In Greek Theater, a Black Mask Plays an Important Role

Image of the Week: Whether expressing tragedy or comedy,  the slave mask reflects the malleable nature of the black experience in the ancient world.

British Museum

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

An intriguing artifact from the classical period of ancient Greece attests to the engagement of the black presence with the origins of Western drama. The stage served as a crucial locus for the expression of Greek culture and mores. It also affords unique insight into interrelated issues of class, race and empowerment.

There was a clear place on the Greek stage for black people in the presentation of both tragic and comic themes. How that role was played out speaks to the larger experience of blacks in ancient life and the ancient world.

The object seen here is a life-size replica of an actor’s mask from the Greek stage. Made of reddish terra-cotta pressed into a mold, the head was then brushed with a thin layer of slip, or liquid clay, to simulate a dark complexion. Though its precise origin is unknown, the mask likely originates from the island of Sicily.

Two small holes at the sides of the head allowed the mask to be suspended, probably on the wall of a home or temple. There is evidence that masks, both originals and copies, were dedicated in shrines of Dionysus as votive offerings. The sacred nature of Greek drama was manifested in this practice, as the art of the theater was dedicated to this popular god of wine and revelry. 

The mask represents the type of a black slave as he would have appeared in comedies of the fourth century B.C. It should be pointed out that in antiquity, bondage was not racially determined but depended more on the vicissitudes of war and other kinds of social upheaval than the targeting of a single group for enslavement. As the art historian Frank Snowden has pointed out, the ancient world was not encumbered by the vicious form of racial prejudice that emerged with the practice of chattel slavery during the early modern period. Not surprisingly, then, most slave mask replicas have non-African features. The depiction of a black bondsman here simply attests to the wide degree of characterization brought to this popular role by ancient dramatists.

The ancient Greek word for mask is prosopon, literally “before the face.” Masks as actually worn by actors in the ancient Greek theater were actually elaborate constructions, covering the entire head like a helmet. They were made of light materials such as wood, cork or linen, coated with plaster and painted in bright colors. The mask played an essential role in Greek drama, transferring the expressive capacity of the actor to a stylized form that intervened between his own face and the audience. In addition to their aesthetic role in the drama, masks enabled the actor to project the voice and visage of his character throughout the large outdoor expanse of the theater.

Slave masks were characterized by wide-open mouths as seen here, evoking the quality of garrulousness associated with servants. In actual performance, the mask could produce a surprising range of emotions, depending on its orientation to the audience. Like most male figures in Greek comedy of this period, slaves wore short tunics rather than robes, facilitating exaggerated movement defined by extended gait and raised arms. To augment the satirical intent of the story, all male characters wore padding and large leather phalluses.

No actual performance masks survive, but their appeal to the Greek imagination was so great that the whole range of types was reproduced in clay and other materials. Some mask replicas, less than 2 inches high, were worn around the neck as talismans or simply as mementos of favorite characters of contemporary drama, and often accompanied their owners to the grave.

An intriguing consideration concerns the manner in which this mask would have been played on stage, and by whom. Judging from contemporary evidence, people of African descent contributed to ancient Greek society in myriad ways, from positions as household servants to more august employment as temple priests and scholars. Many were involved in the performing arts as well.

Images of acrobats, dancers and musicians frequently occur in Greco-Roman art. Some of these small works, usually figurines, could actually represent actors, perhaps performers in some form of improvised street theater. It is not unreasonable to suppose that some joined the ranks of more formally trained thespians to bring their own charm and wit to challenging, multifaceted roles such as that of the enterprising slave. If so, the man behind the original of the mask seen here may well have been black himself.