The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask

The Greek tragic mask created the focus that guided the spectators of tragedy 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.


Bookmark and Share

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 barefaced.[2] However 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 vase (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 Cerveteri 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 Pronomos vase, a red-figure volute krater dated to around 400 BCE, which depicts cast members of a satyr play and tragic actors gathered around Dionysos. 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 sakkos, 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 theatron ? 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 the baskanos (evil eye) may have played a role. Dionysos 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 vision.[3] Thus 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 ( sfumato ) 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 vision. Livingston 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’s technique 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 determinations.[4] 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 communicate effectively.

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 Dionysos 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 emotions.[5] 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 and Schyns (fig. 4). [6] 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 high contrast.[7] When 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 vase, it 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.[8]

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).[9] 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 faces.[10] 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 created an 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.[11]

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 wonder
Filled her heart as her eyes explored his face.
Homer Odyssey 23.94, trans. Robert Fagles
John Skoyles calls the 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 constant movement.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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 in 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.

Before the 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.[17] 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 wearer.[18] Yet if 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 mask as unchangeable, research carried out on traditional Japanese Noh masks would indicate otherwise.[19] 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.[20] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.

A famous demonstration of this type of facial visual processing is Richard Gregory’s 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 generator).[24] 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.[25] An example of three “ Mooney faces” 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 one.

For example, Brennan experimented with 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.[26] As Gombrich 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. Churchill was annoyed and pressed for time, and right before he took the shot Karsh snatched Churchill’s cigar out of his mouth. The resulting look of anger and annoyance that Karsh captured was perceived as encapsulating the fighting spirit and steely determination of the British at war.[27] 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 Movement

Rizzolatti’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 Rizzolatti this the basis of how humans process the emotions of others and are able to understand their individual predicaments and situations.[28] 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 imitation.[29]

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.” [30] 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 found is 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.[31] 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.[32] 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 presented.[33] 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, [34] 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, and 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 simulation.” [35]

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.[36] The hymn sung and danced by the women of the chorus of AristophanesThesmophoriasuzae ( 947–1000) 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 watch dance was to feel dance: spectatorship was also participation.
Come on and dance!
Light feet forming the circle
Join together, hand in hand
Everyone feel the rhythm of the dance
Quicker now, move those feet!
Let everyone’s eyes everywhere
Watch the formation of our circle dance.[37]
Aristophanes Thesmophoriasuzae 953-958, trans. A. Hollmann

Gaze Direction

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.[38] 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 direction.[39] 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 communication.[40]

Wiles commented that “the mask feels alive when the viewer has a sense of existing in the mask’s eyes.” [41] This is reflective of Merleau-Ponty’s famous statement “I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine.” [42] The 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.[43] 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 engagement.

Emotional Masks

The translation of the “Watchman scene” from the opening of AeschylusAgamemnon is reproduced below, and includes a chart of proposed emotional shifts using Ekman’s categories of “basic emotions.” [44]
Gods! Free me from these labors! [ANGER]
I’ve spent a whole year up here, watching.
Propped up on my elbows on the roof[CONTEMPT]
Of this house of Atreus, like some dog
How well I’ve come to know night’s congregation of stars,[PRIDE]
Those blazing monarchs of the sky, those that bring winter
And those that bring summer to us mortals.
I know just when they rise and when they set.[SATISFACTION]
So I watch, watch for the signal pyre,[CONTEMPT]
The burning flame that will tell us, Troy is taken![ANGER]
I take my orders from a woman who waits for news[CONTEMPT]
She’s a woman all right, one with the heart of a man.[DISGUST]
So, lie here, tossing and turning all night,[CONTEMPT]
This sopping bed unvisited by dreams
Fear sits by my side and keeps me awake,[FEAR]
Oh, I wish I could just close my eyes up tight and sleep.
So I sing to myself or hum a little tune,
A musical remedy in case I drop off.
But it always makes me miserable and I start to cry,[SADNESS]
For this house and how things used to be run, in the old days.
But if only tonight could come blessed freedom from these
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 Agamemnon
She must rise out of bed, quickly, wake the house
And welcome this signal fire with the hallowed cry.
If Troy has been taken as these flames
tell me then I’ll be the first
to sing and dance in celebration.[SENSORY PLEASURE]
This blazing torch has thrown triple sixes for me![HAPPINESS]
Just bring my king home and let me clasp[RELIEF]
His most welcome hand in mine. As for the rest,
I’m saying nothing, a great ox is standing on my tongue. [SHAME]
Now if this house could speak it would tell quite a story,
I’ve only got words for those in the know,
For the others I can’t remember anything.
Aeschylus Agamemnon 1–39, trans. P. Meineck
By applying Ekman’s 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.[45] 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?

