Japanese Noh Drama Masks English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

The masks of Ancient Greek drama and Japanese Noh drama may seem to be very different due to their appearance. One may say that the construction and design of these masks would make them completely different and that due to this there would be no common similarities. However, when looked at in depth their functions, as part of a whole, are very similar. Noh Drama Masks may have more facial detail than those of Greek Masks but they both are caricatures of an actual human face, neither one being detailed enough to represent something life like; but both looking more like something you could find in a cartoon. The masks usually play upon one main expression or emotion that the characters may have. Also the masks are used to convey a character's personality and demeanor, not only just a character's appearance. Both of these culture's spectacle do just that, display to the audience who a character is without telling them directly at the first appearance.

Ancient Greek theatre began as an event during the festival for Dionysus. However these events were not what we would think of when Greek Theatre is mentioned. The early form of theatre consisted of dithyrambs, also known as choral odes, until one actor named Thespis changed this by speaking to the chorus. From here on theatre evolved into a chorus and three actors. In ancient Greek theatre masks were created to not only display characters but allow the three actors to assume more than one role; since no play would have only three characters this convention was essential to the spectacle of the plays. Also women were not allowed to act so the use of masks helped the illusion of having female characters on stage even though there were no women there; however, "women were allowed to sing in [the] chorus". [1] The masks helped disguise the male actors to the audience and create the visions of the playwrights. The masks were made from "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." [2] . The masks were designed to have two small holes for the eyes and an opening for the mouth, which was designed to project the actor's voice like a megaphone, so that the audience could hear the actor no matter where they were seated. However even though the actors would wear different masks to play different characters there is "no indication that Greek tragic actors changed their pitch or delivery in any substantial way when performing different characters within the same drama. … The audience still would recognize the distinctive voice of each of the three actors behind the masks." [3] . Besides actors the choruses would also wear them depending on whether women were in the chorus or not. Though "the only [chorus] that wore masks was the dramatic chorus, that the members of the dramatic chorus were men alone-unlike the dithyrambic chorus, of which the members might be women". [4] 

"The choruses from which women were excluded were the choruses which wore and had always worn masks. Custom, from time immemorial, had prescribed that men alone had the right of wearing masks. … Masks and acting in Greece were inseparable; there was no acting without masks, and there were no masks without acting. To wear a mask was to act a part; and the idea that it was even possible to act a part or to perform in a play without wearing a mask was one which never occurred to the mind of those responsible for the Greek stage." [5] .

Masks were seen as an essential part to performing Greek drama and without them something would be missing to the spectacle of the theatre. The illusions that playwrights wanted to create for the audience would fall short without the use of these masks. The use of them only enhanced the performance in terms of the spectacle, giving the audience more of a variety of characters and not just the three present on stage.

Much like Ancient Greek Theatre, Japanese Noh Drama developed from the influence of religious ceremonies and influence from Chinese theatre. However, not only religion and foreign influence shaped this theatre, it came about when academic pursuits were combined with popular stage traditions. "The Noh play is the most subtle and complex development of the Japanese tradition of ritual, dance, and drama, a tradition well over a thousand years old." [6] The plays that were written for this theatre were mostly historically and literary based. Due to this the characters would already be known by the audience. The plays would display a character, which was often a ghost or spirit. Just like in ancient Greek theatre, performers in Noh Drama wore masks. "[Masks] add remarkably to the dignified impression and help to produce the effect of a being aloof, a spirit from another world which is almost always the type of character represented in this classic drama." [7] The masks were

"carved from one piece of cypress wood. After the [mask] has been carved to the desired thickness, holes for eyes, nose and mouth have been cut, it is then coated with layers of gesso mixed with glue. This coating is then sanded down, giving the mask its final shape. Finally it is painted in the colours prescribed for the particular character and some parts of it might be gilded. Some of the masks' eyes are inlaid with metal leaving a tiny hole. The hair and the outlines of the eyes are traced with black ink". [8] 

They would also add animal or human hair to make the character masks more distinguishable and detailed. These masks however had to be very light because they were worn for the whole performance that could last several hours. "Masks [were] only worn by the main character; his mask would stylize the person it represents and show them in a truer light than reality could do by depicting only the absolutely essential traits of character. There are five categories of Noh masks: gods, demons, men, women and the elderly." [9] Sometimes more than one of these five would be combined depending on what the characters traits would have been. Spirits or Ghosts were normally depicted as looking more like demons than men or women. "The masks used in Noh theatre generally show a neutral expression so it is up to the skill of the actor to bring the mask to life through his acting." [10] However in some cases the masks play upon one general expression that would be overly emphasized on the mask. "While the expressions of the masks varied, the largest number are broad and humorous in appearance and were evidently used to provide some emotional relief from the longer periods of serious religious observance." [11] 

