Masks in Greek Tragedy and in Tantalus

by Oliver Taplin

[note: this is a revised version of an informal lecture which was not originally devised with publication in view]

In the original Greek performances, not just in fifth century but throughout antiquity, so far as I know, all the actors in tragedy and satyr play (and comedy come to that) all wore their masks all the time. They all also wore costumes all the time. It would have been, I suspect, profoundly un-Greek to have naked bodies or naked maskless faces revealed in the course of a tragedy. (It is perhaps worth noting that if in a character in a comedy stripped naked, he/she actually wore an under-costume that represented nakedness.) So did the audience ever see the actors without their masks? I believe I can make a pretty good case for the claim that the one and only time that a tragic cast, chorus and actors, were seen without their masks was when they took their curtain call at the end of the satyr play. This was the time of transition between the world of drama and the world of everyday reality. This is the subject of an article which I shall write one day, I hope.

Why were masks so important for the Greek theatre that they could never be removed during performance? Why, indeed, did masks become the symbol of the theatre (as they still often are)? Why was it was so centrally the badge of the acting profession that the standard funereal monument for an actor would represent the performer holding his mask? This question has not been as well discussed in modern scholarship as it might have been (nor, come to that, does it figure in Aristotle's Poetics). The best discussion in English is in my opinion probably that by Stephen Halliwell in Drama 2 (1993) But if you look in the admirable Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (to which several of us here are contributors), you will scarcely find any reference to the mask.

This is not to say that there are not all sorts of proposals are around the place about why the mask is so important, but generally they are assertions brought from outside the drama rather than attempts at an integral explanation. They range form the metaphysical to the pragmatic. At one end of the spectrum is the idea that the mask is somehow fundamentally a ritual object. This approach claims that it was in origin something pre-dramatic to do with the cult of Dionysus, and that the reason why all actors always wore the mask was because they were somehow doing something so fundamentally Dionysiac that they had to wear this symbol of Dionysiac ritual. Those at the other extreme would just say masks are very convenient. If you're going to change roles several times during the course of the play, then masks will enable you to play first, say, Antigone and then Tiresias in a way that you couldn't do otherwise. And think of visibility, they say, in such a very large theatre: what would be the point of displaying the minutiae of the face when most of the audience, so it is said, could not see any detail?

Let me try out on you an approach quite different from either of these. The first point to register is that drama was an entirely new form of narration in the world of Greek myth and poetry. Here I am parting company to some extent with those speakers this morning, who were tending to play down the difference between epic and drama. I would see tragedy as setting itself up in competition with epic as a mode of story-telling - and it was, indeed, largely successful in superseding epic. (It's not for nothing that the metre of drama is about as incompatible with the metre of epic as you can get.) Tragedy did not only tell the story, it enacted it.

I suggest that the mask was fundamentally the sign of the act of impersonation. By putting on the mask the actor declared that he was not just narrating the story but was doing the story. So, according to me, the mask is not pre-dramatic, it is an essential feature of the invention of theatre. And it is not merely practical - though it may have practical advantages - it is indivisible from the very activity of dramatic performance.

It strikes me that the mask may also have given the actor some kind of protection against what one might call the danger of acting. Here are respectable Athenian citizens enacting the roles of women, of barbarians, and even of gods. That might not have seemed quite such a safe and easy thing to do as we take it to be in the modern theatre. Putting on the mask gave you some kind of licence, and also perhaps some kind of immunity. Once you put a mask on, tragic or comic in their different ways, you can do all sorts of things which would be unthinkable without it.

So why were masks used in Tantalus? What did the masks contribute? For a start, I think I'm on safe ground in thinking that the masks in Tantalus were not John Barton's idea, but Peter Hall's. In the script, so far as I can see, there is an important mask which the Poet has in the very first play and again in the very last play (one of the major casualties of the rewriting), but that is all. Of course, the John Barton scripts are extremely interested in the whole nature of drama, of impersonation, what plays are about, and what their relationship to the truth may be. But he does not use the mask as the way of expressing that.