In Memorabilia (3.10.1–8), Xenophon describes Socrates 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 asks Parrhasios 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 Socrates 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 visits Cleiton the sculptor and asks if the imitation of the emotions that affect the body delights the spectator. When Cleiton 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.

Xenophon’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.[46] This description 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 visits, Pistias the armourer ( Memorabilia 3.109-15).[47] 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 ‘face’, skh ma ‘form’, stasis ‘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’s Poetics (1449a35), referring to the disfigured features of the comic mask.[48] Xenophon’s Socrates 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 ma describes what might be called “the complete picture” of an entire body, and it has been applied to theatrical gestures and posture.[49] A masked performer must be acutely aware of their skh 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 iconography. Kinēsis (movement) 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 ‘stillness’, 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).[50] This centered 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.” [51] 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 (a term 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 Aristotle had in mind in the Poetics, where he cited opsis 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.” [52] According to Aristotle, opsis conveyed them all.

Konstan has detailed how many have sought to create a catalogue of basic human emotions, including Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Darwin.[53] Ekman continued 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).[54] Ekman has conducted experiments using his basic emotional states with the use of photographs, and posits that these are universally recognized across cultures. Konstan 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 in Memorabilia (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.[55] 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 ones.

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 Aristotle termed muthos ). 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 effect” to 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 of Kuleshov’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.[56] 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 ma of the body within this context, then the mind works to read and even place an expression onto the mask.

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 opsis in Poetics, 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 Athens, 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.


Benson, P. J., and D. I. Perrett. 1994. “Visual Processing of Facial Distinctiveness.” Perception 23:75–93.

Bierl, A. 2009. Ritual and Performativity: The Chorus in Old Comedy. Washington.

Blaesing, B., M. Puttke, and T. Schack, eds. The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills. London.

Bonnanno, M. G. 1997. “All the (Greek) World’s a Stage: Notes on (Not Just Dramatic) Greek Staging.” In Edmunds and Wallace 1997:112–123.

Brennan, S. E. 1985. “Caricature Generator: The Dynamic Exaggeration of Faces by Computer.” Leonardo 18:170–178.

Brown, S., M. J. Martinez, and L. M. Parsons. 2006. “The Neural Basis of Human Dance.” Cerebral Cortex 16:1157–1167.

Cairns, D. L. 1993. Aidōs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford.

Calame, C. 2005. Masks of Authority: Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Poetics. Ithaca, N.Y.

Calvo-Merino, B., D. E. Glaser, J. Grèzes, R. E. Passingham, and P. Haggard. 2005. “Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers.” Cerebral Cortex 15:1243–1249.

———. 2006. “Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation.” Current Biology 16:1905–1910.

Carr, L., M. Iacoboni, M. Dubeau, J. C. Mazziotta, and G. L. Lenzi. 2003. “Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 100:5497–5502.

Chambon, V., M. Vernet, F. Martin, J-Y. Baudouin, G. Tiberghien, and N. Franck. 2008. “Visual Pattern Recognition: What Makes Faces So Special?” In Leeland 2008:71–90.

Cole, J. O. 1998. About Face. Cambridge, Mass.

Csapo, E. 1997. “Riding the Phallus for Dionysus: Iconology, Ritual, and Gender-Role De/construction.” Phoenix 51:253–295.

di Pellegrino, G., L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and G. Rizzolatti. 1992. “Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study.” Experimental Brain Research 91:176–180.

Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley.

Easterling, P. E., ed. 1997. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge.

Edmunds, L., and R. W. Wallace, eds. 1997. Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece. Baltimore.

Ekman, P. 1999. “Basic Emotions.” In Power and Dalgleish 1999:45–60.

———. 2003. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York.

Ekman, P., and W. V. Friesen. 2003. Unmasking the Face. Cambridge, Mass.

Gallagher, S. 2005. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford.

Gazzaniga, M. S. 2008. Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1982. The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Ithaca, N.Y.

Gregory, R. L. 1997. Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. Princeton.

Gregory, R., J. Harris, P. Heard, and D. Rose, eds. 1995. The Artful Eye. Oxford.

Griffith, R. D. 1998. “Corporality in the Ancient Greek Theatre.” Phoenix 52:230–256.

Halberstadt, J., P. Winkielman, P. M. Niedenthal, and N. Dalle. 2009. “Emotional Conception: How Embodied Emotion Concepts Guide Perception and Facial Action.” Psychological Science 20:1254–1261.

Hall, E. 2006. The Theatrical Cast of Athens: Interactions Between Ancient Greek Drama and Society. Oxford.

