Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Masks on stage

Masks are prominent in rituals and religious celebrations which can be interpreted as ‘performances’, where the wearer enacts certain actions, prescribed or improvised. These deliver an outcome that may be spiritual, remedial (as in healing ceremonies) or merely entertaining – and often are a combination of these.

Masks are also fundamental elements of theater and staged performances in much of the world. Many of these performances stem from traditional stories and beliefs. They may often serve more as entertainment than as education or enlightenment. Masked performances have waned on the Western stage, but persist in genre where dramatic or exaggerated effects are sought such as the world of stage musicals and heavy metal rock.

Image of Mask
     Mummers in Bulgarian Parade 2000;
     photograph by Doris Neilson

Ancient drama of the Greek, and to a lesser extent, Roman stages incorporated masked characters. Greek theatrical masks were particularly linked to festivals of Dionysus (known as Bacchus by the Romans), the god of fertility, the harvest, theater and wine. A masked performer would depict Dionysus and over time other characters became represented by masks. Women did not perform on stage in those days, and female characters were represented by male actors wearing masks. One actor could take on the persona of several characters by changing the mask. As well as transforming the appearance of the character, it is possible that the mask designs, with their large mouths, may have assisted in amplifying the voice of the actor as he projected around the amphitheater.

The paired masks of Comedy and Tragedy, that have become symbols of theater, derive from Ancient Greek drama. They reflect the extremes of the stage, and in their stylized simplification of emotions, the extremes of the human condition.

Masks continued into the Middle Ages of Europe. Mystery plays told Biblical stories and masks were used to portray the devil, demons, or the seven deadly sins. Often made from papier maché, the masks emphasized the ugliness of evil and sin. The commedia dell’arte theater began in Italy and was popular from the 15th century to about the 19th century. Masks depicted various standard characters such as Arlecchino (also called Harlequin), Colombina, Pierrot, and Pulcinella. So closely linked were characters and masks that the characters themselves were often called "masks" – in effect, the characters were the masks.

Image of Mask
     Harlequin and Columbine from the mime theater
     at Tivoli, Denmark 2005;
     photograph by Malene Thyssen from Wikimedia Commons

Several plays of William Shakespeare incorporate masks. Much Ado About Nothing features Venetian-styled carnival masks in its masked-ball, where romantic liaisons are pursued with some confusion. It has been observed that “the entire play is about the ways we mask our identity and hide our true feelings, literally and figuratively.” (Henry I. Schvey, Washington University in St. Louis). A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells of the comedic outcomes of romance in the realms of humans and fairies, where an inept actor Bottom has his head transformed by magic into that of a donkey. The masked Bottom is the one character who actually crosses the human and fairy worlds. The mask is used as a theatrical link between the planes of existence.

The epic Sanskrit stories of India, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are traditional subjects for performance through much of South East Asia, with characters commonly depicted through masks. Both explore the battle of good versus evil, through superhuman heroes and supernatural villains in the form of demons and witches. Masks lend themselves very well to projecting exaggerated features – be they features of good or evil.

Noh dramatic performances in Japan are another fine example of masked characterization. The lead character, and some of the other roles, will be masked. In Noh, carved facial expressions are often very subtle, and can convey emotions, especially in the masks depicting female characters.

Chinese Opera exists in various forms, including the well known Beijing (Peking) Opera. Characters depict gods, emperors, warriors, lay people, and clowns, and in older versions, female parts were played by men. Heavy facial makeup, and sometimes real ceramic or cloth masks, are used to denote the nature of the characters. Each line and each color of the painted facial masks can have symbolic significance.

Image of Mask
     A Male Beijing opera performer 2004;
     photograph by Saad Akhtar from Wikimedia Commons

Today, masks make only fleeting appearances in the Western theater. Stage performances such as Cats (Andrew Lloyd Weber) and The Lion King (Elton John, Tim Rice) incorporate masks and rich facial makeup in their lavish costume design. Yet perhaps the most evocative stage mask of recent years is a simple one – that of The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart; based on the novel by Gaston Leroux). Here the half-face mask designed for the musical serves to hide the disfigurement of the character, but also lends him a pathos, an other-worldliness, that sets him apart from society. The Phantom recoils at the removal of the mask, as in revealing his deformity so too are his true feelings revealed, and his weaknesses.

Some modern rock bands, especially those in heavy metal such as Slipknot and Mushroomhead, use masks for their stage performances. Seen by some as a gimmick, band members can claim wearing a mask draws audience attention away from the performers to the music. The masks worn by rock bands are overwhelmingly ghoulish and macabre, no doubt intended to reinforce the impact of their music.

In the popular media of comics, graphic novels and film, masks continue to have a strong place.


Think about your favorite masked stage character. What in this character appealed to you? How important was the mask in conveying the character?

Do you take masked rock bands seriously?

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