So why did Peter Hall import them into the performance? Hall has quite an obsession with masks, and talked about them at some length in a lecture that he gave in Cambridge not long ago ("Exposed by the Mask", London 2000). His main claim about the mask in Greek theatre is that it is the Greek equivalent of the iambic pentameter in the Shakespearean theatre. Put like that, I find the idea pretty strange, because there is no doubt that the Greek equivalent of iambic pentameter is the iambic hexameter, or what we now more usually call the iambic trimeter (metrically speaking, there are remarkable similarities between the Shakespearean spoken line and the Greek). But the point he is really making about the verse in the Shakespearean theatre is that it is a discipline, that it is chains within which the play can dance. The metre is a container within which things must be held, and if they are well held within that discipline, within the tightness of the verse, then a whole new strength of expression is unleashed. He also adds some ideas about the mask being able to face the full power of tragedy (comedy is quite different here, of course). There is good reason to think this insight is derived from Tony Harrison. In his Presidential Address to the Classical Association, "Facing up to the Muses" (delivered in 1988, reprinted in Tony Harrison ed. N. Astley, Newcastle 1991) Tony Harrison insisted that the eyes of the mask never close, and the mouth of the mask never closes. The eyes of the masked figures always look at the tragic horrors, and they never look down, never turn away. Similarly, the mouth of the masked tragic actor always strives to find expression, to find ways to articulate and even sing about these things that in reality would be so terrible that they would reduce us to incoherence. These are horrors that in reality would so traumatise us that we wouldn't want to look at them or to talk about them.

I went to several of the rehearsals for Tony Harrison's Oresteia - Peter Hall's Oresteia, that is - in 1981. The masks, designed by Jocelyn Herbert, were there right from the very start: they were made at the beginning of rehearsals, so that the actors worked with those masks throughout and they never rehearsed without them. The masks were, then, totally integral to that production; and I think that most people who saw that production thought that they were an extremely effective element within the whole. I also went to one rehearsal of the Oedipus plays that were put on by Peter Hall at the National Theatre in the mid-1990's. The masks had been, it was clear, bought into play pretty late, and (unlike in the Oresteia) each had its own microphone. On that day I had the privilege of watching Alan Howard in the middle of rehearsing a scene tear his mask off and hurl it to the ground, saying, 'I hate this bloody thing!' That may tell you something about the relationship of the actors to their masks in that particular production. I gather that the masks were also brought in late in the rehearsal period for Tantalus.

It is an intriguing continuity across twenty years that in the Oresteia there was one young actor, the actor of Orestes, who could handle those masks more effectively than anyone else. For technique he was the model for the rest of the cast; and, insofar as they succeeded in finding a real way of acting with masks and of unlearning their techniques from non-masked acting, they learned that from him. That actor was Greg Hicks. When it came to the Oedipus plays, where he acted Tiresias, I thought that he and the actress who played Antigone in Oedipus at Colonus were the only two who really acted integrally with those masks. And of course Greg Hicks is the one, perhaps along with actress of Cassandra, whom everyone singled out as really having made something of the mask in Tantalus.

Well, what about the masks in Tantalus? I thought they did have some advantages. Arguably, in fact, they were crucial to the success of the plays (and a success they undoubtedly have been, as is clear from the audience response). One way in which I think they contributed may the one that would most please Peter Hall: they made the audience listen better. The masks drew attention to the words in a way that would have been harder to achieve if such a long production were to have had all the expressiveness of the naked face. Secondly, the masks encouraged the use of body language. Although I don't think that all the cast, and especially not the chorus, had a great deal of opportunity to explore the use of movement in relation to the mask, the masks did generally encourage the use of the whole body. One thing that we know about ancient Greek actors is that they were admired for their ability to use the whole body - and that is what Greg Hicks demonstrates so well. It is not just a matter of, 'If I go like that, then the mask looks happy, and if I go like that, then the mask looks sad': it's an integrated use of the whole body in relation to the mask. There was an echo of that in the acting of Tantalus, and I thought that the way that the actors were acting with their whole bodies made a positive contribution.

And thirdly - though you might say that this is a negative point - the masks did not allow the actors to psychologise their roles: the masks 'de-psychologised' Tantalus. Now, in a sense, that can't be claimed to be anything to do with the Greek theatre, because since they didn't have the idea of psychologised performances, they couldn't then take the mask and develop de-psychologised performances. None the less in the modern theatre (as Jane Montgomery was bringing out very clearly) the standard method by which actors have learned to act is through psychologising their roles; and the masks in Tantalus had the function of presenting the roles in a less introverted way. And I thought it was extremely interesting that such a marathon theatrical experience should be so successful with audiences without the psychological dimension, without the interiorised or psycho-analytical world. I think in some ways that is quite suggestive - and optimistic - for the theatre today.

So, in conclusion, the benefits that the masks offered to Tantalus were not, so far as I can see, closely related to the significance of the mask in the ancient Greek theatre. And there was one memorable scene in which they were used in a way that suggested an utterly different concept of their whole rationale. This was the love scene in which Agamemnon and Cassandra - ironically the two actors who used their masks most effectively - both stripped naked and took off their masks in a declaration of direct intimacy. The clear symbolism of this was that reality hides behind the mask, that the mask and costume "veil" the true self. In the Greek theatre the truth only became possible once the mask and costume had been put on.

Prof. Oliver Taplin
Magdalen College