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A mask is an article normally worn on the face, typically for protection, concealment, performance, or amusement. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practical purposes. They are usually worn on the face, although they may also be positioned for effect elsewhere on the wearer's body, so in parts of Australia giant totem masks cover the body, whilst Inuit women use finger masks during storytelling and dancing
Throughout the world masks are used for their expressive power as a feature of masked performance - both ritually and in various theatre traditions. The ritual and theatrical definitions of mask usage frequently overlap and merge but still provide a useful basis for categorisation. The image of juxtaposed Comedy and Tragedy masks are widely used to represent the Performing Arts, and specifically Drama.
There are a wide variety of masks used in Africa. In West Africa, masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies enacted to communicate with spirits and ancestors. Many African masks represent animals. Some African tribes believe that the animal masks can help them communicate with the spirits who live in forests or open savannas.
Masks play a key part within world theatre traditions, particularly non-western theatre forms. They also continue to be a vital force within contemporary theatre, and their usage takes a variety of forms.
In many cultural traditions the masked performer is a central concept and is highly valued. In the western tradition it is sometimes considered a stylistic device which can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans.
The concept of using masks in theatre was born from worship of Dionyssos, the Greek god of fertility and wine.
There were a great amount of rituals and ceremonies that were associated with worship of Dionyssos and many of them included the wearing of masks.
Thespis, a Greek writer, was the first to wear a mask and it is from his name, Thespis, that we derive the word thespian, a synonym for actor.
One of the main reasons for the wearing of Greek masks in theatre was the fact that there were female roles but women were forbidden from performing on stage. Therefore, men work female masks when they played the female roles.
The use of masks was also helpful when an actor had to play more than one role. A simple change of masks was all one needed to switch characters. There were some theories about the masks helping to accentuate the actor's voice but there are many that also discount this concept.
The masks were usually made of wood, cloth or leather and were as creative as the people who made them. Many of the masks were decorated with hair, either human or animal, to complete the effect. There was only a small hole drilled where the pupil of the eye would be for the actor to see through.
Every actor today owes a measure of gratitude to the ancient theatre and the Greek masks that graced each and every stage. They were the forefathers of modern theatre and by association, even television and the movies.