Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Story Behind the Comedy and Tragedy Masks

For many decades, the image of the theater masks have, universally, become like a symbol of theater or acting.  Generally, known as "the Comedy and Tragedy Masks" or just "the theater masks", there is much mystery as to where these two masks really originate from.  I was taught in school that these masks real names were Melpomene (Tragedy Mask) and Thalia (Comedy Mask).  These were taken from Greek Mythology.  Thalia, being the muse of comedy and pastoral poetry; and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.  Muse, in this case, is a protector of an art or science.

Greek Mythology About Melpomene
The name Melpomene derives from the Greek verb melpô or melpomai meaning "to celebrate with dance and song."  Melpomene, according to Greek mythology, was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyn, born as the Muse of life and despair.  After Zeus' wife, Hera, found out that Zeus had slept with Melpomene and impregnated her with a daughter (Maria), she cursed Melpomene and made her the muse of death.  Melpomene slept with Zeus again, and had a son named Fill.  Hera cursed Melpomene again to be barren and made her the muse of tragedy. 

Greek Mythology About Thalia
The name Thalia derives from the Greek verb thallein, meaning "to flourish, to be verdant (abundance of vegetation)."  She was the muse that presided over comedy and idyllic poetry.  She was also known as the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne.  According to the pseudo-Apollodorus (Greek library), she and Apollo were the parents of the Corybantes ( the armed and crested dancers who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele with drumming and dancing.)  She is also portrayed as a young woman with a joyous air, crowned with ivy. 

On a more practical side, these masks and others like them, were worn in the Greek theater to distinguish the different emotions of the characters.  Their exaggerated look was so that people who were sitting far off were still able to see the character's emotions.  The mouths of the masks were enlarged and designed to make it easier for the actor to talk and for their voices to project to the back of the auditorium.  Actors were able to play more than one character because of the masks.  When they played other characters, all they had to do was change masks.  Talk about being two-faced...LOL.

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