Greek theatre masks were made of stiffened and painted linen so none have survived to the present day. We only know what they looked like because theatre was so popular in Greek and Roman times that models of actors and masks were made in other materials such as terracotta, stone and bronze and depicted on gems and in paintings and mosaics. With its exaggerated, grotesque features, this terracotta model shows the mask worn by the old man character in many comedies of the 300s BC and later. He has a wide grin, furrowed brow and bald head and wears a wreath with ivy leaves and clusters of berries. The masks worn in tragedies were different, with idealised features set in calm, serious, or sometimes pained expressions.
Masks and the god Dionysos
Masks had certain practical uses: their distinct features made characters recognisable at a distance; they made it easier for the three actors used in plays to play more than one part each; they enabled the all-male casts to play both men and women and some experts claim that the masks helped amplify the voice so that it could be heard at the back of the large open-air theatres. However, the most significant role of the mask was that of transformation: an ordinary man could go beyond his real identity and become a mythological hero or a lusty satyr, a foolish old man or a beautiful young woman, a god or a slave. In this disguise he could say and do things that could not be said and done in everyday life, and could present to the audience events, actions and ideas that were horrifying or ridiculous, inspiring or fantastic.
Throughout the Greek world, performances of plays were usually connected with worship of the god Dionysos. It is the idea of transformation that lies at the root of this association. Although Dionysos is often thought of simply as the god of wine, it is the transformational power of wine that most characterises him. Dionysos was fundamentally the god of changeability: grapes become wine, sober becomes drunk, human becomes animal, order becomes chaos.
A theatre festival
While we refer to Greek theatre, almost all the Greek plays we have were written and first performed in Athens and it was in Athens that Greek theatre as we know it was invented, developed and reached its height. In Athens there were three annual festivals of Dionysos at which plays were performed, the most important being the City Dionysia, which took place in March. The festival lasted five or six days. Three sets of three tragedies, each followed by a so-called satyr play, and five comedies were performed. The productions were paid for partly by the state and partly by rich individuals as a form of contribution to the well-being of the city. Many aspects of Greek culture were very competitive and the festivals took the form of competitions with great prestige to be gained by the winning playwrights and citizen-producers.
Attending the theatre was very much a communal and civic event. Audiences were large – perhaps 15,000 each day - and were made up of important individuals such as the priests of Dionysos and members of the Athenian government, who had front-row seats, ordinary Athenian citizens, resident and other foreigners, perhaps women and possibly even children and some slaves. The City Dionysia began with a magnificent procession carrying an image of Dionysos into the theatre. This was followed by sacrifices and feasting. At some stage before the four days of performance began, the names of citizens who had carried out services for the city were read out. Then the money paid to Athens as tribute by the subject cities of the Athenian empire, all of whom were required to send a representative, was piled up in the theatre. Finally, the orphaned children of warriors killed in battle who had reached the age of manhood paraded into the theatre dressed in full armour. Their upbringing had been paid for by the city and they were now formally acknowledged as citizens. The plays that followed these demonstrations of civic identity and of Athenian power dealt with human behaviour and aspirations, with right and wrong, with politics and with the nature and power of the gods. Through its transformed world of mythical and fantastic characters and stories, elaborate costumes, music, dance and masks, theatre forced the city of Athens to scrutinise both itself and the nature of human life.
First episode in BBC series on Greek theatre
First episode in BBC series on Greek theatre: excellent introduction to theatre in Athens; a further two episodes continue the story.
Brief introduction to Greek theatre.
Introduction to Greek theatre
Brief but comprehensive video introduction to Greek theatre.
Video introduction to masks
Overview of Greek theatre
Follow the Theaters link for an interactive plan of a later Greek theatre.
Create your own Greek tragedy
Part of the same website with an interactive activity to create your own Greek tragedy.
Slideshow introduction to Greek theatre
List of ancient Greek theatres
With links to individual entries.