Research on the Ancient Mask

by Angie Varakis
Royal Holloway

The classical 'helmet' mask as depicted by the archaeological evidence is considered by classicists as one of the defining conventions of Greek theatre. In recent years there has been a growing understanding by academics and theatre practitioners that in ancient times the Greek mask was more than a functional device with practical applications. It was also strongly connected to the quality of the texts and the deeply formalistic nature of ancient theatre. This in combination to the limitations a realistic approach to ancient drama could pose for theatre practitioners has led to an increasing development in mask research and a growing interest in exploring the potential of re-introducing the mask in the modern staging of ancient Greek drama.

In the world of academia a great deal of research in ancient mask iconography has been undertaken in recent times by T.B.L. Webster and J. R. Green as part of 'the ancient theatre project' centred on the Institute of Classical Studies in London. This work involved building up a data-base of masks. Webster's catalogues of masks[1] are historically valuable as they give an indication of the ancient theatrical masks' appearance and popularity by period and area. However they do not explore the mask's significance within performance practice. Research in this area has just begun to develop with the work of academics from the field of theatre studies and classics such as David Wiles, Michael Walton, Nurit Yaari, Martha Johnson, C.W. Marshall and Claude Calame which aims to show how masks can develop and shape our understanding of Greek theatre and society.[2] Also there is a developing theoretical research in ancient masks from an anthropological point of view by French academics such as Frontisi-Ducroux and Jean-Pierre Vernant.[3] The work of the latter, attempts to connect images of Satyrs and the Gorgon as depicted by the archaeological evidence to theatre masks of the earliest tragedies.

Parallel to academic research, a number of professional theatre practitioners have tried to explore the potential of masks in performance by using them in their stagings of Greek drama. The monumental masked productions of Jean Louis Barrault's Oresteia in 1955 and Tyrone Guthrie's Oedipus, also in 1955 (see photograph at the Stratford Festival Image Gallery; this production was directed for film by Guthrie in 1957) as well as a series of productions by Karolos Koun in Greece and Peter Hall in Britain have generated public awareness of the Greek mask tradition and have given the incentive to the project of appreciating how Greek texts work when presented in masks. For Karolos Koun, the mask was considered an alienating as much as a ritualistic device which made the tragic characters seem greater with a clear and lasting signification whilst in the case of Aristophanic comedy helped create a festive atmosphere similar to that found in Greek carnival events and folk celebrations.[4] As Koun argued when discussing this issue, masks should be used on the characters in performance 'to help maintain their scale and impersonal nature'.[5] of ancient theatre and the simplicity of the classical artistic expression and its use within his productions aimed to highlight the stylised nature of ancient performance practice.[6]

The masked work of the aforementioned professional practitioners, have created few imitators and therefore for practical experimentation with Greek masks one should look elsewhere. In recent years the majority of practical research on masks has been undertaken by academics in collaboration with independent artists who are drawn to ancient theatre practice and professional or semi-professional small-scale companies that are interested in masked theatre such as the 'Mask Studio' with director Michael Chase which is based in England and 'The Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre' with director Malcolm Knight based in Glasgow.[71]

Richard William's 'New Comedy masks Project' based at the University of Glasgow in collaboration with 'The Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre' has taken Webster's New Comedy research on masks a step further due to the development in IT technology that enables the researcher through 3D scanning to use the information provided by the archaeological evidence as a valuable source for the reconstruction of New Comedy masks which are then used in live performance. Just like Webster's work, this research deals with artefacts. However it exclusively explores three-dimensional objects, such as miniature ancient theatre masks, which through 3D scanning are enlarged to life size. This project has initiated practice-based research 'leading to live performances that are the first to use objectively reconstructed ancient masks'.[8] By asking actors to work with costumes and masks based on a close analysis of the artefacts one can appreciate the possibilities of the ancient masks in performance practice and further an understanding of how performers moved and acted in antiquity. The structure of the mask could be a very valuable source of information when exploring the bodily movement of the performer because its form could guide the actor's movement. As Lecoq observes when discussing this issue '...we can allow ourselves to be guided by the form itself, as it is shaped by the structure of the mask. The mask then becomes a sort of vehicle, drawing the whole body into an expressive use of space, determining the particular movements which make the character appear.'[9]

The helmet mask if compared to the more popular half mask of the commedia dell'Arte tradition is very different in terms of shape and style. The Greek mask covered the face and top of the performer's head. Actors wearing such masks not only had their vision restricted but also had their mouth covered. This means that most researchers interested in exploring the Greek mask have to pose and answer a number of questions that do not apply for half masks. One of these is the alteration and projection of the performer's voice when speaking in them.

