Backstage at the Theater

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Backstage at the Theater

Janeen R. Adil

The ancient Greeks used costumes to help the actors “become” someone else, and thereby relate the story of a tragedy or a comedy. Since these early beginnings, theater has almost always involved the use of some sort of disguise.

Masks were one special means that Greek actors used to transform their identity. In order to portray a variety of characters, the poet Thespis experimented with ways of disguising himself. He finally settled on masks, which became a regular part of Greek theater.

These large, elaborate masks were constructed from a framework of wood or cork. Brightly painted leather, or linen stiffened with clay, covered the frame. Inside some was a small megaphone-type device that helped project the actor's voice. The mask fit like a helmet, entirely covering the actor's head and resting on his shoulders.

The Greeks had a number of standard masks. Each represented a particular type of character in a play. For tragedy, there were six different masks for old men, eight for young men, three for male servants, and eleven for various women. For comedy, there were nine for old men, eleven for young men, seven for male servants, and seventeen for women. The masks were used over and over again, not just for the same play, but in many different plays. In fact, masks were often passed down within a family from one generation to the next.

Every mask showed the character's main personality trait or emotion. Its facial features were set, or “frozen,” in one exaggerated expression. This made it easy for the audience to know a character's age, social status, feelings, nationality, and occupation. In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, for example, the Oedipus mask was painted to appear blind and bloodstained. (Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and then blinded himself when he learned the truth.)

The masks had several other practical functions. First, their exaggerated features made them clearly visible to the audience. Even spectators high up on the hillside could tell one character from another. (There were no theater programs!) Also, since only three actors took the stage at one time, masks allowed a single actor to play multiple roles in the same play.

Since women were not allowed to act, masks let the actors take on female roles. For male characters, masks were dark-colored, while those for females were light. From a distance, it was obvious whether an actor was portraying a male or a female.

In addition to the masks, tragic actors wore long-sleeved, ankle-length robes. These costumes were dyed bright colors so that they could be seen from far away. Colors also helped the audience identify the characters. A queen, for instance, would wear royal purple; a character in mourning, black.

Low-heeled, soft leather boots completed the costumes. This meant that, except for their hands, tragic actors would be totally covered and disguised. It was believed that they had to hide their personal identity, for only then would they be able to represent heroes and gods.

Comic actors, in contrast, wore tunics. These short-sleeved, briefer costumes allowed the actors to move freely. Unlike the slow, dignified movements of the tragedies, comedies required more lively action. The comic actors also wore tights and lots of padding on the belly and backside, which added to the humorous effect. Their masks were even more exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, and sometimes portrayed strange animals or grotesque monsters.

The bearded, snub-nose masks worn by actors in the satyr plays indicated their status as half-human, half-animal. Horns and long animal ears, a shaggy goat's skin around the hips, and a horse's tail completed their costumes. These brief outfits let the actors perform the dances, as well as the often indecent movements typical of a satyr play.

Like the actors, the tragic chorus wore disguises that corresponded with the characters they portrayed. For Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, the chorus first represented the Erinyes, the awful spirits of punishment, and wore black robes and masks with snake heads. Other costumes represented everything from people and birds to clouds and frogs.

A few simple props also helped identify the various characters of a play. The Greek legendary hero Heracles, for example, would carry his club and lion skin, while the sun god Apollo had his bow. A king would be recognized by the crown he wore and the spear he carried. An old man would carry a staff.

As important as masks, costumes, and props were, however, the actor depended most on his voice. Like an opera singer today, an actor had to train and exercise his voice for both speech and song, and his body for meaningful posture and gesture. He needed to have a beautiful tone, be able to express all the character's emotions verbally (his face, remember, was hidden), and to be heard at a great distance. While Greek audiences might boo or hiss a poor actor, or even pelt him with dried fruit, they respected and honored a good actor.

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