"At that time stage directions were written down, costumes and masks were clearly defined" [12] this limited the actor's creativity, in terms of their character, but it also helped the actor in ways to understand his character on not only an emotional level but a physical level. Furthermore, like Greek theatre no women were allowed to act in Noh Drama, men were trained from childhood to sing, act, mime and dance. Due to this "the task of performing as a young woman [was] one of the most challenging for any actor. The masks [were] comparatively small and they only cover the front of the face having only small holes for eyes, nostrils and mouth." [13] . They made female masks look dainty compared to those of men, gods, demons, and elderly. The female masks were also decorated with limited facial expression, each looking very similar. This small female mask would prove to be a challenge for Noh drama actors but they were able to over come it for the sake of their performance. The masks, male and female, would sometimes be restructured to fit the actors face more comfortably and also so that they would look more realistic, a mask that didn't fit the actors face would not be acceptable. The masks would just have material, wood or cloth added onto and not completely remade because that would take to much time. The masks played a possibly more essential role in Noh Drama than in Greek Drama.

Masks in both theatres were used to disguise their actors as a range of characters, from gods to men to even women. Both theatres used masks to compensate for not having certain things available to them, such as female actors. Both also used the masks to display their religious icons within their productions, male and female alike. Masks in both theatres would display their Gods as well as mortal humans. Masks added to the overall experience for the play and helped the actors connect more with their characters. Wearing the masks made them feel more like the character they were to play and less like themselves, which helped make the illusion of the theatre more real for the audience. Masks were designed to semi-resemble a human face, though each mask would have eye holes and an opening for the mouth. Acting for both theatres was done through the voice since the audience would be unable to see the actor's actual facial expressions, just the facial expression of the mask. However it could be hard to hear the actor but the way the mouth area was constructed in both theatres was to project the actor's voice so that they would be able to be heard by the audience. The eye holes were only cut wide enough for the actor to see, to be able to interact with the other actors and know where they were on the stage, but the audience would not be able to see their eyes just the eyes that were designed on the mask itself. The eyes designed on both theatres masks were more realistic than the rest of the mask. However the masks still only portrayed a face in one emotion, though each mask would be designed to portray a different emotion if it was needed for the character. In both forms of theatre the masks were seen as an essential costuming prop and one could not perform without it, the masks developed along with both of these theatres. This was one of the most important aspects of spectacle, with limited scenery and stage conventions, masks played a vital part to the theatre.

Albeit, Greek Theatre's and Noh Theatre's use of the masks were very similar as part of the whole productions spectacle they still have their differences. Greek masks were usually light in color while Noh Drama masks could be any variety of color all depending on what the director had wanted a character to portray. There was also the difference with the way these masks were constructed. Noh drama masks had to be very light weight due to how long the actors had to wear them while in Greek Drama the masks would weigh more since actors would only be wearing them from scene to scene and constantly changing into another mask because they played more than one character role. Also the materials used to make the masks were different; Noh masks were usually made of only wood, while Greek masks were made from wood, cloth or leather. Greek masks had more of a variety of materials for the base layer to be made with but the amount of materials put in to make them was less than that of the Noh masks. Noh masks had more materials, which is why they were more detailed than Greek masks. Noh drama masks were also painted on for more detail to get things like the skin complexion, aging and facial aspects to look a specific way for the different characters. Greek masks were not as detailed in this respect they all seemed to have the same resemblance and were not overly stylized. Even with these few differences the masks were very similar and still a highly important prop to the theatre.

Both theatres, Greek and Noh, have their commonalities and their differences when it comes to the plays they preformed, the structure of plays and the spectacle it took to put on these plays. In theatre masks are usually used as an illusion to a character's appearance or even just a character's specific emotion. As seen in both Ancient Greek and Japanese Noh Drama, masks have played an essential role to the development spectacle of the performance. "The mask … offers infinite theatrical possibilities to the practitioner who most profoundly understands its language" [14] Much like Acting "wearing a mask, compels an actor to assume personalities and consciousness other than his own. Both processes are an orientation in the process of impersonation, a personality-in-personalities approach towards the comprehension of man." [15]