Costumes and Masks in Ancient Greek Comedy

Updated April 17, 2017

Actors in ancient Greek comedy had to depict characters --- sometimes inhuman characters, such as wasps or even clouds --- that were clearly distinguishable to an audience. The chief method of doing this was to utilise masks and outfits, worn by all of the play's male actors alongside the theatrical chorus. These changed with the era and the play in question, but nonetheless retained their function and significance in ancient Greek comedy.

Clothing Form

Costumes were often silly in nature, and a marked contrast to the elaborate and serious-looking garments donned by actors in tragic plays. In plays of the Greek Old Comedy style, actors wore body stocking outfits with padding at the breast and stomach. Since the main actors were entirely male, actors playing men wore stuffed phalluses attached to their crotches, which were either erect or flaccid. Actors playing women would wore tall-heeled shoes. New Greek Comedy performers wore similar costumes but lost the padding.

Clothing Significance

As well as help an audience distinguish between character genders, clothing implied further details about a particular character for viewers. Ceremonial robes might suggest a character was a priest for instance, while other outfits could indicate how rich or poor the character was meant to be or what he did for a living.

Mask Forms

Masks used in ancient Greek comedy were grotesque in nature, sometimes parodying the features of people the audience would recognise. Typically, a comedy mask would be set into a grin or a leer, in contrast to the more serious expressions found on tragic masks. Later comedies saw more naturalistic masks utilised by actors. Masks were created from one of several materials, such as from a combination of cloth and flour paste, or sometimes from wood.

Functions of Masks

Masks indicated the kind of character an actor was portraying in much the same way as the outfit an actor was wearing did, establishing personality, emotion and gender. A bold indication of the character's role and traits, the mask had a special purpose in that it allowed even spectators far away to be aware of each character, since the mask was easy to spot from a distance. The masks were also designed with exaggerated features, which aided them in this function, and helped to amplify an actor's voice, so that those at the back of the audience could hear the play's dialogue. Since ancient Greek actors often doubled parts, the mask became a disguise to allow the actor to swap identities with ease.

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About the Author

Simon Fuller has been a freelance writer since 2008. His work has appeared in "Record Collector," "OPEN" and the online publication, brand-e. Fuller has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Reading and a postgraduate diploma from the London School of Journalism.