The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask
Greek tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays were performed in masks,
and as far as we know neither the actors nor the chorus ever performed
no actual theatre mask dating from the fifth century has survived, and there is
a dearth of evidence, both literary and material, for Athenian masks from the
period. What little we do have is in the form of renderings in nontheatrical art
forms such as vase painting, sculpture, and terracotta votive offerings, and a
very few references to masks in texts of the period. Popular notions of Greek
masks with their stony faces, gaping eyes, “megaphone” mouths, and elongated
headdresses come from the Hellenistic or Roman theatre, and are often
architectural representations of masks, sculptural home adornments, or votive
offerings rather than anything that was actually worn on stage. This image of
the tragic mask with its fixed expression, empty eye sockets, monochromatic
complexion, and exaggerated downturned mouth now sits next to its comic
counterpart as the very emblem of the live theatre, as the intertwined masks of
“Comedy” and “Tragedy.” However, in the theatre world masks are one of the most
misunderstood aspects of ancient drama, and in the realm of classical studies
the impact of the mask on the text and the presentation of ancient plays has
been vastly underestimated.
This paper’s primary purpose is to examine how the tragic mask operated in
performance from the perspective of the spectator, and its relationship to the
surrounding environment. Only the available iconographic evidence from the fifth
century has been applied to this study, with the proposal that the Pronomos
(fig. 10) provides our best evidence for creating a reconstruction of the
fifth-century tragic mask. The methodology will be to take advantage of some of
the new research coming from the field of neuroscience, in particular studies
concerning the operation of neurons in cognitive function and its relationship
to imitation, empathy, spatial awareness, face recognition, and vision. If
facial recognition, reciprocal eye contact, and mental connectivity to the
movements of others are some of the most important ways in which humans
communicate emotional states between themselves, then what happens when the face
is denied by the mask, the eyes hidden, and movement choreographed and
heightened? Does the mask challenge normal human neural responses and produce a
higher cognitive experience, more dependent on comprehending movement and
processing language, and did the fixed and unmoving surface of the mask
stimulate a profoundly personal, empathic visual experience that deepened the
emotional response and accentuated the visceral experience of watching the
drama? Ultimately it will be proposed that the tragic mask mediated an ocular
experience that oscillated between foveal (focused) and peripheral vision, and
in the eyes of the spectators seemed to possess the ability to change emotions,
and that these qualities of the mask were fundamental to the performance of
tragedy and the development of narrative drama.
The Tragic Mask
What type of mask did tragic actors wear in the fifth
century? This is a vitally important question, as the features of the mask
were essential to its successful function in performance as an effective
communicator of emotion. Our evidence is limited to representations of
dramatic masks on vase paintings and relief sculpture, and here we have to
be careful. Some vase painters and sculptors clearly indicated masks by
delineating human skin from mask with a pronounced edge separating the two,
while others chose to represent a mask merely by the depiction of a “severed
head” (fig. 1). Then occasionally we see one performer holding a mask while
another is already masked, and there is no attempt to signify that the worn
mask is anything other than the head of the character the performer is
playing. If we were able to see only the masked actor on the pelike from
by the Phiale Painter
(fig. 1), we might have deduced that this
was simply a depiction of a dancing woman, and not a masked performer. Indeed, it has been frequently pointed out that vase paintings are not
photographs: they are their own distinct artistic medium, and this must be
constantly borne in mind when considering this type of material.
Preeminent among representations of the mask in Attic vase painting is the
vase, a red-figure volute krater dated to around 400 BCE, which
depicts cast members of a satyr play and tragic actors gathered around
. Our primary example will be the mask held by the actor on the
upper register, named “Herakles.” The Pronomos
vase offers us the most
detailed information we have concerning the type of mask used in tragedy and
satyr play in the fifth century, and is supported by several other fragments
and sculptural monuments that indicate a lightweight face mask was used,
probably made of linen, that fitted the performer’s face comfortably. It had
white eyes with small iris holes that the performer looked through, and
these would have resembled dark pupils to the spectators. The masks had a
relatively small mouth aperture, and there is absolutely no evidence for any
kind of megaphone or any other device to enhance voice projection or
quality. The mask was attached to the performer’s head by a soft hood, or
with hair attached, and this
realistic (probably real) head and facial hair gave the mask a sense of life
and movement. These masks were not that much larger than the head of the
person who wore them, and they seemingly left space for the performers’ own
ears so that the performer could hear clearly; essential for acting,
singing, and dancing.
The Mask in the Visual Field
How did this type of mask operate within the fifth-century
theatre space, and what was its relationship to the spectator seated in the
? If, as has been shown, the
mask had no megaphone, was not much larger than the human head, and
possessed no greatly exaggerated features, what practical value, if any, did
it offer for the staging of ancient drama? The Greek mask was no mere stage
property, nor a throwback to an earlier form of “ritual drama” populated by
priests, a kind of onstage religious anachronism; rather it was the focal
point of the entire visual experience of watching theatre. The mask’s
function in performance dictated the presentation of every element of
ancient drama, including speech, movement, narrative, costume, and emotion.
But why wear a mask? There may be several interconnected reasons: there was
certainly a preexisting tradition, in ritual forms and carnival traditions,
of assuming another persona by wearing a mask; the apotropaic qualities of
(evil eye) may have played a
was the god of the mask, and the ritual tenets of his cult
may have allowed for masked acting to develop (although his relationship to
the mask may have been a later aetiological affiliation, once masks were
associated with dramas at the city Dionysia). Perhaps most importantly, when
viewed in an open-air space, the mask was an effective way of instantly
establishing a sense of theatricality. The wearer of the mask is immediately
separated from the spectators, and as the vase paintings show, just the
simple act of donning a mask indicates a performance. Lastly, in an open-air
space that allowed the external environment to inform the aesthetic
experience of watching drama, the mask provides a visual focus for emotional
communication, and is able to stimulate a deeply personal response from the
spectators. The mask demands to be watched.
