The origin of masked theater dates back to Ancient Greece, between 550 BC and 220 BC. Initially masks were part of an annual festival dedicated to honoring Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. The festival, named City Dionysia, was held in Athens and the most significant rituals involved masked performances. Inspired by City Dionysia, the Greek acting fraternity soon decided to incorporate the use of masks into theater. Thespis, a Greek actor and writer was the first recorded actor to wear a mask in a play. It is from him that we have derived the word, “Thespian”, a synonym for actor.
Greek masks were made from light weight, organic materials such as stiffened linen, leather, wood or cork. The masks had exaggerated, distorted facial features which allowed the audience to clearly see what character was being portrayed, whether it was a male, a female, a priest or a peasant. The wideness of the mouths also served as megaphone to amplify the actors’ voices in a massive theater. The costumes and props used in Greek theatre differed according to the play and character being presented. A peasant would wear shoes with a thin sole and a simple toga while a wealthy merchant would wear elevated platform shoes with colorful, embellished robe. If an actor had to play a female, then he would wear a mask with long hair and a chest device called a prosterniad to give the illusion of breasts.
Since Greek plays were only performed by a maximum of three men and a chorus of fifteen, they needed versatility to be able to switch seamlessly from act-to-act and character-to-character. Actors needed to be able perform in front of a large audience and have good memorization skills, effective body positioning and spacial awareness. A loud, clear voice and singing capabilities was also important. The job of the chorus was to narrate and reflect on the action of the play as well as being extras if needed.
Two of the most influential types of plays invented by the Greeks...
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