Halliwell, S. 2002. The aesthetics of mimesis : ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton,

———. “The Function and Aesthetics of the Greek Tragic Mask.” In Slater and Zimmermann 1993:195–211.

———. 1998. Aristotle’s Poetics. Chicago.

Iacoboni, M. 2008. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others. New York.

Johansson, G. 1973. “Visual perception of biological motion and a model for its analysis.” Perception & Psychophysics 14:201–211.

Jola, C. 2010. “Research and Choreography: Merging Dance and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Blaesing et al. 2010: 203–204.

Konstan, D. 2006. The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. Toronto.

Korshak, Y. 1987. Frontal Faces in Attic Vase Painting of the Archaic Period. Chicago.

Leeland, K. B., ed. 2008. Face Recognition: New Research. New York.

Ley, G. 2007. The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus. Chicago.

Livingstone, M. 2002. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. New York.

Lyons, M. J., R. Campbell, A. Plante, M. Coleman, M. Kamachi, and S. Akamatsu. 2000. “The Noh mask effect: vertical viewpoint dependence of facial expression perception.” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 267:2239–2245.

Marshall, C. W. 1999. “Some Fifth-Century Masking Conventions.” Greece and Rome 46:188–202.

McCart, G. 2007. “Masks in Greek and Roman Theatre.” In McDonald and Walton 2007:247– 267.

McDonald, M., and M. Walton, eds. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. Cambridge.

Merleau-Ponty, M., T. Toadvine, and L. Lawlor. 2007. The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Evanston.

Minoshita, S., S. Satoh, N. Morita, A. Tagawa, and T. Kikuchi. 1999. “The Noh mask test for analysis of recognition of facial expression.” Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences 53:83–89.

Mobbs, D. 2006. “The Kuleshov Effect: the influence of contextual framing on emotional attributions.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1:95–106.

Mooney, C. M. 1957. “Age in the Development of Closure Ability in Children.” Canadian Journal of Psychology 11:219–226.

Nakanishi, T. 1983. Noh Masks. Osaka.

Oberman, L. M., J. A. Pineda, and V. S. Ramachandran. 2007. “The human mirror neuron system: A link between action observation and social skills.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2:62–66.

Oliva, A., A. Torralba, and P. G. Schyns. 2006. “Hybrid Images.” ACM Transactions on Graphics (Siggraph) 25:527–532.

Perrett, D., 1995. “When is a Face Not a Face?” In Gregory et al. 1995:95–124.

Perzynski, F. 2005. Japanese No Masks: With 300 Illustrations of Authentic Historical Examples. Mineola, N.Y.

Power, M. J., and T. Dalgleish, eds. 1999. Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Chichester.

Quiroga, R. Q., R. Mukamel, E. A. Isham, R. Malach, and I. Fried. 2008. “Human single-neuron responses at the threshold of conscious recognition.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 105:3599–3604.

Ramachandran, V. S. 2007. “Mirror Neurons.” Edge Foundation.

Rizzolatti, G., and L. Craighero. 2004. “The mirror-neuron system.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27:169–192.

Rizzolatti, G., C. Sinigaglia, and F. E. Anderson. 2008. Mirrors in the Brain: How our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience. Oxford.

Russell, R. 2009. “A Sex Difference in Facial Contrast and its Exaggeration by Cosmetics.” Perception 38:1211–1219.

Skoyles, J. R. 2008. “Why our Brains Cherish Humanity: Mirror Neurons and Colamus Humanitatem.” Avances en Psicología Latinoamericana 26:99–111.

Slater, N. W., and B. Zimmermann, eds. 1993. Intertextualitat in der griechisch-römischen Komödie. Stuttgart.

Snowden, R. J. 2006. Basic Vision: An Introduction to Visual Perception. Oxford.

Sugita, Y. 2009. “Innate face processing.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 19:39–44.

Taplin, O. 1977. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy. Oxford.

Tomasello, M., B. Hare, H. Lehmann, and J. Call. 2007. “Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: the cooperative eye hypothesis.” Journal of Human Evolution 52:314–320.

Wiles, D. 2007. Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy: From Ancient Festival to Modern Experimentation. Cambridge.


Note 2
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.

Note 3
Livingstone 2002:69–71.

Note 4
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.

Note 5
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).

Note 6
Oliva et al. 2006:527–532.

Note 7
Gregory 1997:44–47.

Note 8
Calame 2005:113–114, 119–123.

Note 9
See Marshall 1999:189–192.

Note 10
On the practice of whitening the faces of Greek women see Griffith 1998:247–248.

Note 11
Russell 2009:1211–1219.

Note 12
Skoyles 2008.