Peripheral and Foveal Vision
As any theatre director or performer knows, an open-air
performance is a very different experience from watching a show presented
within an interior space. There are distractions that constantly compete
with what is being presented on stage, whether the other spectators, not
hidden by darkness, or the views available beyond the stage area. Open-air
spaces tend to lack the kind of focus offered by a modern proscenium or
thrust stage, where the spectator’s peripheral vision is negated by
darkening the auditorium and framing the performance space with the
proscenium arch. When we watch most modern plays, the actors are clearly
within our central or “foveal” vision. This is named after the part of the
retina at the center and back of its curve where the photoreceptor cells are
densest. Foveal vision is used for focusing on detail and scrutinizing
objects, while peripheral vision orders the entire spatial view, allows us
to look at large objects, and helps to direct our narrower foveal vision. Margaret Livingstone
suggests looking at the world through a small tube, or
our hands made into a telescope, to get an idea of how limiting foveal
vision can be without the wider visual context supplied by peripheral
modern theatre directors and designers work hard to earn and keep both our
visual focus and our mental attention not on the peripheral distractions of
fellow spectators and the surrounding environment, but on the action they
have placed before us on stage. This was certainly not the case in the
fifth-century theatre, where the particular environment of the performance
space, on the southeast slope of the Acropolis
with its panoramic views of
the city, countryside, and sea, and within the religious, civic, and
cultural heart of Attica
, meant that dramatists became highly skilled in
manipulating the interplay between peripheral and foveal vision, offering a
multilayered visual experience.
An excellent demonstration of how this interplay between foveal and
peripheral vision operates can be found in Livingstone
’s work on the biology
of sight in relation to looking at art. She tackles the enigma of Mona
Lisa’s famous smile by suggesting that we see it change from a frown to a
smile because we are unwittingly constantly shifting between modes of vision
as we look at the painting (fig. 3). Leonardo
has deliberately blurred
) the expressive edges of his subject’s
mouth, and directs our gaze to fall between her face, which is in our foveal
vision, and the landscape in the background, which is in our peripheral
suggests gazing hard at the smile and then looking at the
background, then back at the smile. As the smile moves from our foveal
vision to our peripheral vision, it seems to change and then change back
again, and the viewer becomes slightly confused, but more fully engaged with
this famously perplexing feature of this painting. Leonardo
pushes us beyond our normal visual expectations, exploiting the eye’s
duality of vision, and in so doing makes us active spectators of his work of
art. The mask functioning in the environment of the open-air theatre
operated in a similar way. Firstly, as will be further examined below,
neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated how the human
face or its representation elicits a very strong (if not the strongest)
visual response. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the human face and our
minds can quickly process facial features, recognize thousands of distinct
faces, and create very fast cultural, gendered, ethnic, and social
It is notable that on the Pronomos
vase and several of the other ancient
representations described above the mask is rendered in a lighter shade than
its background, allowing it to stand out from its surroundings, just as the
face of the Mona Lisa
is also lighter than its
surroundings, and thus immediately engages our foveal vision. Yet the
background of the Pronomos
vase also draws the eye to other objects and
figures, and then back to faces. The mask operated in a similar environment
in the theatre of Dionysos
, where the spectators could clearly see the
southern city and the countryside laid out before them; the theatre
inhabited this expansive space without the benefit of artificial directional
lighting or complex sets, and the masked actor needed to earn the focus of
the open-air spectator. The mask does this by drawing the spectator’s eye to
the actor operating within the ancient theatre’s vast visual field. Speech,
song, gesture, and dance support this ocular process, in that they are all
subservient to the mask: speech must be frontally directed, with a focus on
articulation and precision, and movement must be expertly coordinated with
what is being sung or spoken. As the mask amplifies the spectator’s visual
response to the entire body, everything must be perfectly coordinated to
Plasticity, Dimension, and Contrast
Let us examine the construction of the fifth-century tragic
mask. We have already seen how Leonardo
used his sfumato
technique on the corners of Mona Lisa’s mouth and the area around her eyes,
knowing that these were the most expressive parts of the human face. The
tragic mask seems to have been constructed with rounded features (fig. 2.1),
and operated within a performance space that was back- and toplit by the
sun, as the theatron
of the Theatre of
faced south. This would have cast gentle shadows on the features of
the mask, which as we see on the Pronomos
vase (figs. 2–2.1) were built with
dimensionality in mind. Although the features were not exaggerated,
forehead, eye sockets, eyebrows, cheeks, and lips were pronounced, and as we
will see below, from experiments carried out with Japanese Noh masks it
appears that these were intended to assist the mask in seeming to change
Furthermore, it is important to note that the neurons at the center of the
visual process respond primarily to higher-resolution (fine) images, while
those responsible for processing “the bigger picture” respond to images at a
much lower (blurred) resolution (what is seen in one’s peripheral vision
appears blurred until foveal vision is engaged to focus on the area). This
is the difference between low- and high-spatial frequency neural processing,
and when the two are combined, as with Mona Lisa’s blurry smile set against
a distant landscape, or a Greek tragic mask within the open-air setting of
the Theatre of Dionysos
, it can have the effect of tricking the eye into
thinking that facial features seem to change. This visual oscillation
between fine and blurry features on a face and how it can stimulate and
trick both our peripheral and foveal vision has been demonstrated by the
illusion below, created by Oliva
(fig. 4). 
These two faces are hybrids of fine
and low-resolution facial features. The face on the left seems angry, while
the one on the right is calm. Step away from the page (or squint) and look
again and the faces change dramatically. This illusion works because our
high-spatial frequency neural processing abilities dominate close up, but
our low-spatial frequency processors work better further away.
Experiments conducted by Yarbus
that recorded the saccades (tiny flickers) of
the eye as it scanned scenes have shown how people concentrate their vision
most heavily on human figures first, and then scan to objects that appear in
observing faces, the system Yarbus
devised to track the saccades showed how
the eye looked mainly at the eyes and mouth, and then moved on to scan the
outline of the head. His findings showed that people look intently at facial
expressions, searching for emotional markers, and when they survey an entire
scene they will always alight on a human figure even when the surrounding
environment dwarfs it. If one looks at a good image of the Pronomos
is the faces of the performers and their masks that draw the eye, especially
those of the principal actors. The eyes and mouths of those masks are
particularly noticeable, and the gaze direction of the eyes of both masks
and performers seems more apparent from a distance that when looking close
up. Calame thought the mouth and eye areas of the mask were nondescript
“holes” that revealed the actor behind, and therefore dead areas in terms of
emotional information, yet the biological operation of the eye and the fact
that Greek tragic masks had painted sclerae would suggest otherwise. Just as
the viewer of the Mona Lisa
is compelled to search
for her expression, so the mask is extremely effective in stimulating our
neural visual responses and creating active and engaged spectatorship.
