Comedy and tragedy, one facial expression bursting with mirth, the other one upside-down with sorrow, this is the pair of theatrical masks so familiar around the world. They are often referred to as Greek Theatre Masks, or Comedy Tragedy Masks, or Happy Sad Masks.
The masks originate with the comic and tragic muses, Melpomene and Thalia, in ancient Greek drama. Characters donned these masks so that audiences could easily identify their emotions. Earlier, the mask was used to act out myths and to symbolize the presence of divinities, especially in the fertility cult of Dionysos.
Today, this pair of passionate masks symbolizes live theatre. They also have a strong association with Shakespearean plays, since they hark back to the theatre of old. A theatrical mask tattoo would suggest that the wearer is a thespian, or is somehow involved with live theatre production. Otherwise, wearing such a tattoo might announce: ‘I’m a passionate individual.’ Certainly, the masks suggest a personality capable of expressing the broadest range of emotions, perhaps of manic-depressive proportions.
Joy and sorrow were the two aspects of the human condition that were celebrated in the theatre of the ancients. Athens was the cultural, political, social and economic capitol during the golden age of theatre in Greece between 500-300 BC, where some of the earliest theatrical performances were celebrations in honour of Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry. The two masks showed the two sides of imbibing wine – the joy of revelry and the despair that followed.
We can find evidence of these classic Greek theatre masks in paintings on pottery dating back to the 5th century BC. The original masks were made of linen, clay, and wood, with wigs attached. They covered the head of the actor – males only – and included an aperture for the mouth.
These theatre masks were highly stylized and exaggerated in order for the audience to identify a character from a distance. The actor automatically came across as larger than life. At the same time, the actor could ‘disappear’ into the role he was performing, his voice taking on a haunted acoustic effect. The actor ‘vanished’, allowing the ‘character’ to take over. A metamorphosis occurred.
One of the most famous of the Greek actors was the poet, Thespis, who lived around 500 BC. Today, the word Thespian is still used to describe all things related to the theatre or acting.
In Europe, theatre masks were part of the cultural scene long before organized theatre was established. Performances at public festivals involved the wearing of masks. The traveling performers were called ‘Mummers’, which means ‘one who wears a mask’ (from the old French).
Some celebrations in Europe resembled the Saturnalia feasts of ancient Rome, when exchanges of gifts were made and people wore visors and painted facades. In many of the courts of Europe, spectacles of great splendour included masked performances and the notorious masked ball. The anonymity guaranteed by the mask sometimes led to outrages, and in 16th century England, Henry VIII declared the wearing of masks a crime, or at least a misdemeanor!
The masked ball is itself a frequently used literary device in film and literature, where a character behind a mask is allowed to reveal their true selves and emotional desires while safely anonymous behind their mask.
Although masks have vanished from modern theatre, some avant-garde troupes make use of the mask to add dramatic effect or to exaggerated psychological aspects, and to make visible dream imagery. As a stage device, it is also used to exaggerate the grotesque, satiric, myth and ritual impact sought after.
Many different cultures around the world use masks and masked figures in theatre and dance, and in religious and spiritual ceremonial rituals to portray powerful symbolic figures and meaning, from Mexico, to Japan, to Bali, to Thailand, to the Haida of the Pacific Northwest of America.
Get inspired by some really great images and tattoos in our Comedy Tragedy Mask Tattoo Gallery