The use of masks belongs to many different cultures
At the origin masks were used for religious and ceremonial/ritual purposes for instance for rites of passage such as the initiation of young people, marriages, funerals…, and for festivals –in which the use of masks was associated to noise, clamour and colour often to drive away the forces of darkness and to open the way to thespirits of light
Masks in the theatre
Theatre masks can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks.
Traditionally theatrical masks were associated with festivals linked to religious worship in honour of Dionysus. Dionysus was the great Olympian god of wine and festivity, pleasure, fecundity, drunken orgies but also god of vegetation &harvest
Dionysus was celebrated at specific times of the year,once in winter and once in spring.
Later Dionysus was embodied by masked performers (actors) so as to pretend that Dionysus himself was taking part in the ceremony /ies. From this characterisation developed the ritual drama of the period.
The dramatic performances were important to the Athenians (creation of a tragedy competition between playwrights and creation of festival)
In the 5th centuryBctheatre became formalized and an even more major part of Athenian culture and civic pride : this century is regarded as th Golden Age of Greek drama
The use of masks developed over time , as ritual drama/theatre evolved
Masks were used for their expressive power .
Typically masks had large exaggerated striking features and large mouths. The mouths were made to project the sound of thevoice over the vast amount of space of the open air amphitheatre and made the voices as impressive as the features on the masks – however recent points of view have it that the mouths on the masks were not that large and that the propelling and amplification of sound was due to the incredible acoustics resulting from the way theatres were built.
The use of masks enabled the actors to forget whothey were as individuals and allowed for the complete metamorphosis of the actor into character.
Another device to make the tragic heroes even more impressive and outstanding was the use of cothurnus/cothurnuses -wooden shoes with very thick soles (semelles)-
The use of the masks , the sound effects and the continual rythmical chant of the CHORUS* helped to create a strong effect , involving theaudience into deep impressions and feelings and bringing the audience to a state that was similar to trance ( trance like state) Such shared experiences lessened feelings of loneliness and isolation; they made people feel in community
When people in the audience shared such strong experiences, they found they were all so much alike – they laughed and feared and cried and pitied at the same moments.The theatre allowed people to experience violent feelings and emotions and thus feel purified and healed (soulagé/ guéri)..The theatre achieved the catharsis of passions, the purification or purgation of passions/emotions
There was also a practical side to the use of masks because the Greek actors had to change character regularly since their union rules only allowed for 3 performers onstage. Each performer changed maks as he changed character
So masks were useful to create different characters and to gain time and be efficient.
*CHORUS : the chorus usually consisted of 12 members who wore the same mask. The chorus helped the audience know what a character was thinking or warned the audience about the situation or the hero’s fate…
Later in Europe in the Middle Ages masks wereused to perform religious plays called « mysteries » . The mystery plays retold Bible stories in which masks were used to portray devils, demons, dragons…and the seven deadly sins ( 7 péchés capitaux)
Later in the16th - and early 17th-century- the use of masks developed
-as part of court entertainments(see court festivities called Masque which involved an imagery drawn from Classical sources...