Another way in which the Greek mask focuses foveal vision is through visual
contrast, and this is apparent on the Pronomos
vase. The figure seated at
the foot of the couch of Dionysos
is identified as a woman, primarily
because of the white face of the mask she holds (fig. 2). The face of this
figure seems feminine, although the facial features may have been rendered
to suggest that they have “melted” together with the face of the mask, just
like the Herakles actor (fig. 2.1) and the actor dressed as a king or noble
to the left of Dionysos
(fig. 2). It is the white mask that stands out, in
high contrast to its background and the darker face of the seated figure
holding it. A white face usually indicates a woman on a Greek vase, but
while this enigmatic figure has a feminine hairstyle, “her” facial features
are very similar to those of the young men of the satyr chorus, and the
complexion has been painted in the same red-figure skin tone as the male
figures on the vase. The contrast the painter wants to highlight, then, is
between the face and the mask, and this is also apparent by comparing the
rendering of the face of the Herakles actor with the lighter complexion of
the mask he is holding (fig. 2.1).
There is also a question of gender identification
operating here, as the female mask is in much higher contrast than the male
masks, perhaps reflective of the practice of Greek women whitening their
Recently, Richard Russell
has demonstrated how visual contrast is a key
factor in determining the gender of a face, and posited that high-contrast
faces appear female, while low–contrast ones seem male. Russell
illusion that demonstrates this notion of gender and contrast (fig. 5),
where two photographs of the same face are displayed side by side, with the
face on the left having a higher contrast between eyes and mouth than the
face on the right. To most people the face on the left appears female, while
the one on the right seems male.
Mirror Neurons and the Mask
In Book 23 of
the Odyssey, Penelope
scours the face of Odysseus
looking repeatedly to verify that this is really her husband home at last.
A long while she sat in silence … numbing
Filled her heart as her eyes explored his
Homer Odyssey 23.94,
trans. Robert Fagles
human face a “motor exposure board,” in that it contains hundreds of muscles
capable of generating a number of easily identifiable “macro” expressions
and a much larger number of seemingly imperceptible “micro” expressions. When engaged in communication with another, the face is in a state of almost
It has been shown that newborns are particularly sensitive to faces, and
respond to properly ordered faces over faces that have had their features
rearranged or have parts removed.
Studies conducted with newborns are also relevant here
because it has been observed that an infant will mirror the facial
expressions of its caregiver. As the child has never seen its own face and
therefore has no visual sense of how manipulating certain facial muscles
produces a smile or a frown, it has been recently posited that this is an
innate ability, and may be connected to the function of what have been
termed “mirror neurons” in the brain.
Mirror neurons form connections
between the visual and motor cortexes, allowing humans to quickly learn
behavior through both observation and kinesthetic understanding. The theory
of “mirror neurons” and their role in creating empathic responses between
the viewer and the viewed was first advanced in the neuroscience community
by a research team at the University of Parma, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti
the early 1990s. At Parma, they were conducting cognitive research on
macaque monkeys and recording their neural responses to picking up food
items. When a researcher inadvertently picked up the food item that had been
situated for the test, the monkeys had the same neural response as if they
had picked it up themselves.
This has led to an enormous amount of research to
determine whether humans possess this same kind of “empathy response,” and
to establish whether our brains will respond similarly to both the action
performed and the action shown.
But this bold theory has not been without the inevitable
controversy. Though he admits that the discovery of mirror neurons is
incredibly exciting, Gregory Hickok
has cautioned against the rush to view
them as transmitters of “action understanding.” Hickok
has questioned the
research of the past ten years, and proposes that mirror neurons are both
more complex and more fully integrated into an overall system of sensory
motor learning, where it is the act of moving that creates the basis for the
learned or modeled behavior, not the act of empathetic watching. Mirror
neurons may be just the tip of the iceberg in understanding human visual
cognition.Therefore, although we may be at the outer edges of our
understanding of visual neural cognition, the work carried out thus far in
attempting to understand the human mirror system might begin to reveal much
about the visual emotional function of the tragic mask.
discovery of mirror neurons, most scientists held the opinion that humans
used logic to interpret and process the actions of others. However, mirror
neurons may create cognition via a form of empathic response. For example,
when we see someone with a facial expression that indicates revulsion, our
own mirror neurons will fire as if we too are revolted, and we may even make
a similar, if smaller, facial expression.
Thus, research on mirror neurons
has shown how the emotions projected by the face are processed by the viewer
and result in an empathetic response that can involve the neural processing
of similar actions and even a mirroring effect in the viewer’s own facial
expressions. However, how might a mask operate within such a visual and
cognitive field? Its features are fixed, and the intricate muscles and soft
tissue that make the face such a vivid emotional canvas are absent from the
hard unchanging surface of the mask. Several scholars believe that the
tragic mask held a blank fixed expression, preseted one “type” or was
deliberately neutral to facilitate a quasi-religious transformation of the
we look again at the mask of Herakles from the Pronomos
vase (fig. 2.1), it
is clear that we are not looking at a neutral or even an “idealized” face. This is clearly Herakles
, we know this from the lion headdress; the mask is
bearded and has a full head of long hair, rendered in exactly the same way
as the hair on the heads of the unmasked actors. This strongly suggests that
the hair on masks was real and the movement of this hair did a great deal to
assist the “animation” of the mask in performance. The mask appears to have
one expression, with large eyes, relaxed eyebrows, a furrowed brow, and an
open mouth with a slight downturn; its gaze seems to animate the face, and
even on a vase painting the viewer is invited to follow its stare.
While we might at first regard the expression of the Herakles
unchangeable, research carried out on traditional Japanese Noh masks would
Here (fig. 6) a Noh mask was tilted in different directions and subjects
were asked to report the expression they read in the face when it was placed
at different angles.
