History and Meaning of the Comedy and Tragedy Theatre Masks

History and Meaning of the Comedy and Tragedy Theatre Masks
Ever wondered what the two theatre masks really mean, and what is the history behind them? Buzzle tells you the story of the comedy and tragedy theatre masks.
Dionysus is not the God behind the mask. He is the mask.
― Ginette Paris
Comedy and Tragedy Theatre Masks
Comedy and Tragedy Theatre Masks
Every play had them. Without them, amphitheaters seemed incomplete. These two faces represented the two basic emotions of joy and sorrow. They weren't human faces; they were masks. We are talking about those two faces that have together become the symbol of theatre ― the comedy and tragedy theatre masks.
Though the masks as symbols of theatre and acting, have become popular universally, the story behind their origin is relatively less famous. What is interesting however, is that the masks are always portrayed together. The origins of these masks can be traced back to open-air Greek theatre. Greek plays were performed wearing them. The intent of wearing the masks was to represent different emotions, and their look was exaggerated for the audience to be able to clearly distinguish between them.

Derived from Greek mythology, the theatrical masks are symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, Thalia and Melpomene. Here's more on the history and meaning of the comedy and tragedy theatre masks.
Masks in Ancient Greek Theatre
Dionysus - the Greek God of wine
Dionysus
It is widely believed that theatre masks have originally been attributed to Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, grape harvest, fertility, and theatre, and were used in ancient Greek theatre as a homage to him. These masks are said to have a dual meaning― the drunken joy that wine brings, as well as a sense of loss, sadness, and tragic emotions that wine can conjure. Symbolically, these masks were meant to allow the wearer to express his emotions freely, without any restraints.
The comedy and tragedy masks have also specifically been attributed to two of the nine Greek goddesses, who each was the Muse of a creative expression. (In Greek mythology, a Muse was the protector of an art). Most of the ancient Greek plays were either comedies or tragedies, and hence, these two masks were the most popular ones.
Along with being an homage to Dionysus, theatre masks have also been associated with Janus, the two-faced God of beginnings, doorways, gates, and passages, who is believed to have lent his name to the two masks, thus making the comedy and tragedy masks a pair.
Mythology aside, theatre masks were used by actors during performances so as to clearly depict emotions to every member of the audience, even one who was sitting in the seats far away from the stage. The large faces added a sense of exaggeration to the actors' emotions, which helped them convey their emotions to the entire open-air theatre. These masks also allowed actors to play characters independent of age and gender, as all the actors in ancient Greek theatre were always men. Theatre masks allowed them to play female roles with ease. Similarly, one actor could play more than one character with the help of these masks. Hence, we can conclude that theatre masks indeed played an extremely important role in ancient Greek drama.
Meaning and History
The comedy and tragedy masks serve to show us the two aspects of human emotions― the comedy mask shows us how foolish human beings can be, while the tragedy mask portrays dark emotions, such as fear, sadness, and loss. The two masks are paired together to show the two extremes of the human psyche.
Thalia
Thalia
The comedy mask is known as Thalia, who in Greek mythology is the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. Thalia is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and is portrayed as a happy, cheerful young woman crowned with ivy. Thalia is depicted with the comedy mask in one hand, and a trumpet or bulge in the other.
Thalia and the comedy mask on stage were symbolized through thin shoes worn by actors in comedies that reduced their elevation on the stage, or wreaths made from ivy. Co-incidentally, ivy is also said to symbolize Dionysus.
Melpomene
Melpomene
The tragedy mask is known as Melpomene, who according to Greek mythology is the Muse of Tragedy. Melpomene is depicted with the tragedy mask in one hand, and a knife or a club in the other. Actors represent Melpomene through an elevated stature on stage by wearing thick, raised boots. Melpomene too, is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and was earlier the Muse of Singing before she was cursed by Zeus' wife Hera.
Zeus
Though Melpomene was initially the Muse of Singing, mythology tells us that Zeus's wife Hera cursed her in a fit of rage when she found out that Melpomene had been impregnated by Zeus, and had a daughter. Hera cursed Melpomene to become the Muse of Death. After Melpomene gave birth to a son, the second child of Zeus, Hera cursed her to become infertile, as also the Muse of tragedy. Melpomene is now known for the Muse of tragedy. She is portrayed with thick raised boots, known as a cothurnus.
The Use
Theatre Mask
Theatre masks were an integral part of ancient theatre, and as we saw earlier, they were worn by actors so as to clearly depict their emotions to every member of the audience. The masks had large mouths which were designed to make talking easy for the actors. In those days, theatre masks were made from clay, linen, or wood. Since women did not take part in drama at all in those days, masks would help male actors to play female roles.
The origin of the theatre masks dates back to thousands of years ago. The comedy and tragedy theatre masks are the most popular inheritance from ancient Greek theatre, as most of the plays back then were either comedies or tragedies. Tragedies were generally musical, and though the world today tends to look at tragedy as a more sophisticated and difficult form of drama, experts suggest that the ancient Greeks actually believed that comedy was the most difficult to portray, as well as more sophisticated than tragedy. From being symbolic of the two Muses, to becoming universally emblematic of drama and acting, the two theatre masks certainly have come a long, long way.