The recent work of the mask-maker Thanos Vovolis in Athens has been particularly important in demonstrating to mask-makers as well as performers how the mask can serve as a form of musical instrument by enhancing and altering the quality of the voice. His experiments allow us to understand the essence of the mask in ancient theatre and its great potential when using it in modern performance. In terms of the relation between the mask and the actor, Vovolis' argues that the mask helps the performer's body function as a unity which enables him to increase the volume of his voice. [10] Vovolis' appreciation of the mask as a musical instrument has inspired the work of Michael Chase in Britain. Recent experiments with Michael Chase's Greek masks have mainly focused on the acoustics and visibility of the mask when presented in indoor venues and outdoor natural environments exploring how far the actors could combine clear articulation with enhanced resonance. The research has also considered other issues such as training and what forms of preparation can prepare the actor to make best use of the helmet mask. The project has been documented and its findings published in a recent article by David Wiles and mask-maker Chris Vervain. [11]

The extensive research of professor Greg McCart based at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia has also explored a number of issues regarding the use of the Greek mask in modern performance practice. His masked projects (The Theatre of Dionysos research project, 1993-94, The Oedipus the King project, 1995-96, The Medea Project, 1997, The Thesmophoriazousai Project, 1997 and the Bakchai project, 1999-2000) have all tested the effects of using masks in the staging of Greek drama in relation to the performer's acting technique and the spectator's perception of the mask in various spaces. The masks used in his experiments are designed based on the illustrations of ancient vases and function as a cover for the face and top of the performer's head. Greg McCart has also tested the acoustics of ancient theatres using masked performers during a series of fieldtrips to Greece and Cyprus and has argued that the acoustic center existed principally for the benefit of the masked actor. His work has been well documented and video clips of his projects are easily accessible and available to view at the 'Playing with Tragedy' web-site that contains Greg McCart's records of theatrical experiments with ancient Greek drama from 1985 to 2000.[12]

Apart from the developing research on the Greek mask, academics such as C.W Marshall in Canada have also shown an increasing interest in exploring the use of mask in Roman theatre. Part of Marshall's research on the comedies of Plautus is to explore the way in which actors performed. Using as a guide the shape of the Roman mask as depicted by the archaeological evidence he attempts to reconstruct the ancient actor's acting technique and physical movement. His findings suggest that the mask was used in a very similar way to that of the later tradition of the Italian Commedia dell' Arte. Since 1995 C.W. Marshall has been directing, producing and translating classical works under the title 'Modern Actors Staging Classics' based in Vancouver in which the mask has played a central role.

Finally, the recent Greek Theatre Mask conference organised by the Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway University of London, in association with the Institute for Art History, University of Glasgow in 2002 brought together all those who have been actively engaged in designing and performing in Greek masks as well as academics interested in the specific topic, in order to understand what has been learned by their so far research. By bringing academics and theatre practitioners in touch, the conference produced a fruitful exchange of knowledge regarding the historical function and modern potential of the Greek mask. It also revealed the increasing development and interest in exploring the Greek mask in recent times. The conference focused on the particular acoustical and visual qualities of the Greek helmet mask whilst highlighting its great potential when used correctly in the modern revival of ancient drama. The resonating qualities of the helmet mask were underlined through a keynote lecture by Thanos Vovolis and a presentation of findings based on a week of AHRB-funded experimentation with the masks of Thanos Vovolis and Michael Chase. All conference participants agreed that the acoustic and visual benefits of such masks are a matter of great interest which need further investigation in order to function successfully in performance practice. The major points of the conference have been gathered and can be found in a published conference report by Margaret Coldiron under the title 'Masks in the Ancient and Modern Theatre.[13]