When the mask tilted backwards, most of the subjects saw happiness, and
when tilted forward the face became sad. One interesting facet of this study
was that there was a marked divergence in interpretation among different
cultural groups, with the Japanese control group reading different responses
than the British group. Yet, both groups saw different emotions in the same
face, depending on how the mask was manipulated. This cultural difference
might also be explained by mirror neurons, where facial recognition and
processing of gesture and head movements is keyed to the learned environment
in a given culture where each group has mirrored the motor actions inherent
within its own social group.
The researchers of the Noh mask experiment noticed how
certain features of the mask were fashioned to enable it to change its
expressions depending on aspect.
They noted how the mask’s bottom lip was fashioned to
protrude and was much more exaggerated than the lips of a human face. If we
turn again to the Herakles
mask (fig. 2.1), the same feature is apparent on
the thick bottom lip, which the artist has clearly chosen to emphasize. If
we compare the mouth of the mask of Herakles
to the mouth of the actor
holding it, we note that the actor’s mouth has not been rendered in the same
way (fig. 2.1). Thus, the exaggerated bottom lip of the Herakles
mask may be
reflective of a similar feature of Noh masks that emphasize certain facial
features in order to produce multiple emotional “looks.” The Noh mask study
also noted that minor movements of the masked actor’s head could deceive
spectators into thinking that the face is animated and the internal features
are actually moving. This effect may also be linked to our cognitive prowess
at recognizing faces, in that we store thousands of physiognomies in our
memories and match them to the holistic configuration of the face before us
(what might be called the “haven’t I seen you somewhere before” effect). Very recent research is also suggesting that each face has its own neuron,
which fires only when that particular face is seen.
In this sense, our mirror neurons
might actively seek to connect with the mask and read its emotions, creating
the illusion that a static mask is changing expressions.
demonstration of this type of facial visual processing is Richard Gregory
hollow mask illusion (fig. 7). Here a simple mask is lit normally and
rotated slowly as it turns to reveal the inside, as the hollowed-out
features suddenly seem to form into a three-dimensional face. The more
realistic the face, the better the experiment works ( Gregory
used a plastic
“ Charlie Chaplin
” mask from a joke shop). Gregory
used this experiment to
demonstrate how we use “top-down” object knowledge (conceptual
knowledge—perceptual knowledge—hypothesis generator) to process faces,
rather than “bottom-up” signals (the object—signal processing—hypothesis
What our mind is doing is collecting the visual evidence of the mask’s
facial features and reordering them so that a concave face appears convex
and “normal.” Likewise, Craig Mooney
created a series of faces rendered in
high black and white contrast that demonstrate how little visual information
the mind actually needs to create a face.
An example of three “ Mooney
is shown below (fig. 8).
In many respects the painted mask is just a
suggestion of a face, and it is only via its expert manipulation by a
skilled performer in conjunction with movement, music, and text that it
comes to vivid emotional life, and yet the human brain is conditioned to
detect faces and observe macro-expressions from the merest of information. In this sense the mask is analogous to a facial caricature, and research
into the facial recognition of caricatures has shown how sometimes less is
more when it comes to placing a face or being drawn to watch
For example, Brennan
a schematic system where a famous face was automatically compared to a
prototypical face, then the differences between the two were magnified in a
line-drawing caricature and set alongside another line drawing of the real
famous face. It was found that subjects strongly preferred the caricature face,
which tended to be identified far more quickly than the realistic line drawings
of the same face.
noted, writing on what he termed the borderland between caricature and
portraiture, “we generally take in the mask before we notice the face.” A “mask”
could be a caricature or even a photograph, where the sitter’s emotional state
of mind and facial expression might actually communicate something entirely
different in another context. Gombrich
’s brilliant example of this is the famous
photo of Winston Churchill
taken in Ottawa
by Yousuf Karsh
annoyed and pressed for time, and right before he took the shot Karsh
’s cigar out of his mouth. The resulting look of anger and annoyance
captured was perceived as encapsulating the fighting spirit and
steely determination of the British at war. Gombrich
showed that for portrait
artists and photographers it is the ambiguity of an expression that is
important, not neutrality. Expressive ambiguity in faces leads to increased
spectator engagement, as our visual processing systems work to complete the
picture and make emotional and situational judgments. The schematic painted
surface of the Greek tragic mask provided just such an ambiguous façade.
Symporeia: Mirror Neurons and
’s pioneering work on mirror neurons led to him to
divide them into two broad categories: somatosensory neurons respond to
actual touch, whereas somatosensory-and-visual (bimodal) neurons are
triggered only by a visual stimulus that occurs in the vicinity of the
tactile receptive field. This led Rizzolatti
to conclude that mirror neurons
work empathetically, in that humans are able to learn quite complex movement
actions just by observing the motions performed by another. According to
this the basis of how humans process the emotions of others and
are able to understand their individual predicaments and situations. V. S. Ramachandran
has gone so far as to suggest that the development of mirror-neuron systems
in humans 40,000 years ago significantly contributed to our evolutionary
development as social beings, able to understand the intentions of other
humans and exchange skills and knowledge, including language, via
What the neuroscience community is finding is that our cognitive abilities to
imitate, learn, speak, understand, and empathize are linked to
embodiment—our minds and our bodies are connected in experiential cognition
and we process the emotion of others through a system of “action
representation.” Thus, “we ground our empathic resonance in the experience
of our acting body and the emotions associated with specific movements.” 
It follows that
symporeia (collective movement) has a particular role to play in human
cognition and emotional intelligence, beyond its usual role of creating
social cohesion and reinforcing group identity. In neural terms, movement is
the essential interpersonal communicator of emotion and empathy. Furthermore, the role of mirror neurons in cognition has also been linked to
proprioception, which is the sense of the relative position of different
parts of the body in relation to each other, or what might be termed the
orientation of one’s limbs in space. Proprioception is what allows us to
walk without looking at our feet, and why people who have consumed a large
quantity of alcohol and have impaired proprioception are asked to prove
their soberness by closing their eyes and touching their nose. These
connections between facial recognition, emotional empathy, moving in space,
and kinesthetic communication have a direct relevance to understanding how
the mask may have functioned in the Greek theatre, within a masked
symporeutic environment where proprioception was an essential element of the
performance. Masked actors had no peripheral vision and could not see their
arms and feet, or even each other, for most of the time. A heightened sense
of proprioception and an acute spatial awareness was therefore essential,
and elicited a direct physical response from the spectators, further
enhancing their emotional connection to the play they were watching.
