A Midsummer Night's Dream 1993 Cobweb's bird mask Design Hayden Griffin
A Midsummer Night's Dream 1993 Cobweb's Bird Mask
Design by Hayden Griffin, Directed by Joe Dowling

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

Liza Giffen: Stratford Festival Archives, former Director of the Archives

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, in the 1954 season 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.

Design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, John Leberg
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 influenced by the Commedia. This, more secular aspect to the use of masks in the theatre, is frequently seen in Shakespeare’s work. Masks are also used in Asian theatre such as the beautiful and formal structured Noh Theatre of Japan. On the West Coast of Canada, Masks are an essential and an important part in telling the stories of their history and legends.
Design by Paul Tazewell

Throughout history the mask is not only used to heighten the reality of a performance but also used to conceal ones identity. Beautiful masks such as the ones created for 2008 Romeo and Juliet production (Left) are used by party guests to hide their identity. It was a way for honorable members of a society to come together to behave in a more adventurous and dangerous manner. This is highlighted in the masked balls of 18th Cent Venice and the notorious adventures of Giacomo Casanova.

Cameron Porteous: Curator St.Marys Station Gallery
GiannaMaria Babando: Director of Archives Stratford Festival

Read more about the history of the masks at Stratford in our bulletin. 

All photographs are courtesy of the Stratford Festival Archives.

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