Unfortunately, no masks survive from the times of ancient Greece. Masks were made of materials that could not survive the elapse of time. However, scholars decipher much from paintings of scenes from plays found on artifacts. In addition, ancient playwrights provided clues in their works. Different playwrights used masks to emphasize different elements of a play. Aristophanes, for example, used masks to exaggerate his feelings about a certain character. Therefore, the construction of masks in a practical way remained similar among the various playwrights, but their use differed greatly.
The construction of these masks depended upon the actor's convenience. The reason for this is that masks had to be lightweight enough for actors to wear. Therefore, most masks were made of stiffened linen, cork, carved wood, or leather. To create the shape of the mask, the artist molded material around a marble face (like papier-mâché). These masks covered the entire head of the actor. An actor usually wore a cap underneath the mask to protect the skull. Human or animal hair provided the actor with any necessary hairstyle. The masks had the white of the eye painted while the part of the pupil remained open for the actor to see the stage (Brooke 1962, p. 77).
To identify characters easily to the audience, stereotypical masks portrayed characters. Youthful characters had long, flowing hair with rosier colored faces. Old men, on the other hand, had pail faces with curly, long, white hair. Extremely pail complexions signified a diseased or dying character. With images such as these, audience members were able to easily identify a character when they emerged onto the stage (Webster 1970, p.45).
Playwrights created another distinct type of mask for the satyr characters. These characters possessed enlarged skulls with a forehead projecting over the eyes. Their black, curly hair receded to baldness on top of their heads. Also on top of their heads were tiny horns as on the head of Pan. With slanted eyes, short noses, and animal ears they represented the opposite of beauty as defined in ancient times. During the times of Middle Comedy, satyr characters such as Dithyramos and Hybris dominated prologues.
Also fond of grotesque masks, Aristophanes fondly modeled many of his masks after living Athenians. Aristophanes used grotesque caricatures in his plays to depict his emissaries in life. A tale exists regarding a production of the play The Clouds. At one point in the play, Socrates supposedly stood so that the audience could compare the mask on the character of Socrates with the living man (Arnott 1971, p. 50).
Special masks also existed for supernatural characters. Unearthly beings, such as the Furies, required masks with certain characteristics. The Bacchanals of Euripides play possessed terrifying appearances. In Aeschylus' Eumenides, boys died of fright and women miscarried at the sight of the Furies Therefore, these characters possessed masks that evoked terror from the audience. Other characters in certain plays also needed special masks. The character Io in Prometheus Bound required ox-horns. In Euripides play, Evippe needed the head of a mare and Argo necessitated multiple eyes. In addition, allegorical figures, such as Justice, Jealousy, and Deceit required special masks. All of these characteristics were only possible using masks (Brooke 1962, p.78).
Common elements are obvious among Greek masks. The construction of masks vaired little because the masks had to be convenient for the use of actors and for the audience. However, many playwrights used masks to emphasize different aspects of the play and characters. While the structure of the mask remained the same, its purpose within the play transformed with the playwright.
Arnott, Peter D. The Ancient Greek and Roman Culture. New York: Random House,
Brooke, Iris. Costume in Greek Classic Drama. New York: Theatre Atrs Books, 1962.
Webster, T.B.L., Greek Theatre Production. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1970.