Our ability to recognize movement is quite remarkable. In 1973, Johansson
created a series of films of what at first resemble random tiny dots. In
actuality, these were light diodes attached to the joints of a human figure,
though this was impossible to discern until the figures moved and it became
perfectly clear that a human was being displayed. What Johansson
that from this most basic of information, humans can very quickly identify
people known to them by the way they move, and can even recognize
themselves, which is all the more remarkable considering that most people do
not watch themselves move.
This is a characteristic of proprioception, and this
ability seems also to be regulated by mirror neurons that forge links
between specific movements and the visual perception of those same movements
in other people.
One important aspect of the mask already mentioned is the masked performer’s
dependence on choreographed bodily movements and pronounced gestures in
conjunction with words and emotional objectives. The use of the mask may
subconsciously favor the body in the eyes of the spectator, thus enhancing
emotional empathy and even visceral participation in the action being
Studies have shown that the muscles of audience members are stimulated when
watching dance performances, where they experience a kinesthetic sensation
known as motor simulation, 
and the neural activity in those watching increases
significantly when the dance performed is known to the spectator. This was
demonstrated in 2005 by a team led by Patrick Haggard
. In a controlled
experiment, professional ballet dancers watched ballet and then the
Brazilian dance/martial art form known as capoeira,
dancers watched capoeira
followed by ballet. The dancers watching their own dance form responded more
strongly, suggesting the influence of motor expertise on action observation.
Therefore, the neural “mirror-system” integrates movements seen with
movements known, and “the human brain understands actions by motor
The spectators watching tragedy could all be classified as “expert dancers,”
whether Athenians or Hellenic visitors. Dance was an enormous part of Greek
cultural identity, not to mention the equally symporeutic activities of
hoplite drill, rowing a trireme, riding in a cavalry formation, or being
part of a procession. Of the Athenians, it might be safely said that almost
everyone in attendance was highly familiar with dance as a cultural
participatory activity from an early age. The Dionysia itself involved 50
boys and 50 men from each of the 10 tribes competing in the dithyramb, a
total of 1000 performers recruited exclusively from the population of
Athenian males. In addition, the tragedies also involved a chorus of 10–15
and the comedies 24, placing around 165 chorus members in each Dionysia (not
to mention another 150 or so in the Lenaea). Therefore, even if they were
not performing, the spectators may well have performed at one time
themselves, if not at the Dionysia or a city festival, at the very least in
their deme or at family events.
The hymn sung and danced by the women of the chorus of
illustrates this strong connection between spectator and masked dancer, as
they invite the spectators to watch them form their circle dance. It is as
if their appeal to join hands reached across the orkhestra
and out into the theatron
to be felt by everybody. To
dance was to feel
was also participation.
Come on and dance!
forming the circle
Join together, hand in
Everyone feel the rhythm of the dance
now, move those feet!
Let everyone’s eyes
Watch the formation of our circle dance.
Aristophanes Thesmophoriasuzae 953-958, trans. A. Hollmann
One of the most notable features of the Pronomos Herakles
mask is the rendering of the eyes, which are larger than life, each with a
highly visible sclera (white) and dark pupil or iris (fig. 2.1). The irises
are looking up and to the right, but these may indicate that the mask has
been turned or is in motion, or it could be the vase painter’s device for
connecting the gaze of the mask with the Papposilenos
mask above. It is
significant that nearly all of the fifth-century representations of masks
indicate prominent sclerae: this strongly suggests that mask eye sockets
were filled in, with only a small hole for viewing representing the pupil
and iris. A large sclera is almost unique to humans, as other mammals have
none or hardly any white exposed at all. This is because animals do not wish
to be seen by predators, and so their eyes tend to be dark. Human eyes are
supposed to be seen, and the large sclerae allow us to track the direction
of another person’s gaze.
Humans present themselves on an upright vertical plane,
as opposed to other primates who are usually on a horizontal plane—running
on all fours or lying out. Therefore, the face and the eyes are vitally
important for interpersonal communication. Work at St. Andrews University on
neural responses to the face found that around 60% of the cells responsive
to face perception were also sensitive to the gaze direction, and that
subjects with damage to the area of the brain responsible for face
recognition also suffered from an impaired ability to follow gaze
Additionally it has been observed that people with autism also have severe
difficulties in reciprocal gaze and making eye contact, and it has been
posited that perceiving another’s gaze direction is vital to interpersonal
Wiles commented that “the mask feels alive when the viewer has a sense of
existing in the mask’s eyes.” 
This is reflective of Merleau-Ponty
’s famous statement
“I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in
gaze direction of the Greek mask may have been an important factor in
establishing reciprocal gaze between spectator and performer, one in which
emotional states could be easily communicated and the viewers’ mirror-neuron
responses would have created feelings of empathy with the masked fictional
character presented before them. The artificial sclerae painted in the eye
sockets of the masks, as indicated by vase paintings, would have assisted
greatly in creating this visual bond, but whereas a real face establishes
communication interpersonally, the gaze of the mask was directed not at the
other masked characters on stage but at the spectators. In actual ity it
would have been highly unlikely for masked characters to face each other
during performances, as the type of face mask used in tragedy strongly
favors frontal performance.
This frontality was not only a matter of visual
engagement between the spectators and the masks, but also one of audibility. The face mask further limits vocal projection to the sides by forcing the
voice through the mouth aperture of the mask in a fully frontal direction,
and although up to three-quarter turns would have been possible, both
visually and acoustically the effect would have been diminished in both
respects. We can therefore deduce that it was unlikely that tragic actors
stood opposite each other to engage in dialogue, and that they hardly ever
turned upstage except to make exits via the skēnē
door. Furthermore, the mask itself offers the performer
no peripheral vision, meaning that the performer is also visually engaged
with the spectators rather than the other performers. The frontality created
by masked theatre was reflected in the anterior aspect of the theatron,
where the majority of the benches
were on the frontal plane and even the side wings still place the performers
on a frontal axis, especially considering the location of the skēnē
upstage center. It was not until the
development of stone theatres of the late fourth century that we start to
see auditoriums enveloping the orkhestra
on three sides. This was at a time when choral performance was much
diminished, if staged at all, and the focus was definitely on the actors on
the stage placed upstage center, which would still have required a frontal
The translation of the “Watchman scene” from the opening of
is reproduced below, and
includes a chart of proposed emotional shifts using Ekman
’s categories of
“basic emotions.” 