The aforementioned efforts to explore the effects of the mask within the modern staging of ancient drama are most important in forming our understanding of ancient performance. By examining and trying out one of the defining conventions of ancient theatre one can best appreciate the nature of the Greek theatrical experience. Moreover a deep understanding of ancient performance could generate new possibilities for the future. Every theatrical period and culture inhabits a unique world of conventions and it is often through exposure to conventions of other ages and places that change is effected and new traditions invented. The insistence of our culture on facial acting is a peculiarity of the modern world that has led to the abandonment of masks. The value of the growing development of mask research in recent times lies in the fact that it does not only generate a growing awareness of the Greek mask tradition but could also help the mask convention to regain its popularity and central position within the performative experience opening room for new creative possibilities within the staging of ancient drama.

Angie Varakis


[1] Monuments Illustrating New Comedy. 3rd ed., rev. J.R. Green and A.Seeberg ( BICS Supp. 50; 1995 (1961)), Monuments Illustrating Tragedy and Satyr Play. 2nd ed. (BICS Supp. 20; 1967 (1962)), Monuments Illustrating Old and Middle Comedy. 3rd ed., rev. J.R. Green (BICS Supp. 39; 1978).

[2] Various books, chapters in books and articles have been recently written about masks and their function in ancient performance. Some of the most important are David Wiles' The Mask of Menander (CUP,1991), his section on the actor and the mask in Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction (CUP, 2000)147-153 and the chapter 'The Use of Masks in Modern Performances of Greek Drama' in Dionysus since 69, ed. Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (OUP, 2004) 245-263, Michael Walton's chapter on the performers in The Greek Sense of Theatre: Tragedy Reviewed. 2nd ed. (Harwood, 1996) 41-57, C.W. Marshall's article 'Some Fifth-Century Masking Conventions' in Greece and Rome46 (1999) 188-202, Nurit Yaari's article 'The Mask in the Ancient Theatre' in Assaph C 9 (1993) 51-62, Martha Johnson's article 'Reflections of Inner Life: Masks and Masked Acting in Ancient Greek Tragedy and Japanese Noh Drama' in Modern Drama 35 (1992) 20-34 and the chapter by Claude Calame 'Vision, Blindness, and Mask: The Radicalisation of the Emotions in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex' in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, ed. M.S. Silk (OUP, 1996), 17-37.

[3] Frontisi-Ducroux, "Au miroir du masque" in La cité des images (París, 1984) 147-161, Le dieu-masque, une figure du Dionysos d'Athènes (París-Roma, 1991), "La Gorgone, paradigme de création d'images" in Les cahiers du collège iconique. Communications et débats I (Paris, 1993), 71-86, Du Masque au Visage, aspects de l'identité en Grèce ancienne (París, 1995) and Jean-Pierre Vernant 'Features of the Mask in Ancient Greece' in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd, ed. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 189-206.

[4] For more see forthcoming PhD thesis by Angeliki Varakis 'The Use of Masks in the Modern Staging of Aristophanes in Greece' (Royal Holloway, University of London, 2003)

[5] Kanoume Theatro gia tin Psyche mas (Kastaniotes, 1987) 164-65.

[6] For Peter Hall's views on the mask see his recent book Exposed by the Mask: Form and Language in Drama (Oberon Books, 2000).

[7] For more on the work of these companies visit their web-sites and

[8] Richard Williams, Digital Resources for Practice-Based Research: The New Comedy Masks Project at (Visited on 28/1/2004)

[9] Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body (Methuen, 2000) 56.

[10] Elsewhere Vovolis' work see Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction (CUP, 2000) 151-152.

[11] Chris Vervain and David Wiles 'The Masks of Greek Tragedy as Point of Departure for Modern Performance' NTQ 67 (2001) 254-272.

[12] (Visited on 28/1/2004)

[13] 'Masks in the Ancient and Modern Theatre' NTQ 18 (2002) 393-4.