theatrical masks are associated with festivals associated with Dionysus. He was the God of fecundity, and harvest.
He was celebrated at specific times of year and as the festivals developed over time he was given a place in the ceremony by masked performers.
The original use of masks to depict his character is attributed to Thespis. This 6th century poet is also credited with the first Greek tragedy.
From this characterization developed the ritual drama of the period.
Greek Theatrical masks were used and developed as the styles and type of performance evolved.
What we know of today comes from information contained in fresco, vase paintings and other contemporary illustrations.
The masks themselves may have been quite crude.
Typically they had large features, stylized hair and large mouths. The large mouths were shaped to enlarge the sound of the voice as a megaphone would.
It has also been speculated that this effect plus the shape of the ampitheatre and the continual rythmical chant of the chorus helped to create a trance like state in the audience.
Imagine this; for the audience the performance could have seemed as realistic as modern day film as they slipped into a state of heightened suggestibility.
The Greek actors had to change character regularly as their Union rules only allowed for three performers. Each performer change masks as he change character.
Later as we move into Roman times there is some evidence of theatre masks. These have tenuous connections to the later comedia del arte.
In the comedia masks were stylized and at times fanyastic and grotesque. Leather was used predominately to shape these expressive masks. This is a tradition followed by the modern makers of Carnival masks.
During the medieval period the mystery plays were developed. Here again masks were used to portray devils, demons, dragons and the seven deadly sins to retell Bible stories.
Often made from paper mache the masks involved great craftsmanship and include hinged jaws and the ability to release smoke and fire.
Few visual records are available. Bosch's Combat of Carnival and Lent 1559 gives us some idea of the type of masks worn.
The comedia del arte style of theatre grew during the 15th century through to its decline in the 19th century. Masks were used for various characters often base upon Roman drama.
The characters of Arlecchino and Colombina were established.
As we spread our gaze across the other parts of the world similar traditions come to light.
In India there are the presentations of the ancient Sanskrit stories and the Ramayamma epics, some lasting for a whole month. Similar performances can be found in Bali and Fiji.
China also has a form of masked theatre that was religious in nature.
This is obviously a brief introduction to the world of theatre masks. The next pages will build upon this theme and allow you to look in depth at some of these aspects
Inspired by an article in Encyclopedia Britanica
To learn more about theatre masks check out Theatrical Costume, Masks, Make-Up and Wigs: A Bibliography and Iconography (Motley Bibliographies), the ultimate theatre masks resource.
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