Gods! Free me from these labors! [ANGER]
I’ve spent a
whole year up here, watching.
Propped up on my elbows on
Of this house of Atreus, like some dog
How well I’ve come to know night’s congregation of
Those blazing monarchs of the sky, those
that bring winter
And those that bring summer to us
I know just when they rise and when they
So I watch, watch for the signal
The burning flame that will tell us, Troy
I take my orders from a woman who waits
She’s a woman all right, one with the
heart of a man.[DISGUST]
So, lie here, tossing and turning
This sopping bed unvisited by
Fear sits by my side and keeps me
Oh, I wish I could just close my eyes up
tight and sleep.
So I sing to myself or hum a little
A musical remedy in case I drop off.
always makes me miserable and I start to cry,[SADNESS]
this house and how things used to be run, in the old
But if only tonight could come blessed freedom from
Oh, let the fire of fortune
light up our darkness.
Oh! Oh! Welcome! Beacon of the
night, bright as day![SURPRISE]
They’ll be dancing all
over Argos, rejoicing this moment.[HAPPINESS]
I’m shouting to wake the wife of
She must rise out of bed, quickly, wake the
And welcome this signal fire with the hallowed
If Troy has been taken as these flames
then I’ll be the first
to sing and dance in
blazing torch has thrown triple sixes for
Just bring my king home and let me
His most welcome hand in mine. As for the
I’m saying nothing, a great ox is standing on my
Now if this house could speak it would
tell quite a story,
I’ve only got words for those in the
For the others I can’t remember
1–39, trans. P. Meineck
By applying Ekman
system of basic emotions to the Watchman scene, we see that in just
thirty-nine lines he displays at least nineteen marked emotional shifts and
thirteen distinct emotional states. Of course this is a highly interpretive
reading of the text, but one that any actor or director must undertake in
order to enliven the words in performance, and any emotional reading will
produce a variety of emotional shifts.
When the Watchman sees the beacon,
his emotional state rapidly shifts from anger to surprise, to happiness, and
then excitement, and at the end of the speech he radiates a sense of shame. How then can a watchman’s mask like those on the Pronomos
vase (fig. 2),
with a solid surface and fixed expression, project all these emotional
states in such a short space of time?
visiting with Parrhasios
the painter and Cleiton
the sculptor and
asking them how they went about achieving a lifelike quality in their
respective art forms. Socrates
if he is able to capture the
“ethos of the soul,” and lists a number of examples of good qualities such
as lovability, friendliness, attractiveness, and desirability. Parrhasios
responds that this would be impossible, as these are qualities that cannot
be seen and therefore cannot be reproduced in form or color. So then
enquires whether people usually express empathy and disgust by
their looks, whether or not these feelings can be imitated in the eyes, and
if so is it possible to make a copy of these expressions as well as the look
of joy and sorrow? Parrhasios
replies that this is of course entirely
possible. Then Socrates
the sculptor and asks if the
imitation of the emotions that affect the body delights the spectator. When
responds in the affirmative, Socrates
adds that in that case the
fierce look in the eye of a fighter should be copied, and the look of
pleasure in the face of a victor imitated. Cleiton
agrees, and Socrates
concludes that the sculptor does indeed represent the workings of the soul.
’s story proposes that a person’s ēthos
can be visually replicated via mimesis, and that character and
emotions “show through” the face, eyes, and movements of the body.
could be just as aptly applied to the tragic mask, a crafted object whose
formation involved the plastic skills of the sculptor, the twodimensional
mastery of line and color of the painter, and the form-fitting expertise of
the third artist Socrates
the armourer ( Memorabilia
In fact, Socrates
’ description to
Parrhasios the painter of the visible display of emotions (3.10.5) could be
equally applied to the mask. The four key terms prosõpon
skh ẽ ma
‘stillness’, and kinēsis
‘movement’ are all essential elements that come
together in the performer’s mask and body to communicate the emotions of the
character portrayed on stage. Prosõpon
means “before the gaze,” a remarkable term for “face,” and indicative of the
idea of the face’s role in outward communication, and the term itself
implies that a face is defined by being actively looked on. By the
mid-fourth century BCE we find prosõpon
also applied to the mask in Aristotle
(1449a35), referring to the disfigured features of the comic mask. Xenophon
says that the face displays both a person’s character and their
emotions, but not in isolation, as both the face and body move together to
convey this information. Many neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists
are concerned with the study of face recognition, and one criticism of their
approach has been that in using only static photographs of faces in their
experiments, they deny their subjects the abundance of interpretive visual
emotional information communicated by the body and face moving in tandem. Thus, the term skh ẽ ma
describes what might be called “the complete picture” of an entire body, and
it has been applied to theatrical gestures and posture.
A masked performer must be acutely
aware of their skh ẽ ma,
ensuring that every part of their body accurately communicates the emotional
state of the character at every given moment, right down to their fingers
and toes. These pronounced and carefully placed gestures, with articulated
fingers and an emphasis on posture, can be observed in the evidence from the
encapsulates not only blocking, movement, and dance, but also the movement
of the mask itself. The Noh mask experiment showed how subtle tilts of the
masks at different angles could project different emotional states and how
realistic hair, the painted surface, rounded features, and dimensionality of
construction all contributed to animate the mask in performance.. Finally,
we must not overlook stasis
an essential quality when dealing with the mask. The Greek film and theatre
director Michael Cacoyannis
has described this element of mask work as
“being centered.” This involves the performer’s being hyper-aware of the
position of the feet and their stance, including their chest and shoulders,
with their head raised high (“as if your head is connected by an invisible
thread which is pulling your whole body up,” to quote Cacoyannis
stance is completely still and is used as a place of resolution between
movements. Such stillness is compelling, and allows the mask to establish
itself as the center of focus.
