The Ancient Face: The Greek Theatrical Mask As A Symbol Of Performance And Transformation

1259 words - 6 pages

The comedic and tragic masks commonly associated with drama have a long history as icons of the theatre. However, these masks also have associations with less tangible aspects of performance. While their raw function as performance aids seems obvious, closer inspection of ancient vase paintings and votive sculpture suggests the theatrical mask was closely linked to the ritualized metamorphosis that the Ancient Greeks perceived at the foundations of dramatic portrayal. This less-corporeal function positioned the mask not only as a symbol of the performing arts but also one of a transformational process that provided access to the divine. This symbolic value has evolved through the ages and ...view middle of the document...

This deeper interpretation of the painting in turn alludes to the greater relevance the Greek audience would assign the performing arts as a part of a larger ritualized practice, one that aims at reaching beyond the physical realm of stage and seat into that of the divine.
Many works depicting masks and performance motifs are found on on krater vases, large vases used for holding and mixing wine. A richly decorated krater such as the Promonos Vase would have been the centerpiece for the symposium, a popular drinking party. Depictions of Dionysos and satyrs were common on such vessels, as were those of satyr plays and the masks associated with them. In several examples, Wiles describes krater artifacts where masks are not shown as being worn by actors, but rather by women reveling with Dionysos. These masked Maenads suggest a connection between masks and the god beyond that of the performing arts. It is also suggested that Ancient Greeks may have decorated the symposium room with masks in an effort to “re-create the Santuary of Dionysos.” Both these examples indicate an extension of the mask’s relevance beyond the stage and into the domestic sphere where it served as an emblem transformation by wine and an potentially an invocation of Dionysos himself.
Dionysos was not the only divinity closely linked to the mask as a symbolic emblem. The muses Melpomene and Thalia, patrons of tragedy and comedy respectively, are regularly shown carrying the masks specific to their genre. In these cases the mask functions more as an icon or label intended to aid in the identification of a diety. Taking this further, these muses are generally portrayed simply holding their mask, showing no intention of wearing it or applying it to another figure. Removed from the Dionystic context, the mask is seen as simply a marker of the theatrical trade, something with which the modern eye may be more familiar.
When rendered in these more sedate contexts, the mask may more closely resemble those used on stage in Ancient Greece. Owing to a more naturalistic (or even idealized) aesthetic, the physical characteristics of these masks may be more easily understood. However subdued the portrayal, however, the large eyes and mouth remain distinctive. The mouth in particular is exaggerated, either grieving or grinning widely as appropriate. The eyes are often shown as hollow, creating the mask’s distinctive haunting stare. As Wiles reminds us “the power of the mask's gaze is one of the most important facets of he mask that we must relate to the realities of tragic performance,” and this importance is certainly reflected in even these more restrained sculptural representations. The dominance of eyes and mouth also highlights the visual and vocal elements of performance were at the...

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