A collection of Theatrical Masks from the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada.

Lisa Brant : Former archivist of Stratford Festival 2019

Masks have been part of theatre as long as there has been theatre – and even before. Religious ritual seems to have been the first type of collective performance and often used masks and costuming to manifest the deity before worshippers. Consequently, by the fifth century BC, as Greek theatre evolved out of the worship of the god Dionysus, actors usually appeared on stage wearing full head masks in both comedy and tragedy as part of wider religious festivals.

When Tyrone Guthrie came to Stratford, he aimed to create a space that was a combination of an Elizabethan thrust stage and the amphitheatre seating pattern that surrounded the ancient Greek Orchestra or Circular playing area. The implications for this on a new Canadian acting style were huge: creating a potential for intimacy between audience and actors when playing Shakespeare. However, he was also keen to experiment with alternative ways of presenting classical plays in this environment. Tanya Moiseiwitsch who co-designed the stage with him – knew this well and was aware of the ritual implications of the space.


Referring to the front pillar holding up the balcony on the stage she said,

“……it is in fact the very centre of the building. And for that reason, if no other-to-me-it is a kind of sacred pillar.

It is in a firm position. Actors gravitate towards it, and lean on it and swing around it. [Tanya Moiseiwitsch, qtd. In Karl T. Pope. “An Historical Study of the Stratford Ontario Festival Theatre,” diss., Wayne State U, 1966 57.]

Guthrie himself stated,

“the shape of the auditorium,….is a constant reminder that the performance is what it is: a ritual in which actors and spectators are alike taking part -…. The attraction for me of the open stage, as opposed to the proscenium, is primarily this: that it stresses the ritual as apposed to the illusionary quality of the performance.” [ Tyrone Guthrie, Shakespeare at Stratford, Ontario,” Shakespeare Survey 8 (1955): 130.]

To the early actors he even went to far as to say,

The theatre, ladies and gentlemen, is a Temple, in order to participate, you must be prepared to be devoted priests and priestesses, which requires certain sacrifice, and certain dedication, and a great deal of discipline. [Frances Hyland, Stratford Under Cover ed. Grace Lydiatt Shaw]

(Toronto: N.C. Press, 1977 – 92)

It is unsurprising, therefore that in the Festival’s second season in 1954 he staged Oedipus Rex (in the Yeats translation) in order to experiment with Greek tragedy in the new theatre space. In this performance, attempting to investigate original ancient practice, he dressed all his actors in woolen robes, standing on cothurni or thick-soled shoes to give them additional height and wearing full head and facemasks showing the nature and dominant emotion of the characters they were portraying. The 1954 production was restaged in 1955 then filmed and released as a motion picture in 1957. In the introduction to this film, this quasi-religious staging is made clear when Bill Hutt explains\ to viewers, “As priests put on vestments and move in a preordained ritual we put on these characters and re-enact this tragedy”, making Guthrie’s view of the use of masks on this stage explicit. This idea was investigated again in 1997, when this early production was restaged, this time with Douglas Campbell- who held the title role in 1955- as director and John Colm Leberg reinterpreting Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s original designs.

It was not the only time the Festival worked with masks onstage. In 1993 the Festival staged Euripides’ The Bacchae on the Tom Patterson Theatre Stage in a production that relied heavily on mask work; the same was true of the production of Aristophanes’ The Birds in 2003. This practice of using masks when presenting Greek comedies and tragedies has influenced even the staging of Shakespearean plays based on Greek originals as Stratford i.e. Comedy of Errors in 2007.

But the associations of masks on stage are not solely classical in nature. Masks continued to be integral to popular theatre even after the end of the Classic world: they were used (and gave a name to) Renaissance Masques and continued in the Commedia Del’arte tradition in Europe. Mask work had been re-popularized in western theatre training from the 1920s through the work and influence of Jacques Copeau – Himself deeply by the Commedia. This, more secular aspect to the use of masks in the theatre, is frequently seen in Shakespeare’s work. Donning a mask, by its nature, obscures and calls into question the identity of the wearer.

Bring this into a play centered on humans rather than gods and heroes, offer the playwright the opportunity to bring together characters who are normally in conflict and/or allow a character to speak truth in a way not normally socially permissible without consequences. In Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, for instance a masked ball where, in the first lovers meet and in the second, Beatrice tells a masked mystery man exactly what she thinks of Benedict – the mystery man himself, driving the rest of the plot forward. In Loves Labours Lost, the love-struck lords disguise themselves as Muscovites to court the French ladies they desire; the ladies themselves hear of the plan and disguise themselves as each other to teach the lords a lesson, with masks leading to the revelation of true love at the end. Identity – and the surrounding confusions – are at the heart of “ the play” and the nature of theatre itself.

Visit our Stratford History of the Mask Gallery.