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.
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.