Recently, David Konstan
has stated that “masks represented a uniform
expression throughout the drama.” 
But the texts require masked characters to play numerous
different emotional states, often in rapid succession, like those of the
Watchman in Agamemnon,
and we have seen how the
brain’s normal neural cognitive response to the merest suggestion of a face
will work hard to supply the missing visual information. Additionally the
ambiguous facial expressions we see on representations of Greek masks, and
their method of construction, aided their visual fluidity, as did the
shadows cast by the sun and the peripheral landscape offered by the open-air
setting. Furthermore, the Noh mask experiments clearly demonstrate that it
is possible to signify emotional shifts by changing the position of the
mask. Yet, in order to connect these kata
borrowed from the intricate system of Noh mask movements) to an organized
narrative framework, i.e. a plot, the mask must operate in tandem with
space, words, music, and movement. In fact these other elements that create
a performance are in a sense “conveyed” by the mask, which acts as the focal
point of the entire theatrical experience.Perhaps this is exactly what
had in mind in the Poetics,
as the single “mode” of
realizing tragic mimesis, one that encompasses the other five elements of
speech ( lexis
) and song ( melopoiia
), as the “means employed,” and
narrative ( muthos
), character ( ethos
), and intention ( dianoia
), as the “object represented.” 
conveyed them all.
has detailed how many have sought to create a catalogue of basic
human emotions, including Aristotle
, St. Thomas Aquinas
, and Darwin
the Darwinian tradition of describing emotion in evolutionary terms and
proposed six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and
surprise (recently Ekman
has expanded his list of basic emotions and added
eleven more, including some that are not communicated by the face). Ekman
conducted experiments using his basic emotional states with the use of
photographs, and posits that these are universally recognized across
disagrees, believing that in many respects the Greeks had
a different set of emotional responses than we do, and cautions against
translations of Greek emotive terms that fit too easily with modern
concepts. It is notable that several of the demeanors listed by Socrates
(empathy, disgust, joy, sorrow,
magnificence, dignity, dejection, servility, self-restraint, prudence,
insolence, and vulgarity) seem more like the value judgments of outside
observers than something felt personally. Perhaps this is a factor of the
Greek’s culture of shame and honor, where one’s self-worth was placed in the
eyes of others.
The Noh mask experiment addressed this question of context by examining the
cultural backgrounds of two control groups, one Japanese and one British. While each group responded differently to the poses struck by the mask, they
did all still see emotional changes in its face, just different
We have already examined how the neural system of the brain responds to the
visual stimuli offered by the face, and works to provide information not
visually apparent (for example the Mooney
faces shown in fig. 8). The mask
certainly exploits these responses, but it does not operate in isolation. In
order to communicate emotion effectively, it needs a narrative context (what
). This has been
famously demonstrated by the 1917 film experiment of Russian director Lev Kuleshov
, who used what has since become known as the “ Kuleshov
demonstrate the effectiveness of film editing to create emotional contexts. The same shot of the face of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin
, in the heavy makeup of
the silent film era, is shown three times. In each shot, lasting around
three seconds, the same facial expression is seen: a man staring intently
ahead and then swallowing. Interspersed with these repeated facial shots are
three different short scenes. The first shows a bowl of soup, and then cuts
to the face of Mozzhukhin
, who appears hungry; then the film cuts away to a
shot of a child in a coffin, and when it returns to the actor, the same face
now seems incredibly sad; the last scene is of a sexually desirable woman,
and when the film cuts back to the face it now appears lustful. The purpose
’s experiment was to demonstrate the power of a visually depicted
situation to dominate emotional response. The facial expression does not
change physically, but our different emotional responses to the three scenes
affect the way in which we view the meaning of the facial features.
Recently researchers at University College London replicated the Kuleshov
experiment, using functional neuroimaging (fMRI) scanning on 14 subjects,
who viewed 130 facial images that were zoomed in and out and juxtaposed with
film clips in order to create a dynamic movement effect.
Fourteen supplementary images of
humans, animals, and objects were also used to provide valence to the
experiment. The results showed that faces paired with emotional film clips
elicited strong neural responses in various regions of the brain that
differed depending on the type of emotion shown. In particular, differing
responses in the amygdala (a key part of the brain’s limbic system,
responsible for memory and emotional processing) suggested that it acts to
tag affective value to faces. Furthermore, the findings also suggest that a
complex network of brain regions is deployed in “the storage and
coordination of contextual framing,” in that the anterior temporal regions
store contextual “frames,” which are then compared to the information
gathered by the superior temporal sulci (involved in processing gaze
direction and motion), and this stimulus is then tagged by the amygdala,
which is in turn influenced by “top-down” signals from the prefrontal
cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions. This
study offered a neurobiological basis for contextual framing effects on
social attributions, and in so doing provides a glimpse into how the human
brain operates when watching a mask in a drama. The narrative of the plot
offers such a contextual framing, against which the mask is compared. If the
mask is altered by the performer, in conjunction with the skh ẽ ma
of the body within
this context, then the mind works to read and even place an expression onto
Taken together, the Kuleshov
effect, the results of performance-based
experiments that space will not allow to be discussed here, and the
neurobiological findings should lay to rest the notion that the Greek tragic
mask displayed a fixed, neutral, idealized, or unchanging expression. In
fact, the mask allowed the tragic dramatist a far greater control over the
presentation of the emotional content of his work, by closely coordinating
masked movement with music, song, and spoken word and then allowing the
ambiguity of the mask to provoke a highly personal response in the mind of
each individual spectator. Their neural processing mechanisms would have
been stimulated by the context of what was presented, and then fired to
create a deeply personal emotional image. In this way, the visual ambiguity
of the mask greatly enhanced the presentation of tragedy. Thus, the tragic
mask was far more powerful that the real face of an actor, as it constantly
changed, reflecting the emotional realities of each person sitting before
its compelling gaze.
Whatever we might make of Aristotle
’s seemingly conflicted attitudes to
he is surely correct in his assumption that the
effectiveness of the visual in tragedy is the preserve of the mask-maker
(1450b20). However, where he must be called into question is his notion that
the work of the mask and that of the poet were somehow separate. In fact it
was the mask that enabled the detailed cognitive engagement necessary for
the effective performance of a narrative-based drama, and in this respect
its relationship to the spatial environment it operated in was essential. The open-air Theatre of Dionysos
was a symporeutic theoric space developed
to visually link the Athenians and their guests to the civic monuments of
, the landscape of a wider Attica
, and the imaginary environment of
aetiology and myth. Here, the mask created the focus that guided the
spectators between the foveal and the peripheral, provided the visual means
to denote a performance, and most importantly produced the intimacy
necessary to facilitate individual emotional responses. What is also being
proposed here is an appeal to scholars and practitioners to recognize the
importance of the mask when considering ancient drama, and that the texts we
have were created with the mask in mind. It was not an afterthought to the
creative process of playmaking, merely a disguise, an accoutrement, or just
another piece of costume—the mask was actually the focus of the entire
visual and emotional experience of ancient drama. In fact, it may not be too
bold a statement to say that without the mask we might never have seen the
birth of tragedy.
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There is no reason to assume that the dithyrambic choruses were masked,
and at the proagōn before the
performance day the dramatic performers did appear unmasked, although it
appears they did not perform at this event. See Easterling 1997:153.
See Snowden 2006:284–315, especially figures 10.3.1–3, for an excellent
introduction to the subject of face recognition. Here sixty-four small
photographs are placed side-to-side in three montages. In the first
montage there is a human face, and it is remarkable how quickly one is
able to find it, a matter of a few seconds. Our eyes are drawn
immediately to the face and its features. When we try again with the
second montage, and look for an animal face, it takes several seconds
longer, and when we look at a series of scrambled photographs in the
third montage it takes more than a minute; the eye must scan over each
photo until something that resembles a part of the face is found.
Edith Hall makes the point that “the facial contours of the masks in
tragedy seem to have been softly rounded, rather than using sharp angles
and planes to represent three dimensions” (Hall 2006:101).
et al. 2006:527–532.
Calame 2005:113–114, 119–123.
See Marshall 1999:189–192.
On the practice of whitening the faces of Greek women see Griffith
Chambon et al. 2008:73–76.
di Pellegrino et al. 1992:176–180; Rizzolatti and Craighero
A thoroughly readable guide to the major strides and experiments
relating to mirror neurons is Iacoboni 2008.
Carr et al. 2003:5497–5502.
Halliwell 1993:211, Wiles 2007:205–236, Marshall 1999:189.
Lyons et al. 2000:2239–2245.
In Noh drama the movements of the mask in combination with the body are
choreographed in movement sequences called kata . For
example the expression of grief is called shiori,
where the masked head is lowered, the hands placed just off the face,
and the eyes covered. Terasu involves the mask’s
being tilted slightly upwards, denoting laughter or joy, and
kumorasu is the downward tit that denotes
sadness. See Nakanishi 1983 and Perzynski 2005:176.
Another team in Japan also performed a similar test on facial
recognition and emotions of Noh masks, and found similar results. See
Minoshita et al. 1999:83–89.
Quiroga et al. 2008:3599–3604.
’s experiment in motion can be viewed at
1985, Benson and Perrett 1994.
et al. 2008:242.
R 2007; Oberman et al. 2007. See also Iacoboni 2008:38–46,
116–125 and Gazzaniga 2008:158–202.
Carr et al. 2003:5502.
The visual supremacy of the body over the face is reflected in Plato’s
Charmides 1540, where Charmides’ physical
beauty is compared to that of a statue, to the point where if he were to
disrobe he would have “no-face” ( ἀπρόσωπος ).
Calvo-Merino et al. 2005. See also Calvo-Merino et al. 2006, Brown et
729; Plato Laws
7. 814e-817e. See also Ley 2007:150–166.
On the ritual association of this hymn see Bierl 2009:83–125.
Tomasello et al. 2007.
et al. 2007:174.
On the connections of the frontal gaze with Dionysos
1997:256–258. On the frontal face in archaic vase painting see Korshak
(1987), who regards the face as the place where the individual shows
their emotions rather than a façade to hide behind. Therefore the mask
is not something used to hide behind, it is its own face, which is why
it had pupils and irises.
’s categories are also not without controversy, but
they do at least provide a systematic approach to organizing emotional
states, something also found in the naming of poses
) in Japanese Noh theatre.
Actors call this process “finding the objective,” whereby they seek the
emotional meaning of a section of text and strive to play that emotion.
This is a particularly useful exercise when working on classical
See Halliwell 2002:122–124.
The relationship between Xenophon
’s description of the work of Pistias
and mask-making has been pointed out by Hall: “Presumably the
mask-makers aimed at making a mask fit the actor, and thus feel to him
like an ‘accessory’ rather than an ‘encumbrance.’” These are terms
applies to a good breastplate (Hall 2006:103).
The earliest occurrence of the term applied to a mask (though it was
restored at a later date) seems to be the word prosop [ on ] found on an
Attic inscription dated to 434/3 BCE (IG 1 3 343.7). This may relate to the use of a mask in ritual
Philocleon’s dance); Aristotle Poetics
(describing theatrical gestures); Aeschylus Seven
488 (the tremendous form of Hippodemon);
1072 (the bodies of her
children [she also refers to their lips, faces, and skin, but not in
terms of changing expressions]). On
in relation to the mask see Halliwell
Greek Chorus Workshop by Michael Cacoyannis
at the conference
in Word and Action,” held
at Northwestern University, May 1993.
1450a:8-15. On this aspect of
see Calame 2005:106–107, Taplin 1977:477–479,
Halliwell 1998:337–343, Bonanno 1997:121–123.
1999, Ekman 2003, and Ekman and Friesen 2003.
The oppositional shame culture/guilt culture dichotomy made famous by
Dodds in The Greeks and The Irrational (1951)
is called into question by Cairns (1993:27–47). See also Konstan
2006:91–110. A sense of shame is closely connected with being in the
sight of others. For example, in Pindar’s Pythian
8.81–87, the young athletes fear standing in the
sight of their countrymen if they return home as losers.
Mobbs 2006. See also Halberstadt et al. 2009, where findings from
electromyography (EMG) strongly suggested evidence of concept-driven
changes in emotional perception, highlighting the role of embodiment
(the role that the body plays in shaping the mind) in representing and
processing emotional information.