Note 13
Chambon et al. 2008:73–76.

Note 14
Sugita 2009:39–44.

Note 15
di Pellegrino et al. 1992:176–180; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004:169–192.

Note 16
A thoroughly readable guide to the major strides and experiments relating to mirror neurons is Iacoboni 2008.

Note 17
Carr et al. 2003:5497–5502.

Note 18
Halliwell 1993:211, Wiles 2007:205–236, Marshall 1999:189.

Note 19
Lyons et al. 2000:2239–2245.

Note 20
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.

Note 22
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.

Note 23
Quiroga et al. 2008:3599–3604.

Note 24
Gregory 1997:207–210. Gregory’s experiment in motion can be viewed at

Note 25
Mooney 1957.

Note 26
Brennan 1985, Benson and Perrett 1994.

Note 27
Gombrich 1982:112–118.

Note 28
Rizzolatti et al. 2008:242.

Note 29
amachandranR 2007; Oberman et al. 2007. See also Iacoboni 2008:38–46, 116–125 and Gazzaniga 2008:158–202.

Note 30
Carr et al. 2003:5502.

Note 31
Johansson 1973.

Note 32
Gallagher 2005:65–85.

Note 33
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 ).

Note 34
Jola 2010.

Note 35
Calvo-Merino et al. 2005. See also Calvo-Merino et al. 2006, Brown et al. 2006.

Note 36
Aristophanes Frogs 729; Plato Laws 7. 814e-817e. See also Ley 2007:150–166.

Note 37
On the ritual association of this hymn see Bierl 2009:83–125.

Note 38
Tomasello et al. 2007.

Note 39
Perrett 1995:117–122.

Note 40
Cole 1998:74–76.

Note 41
Wiles 2007:284.

Note 42
Merleau-Ponty et al. 2007:174.

Note 43
On the connections of the frontal gaze with
Dionysos see Csapo 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.

Note 44
Ekman 1999. Ekman’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 ( kata ) in Japanese Noh theatre.

Note 45
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 texts.

Note 46
See Halliwell 2002:122–124.

Note 47
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 Pistias applies to a good breastplate (Hall 2006:103).

Note 48
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 practice.

Note 49
Aristophanes Wasps 1485 (describing Philocleon’s dance); Aristotle Poetics 1455a29 (describing theatrical gestures); Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes 488 (the tremendous form of Hippodemon); Euripides Medea 1072 (the bodies of her children [she also refers to their lips, faces, and skin, but not in terms of changing expressions]). On skhẽma in relation to the mask see Halliwell 1993:207–209.

Note 50
Greek Chorus Workshop by
Michael Cacoyannis at the conference “Sophocles’ Electra in Word and Action,” held at Northwestern University, May 1993.

Note 51
Konstan 2006:271n41.

Note 52
Aristotle Poetics 1450a:8-15. On this aspect of opsis in Poetics see Calame 2005:106–107, Taplin 1977:477–479, Halliwell 1998:337–343, Bonanno 1997:121–123.

Note 53
Konstan 2006:12–14.

Note 54
Ekman 1999, Ekman 2003, and Ekman and Friesen 2003.

Note 55
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.

Note 56
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.

Figure 1: Attic red-figure column krater, 500–490 BCE (Basel BS 415), showing six men dancing before an altar with a bearded figure.

Figure 2: Boy with mask. Attic red-figure fragment of an oenochoe, 470–460 BCE (Athens Agora Museum P11810).

Figure 3: Boy with mask and masked maenad. Attic red-figure krater from Spina, c. 450 BCE (Museo Archeologico Ferrara, Valle Pega 173c).

Figure 4: Red-figure chous or oinochoe fragment, c. 430 BCE (American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations, P. 32870).

Figure 5: Chorus member putting on boot with mask on floor with chorus member masked as maenad. Attic red-figure pelike from Cervetri by the Phiale Painter, c. 440–435 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 98.883).

Figure 6: Two masked “maenads,” an aulos player, and a seated boy. Fragment of an Attic red-figured column krater from Olbia, 430–420 BCE (Kiev, Museum of the Academy of Sciences).

Figure 7: Chorus and Dionysos. Marble relief from Piraeus, c. 400 BCE (Athens National Archaeological Museum 1500).

Figure 8: Head of a young man gazing at a mask. Salamis Stele, c. 400 BCE (Piraeus Museum).

Figure 9: Aulos player and performers holding masks wearing theatrical costumes. Fragments of an Attic red-figure krater found at Taras, attributed to the school of the Pronomos Painter (Martin Von Wagner Museum, Würzburg H4781).

Figure 10: The “Pronomos vase.” Theatrical cast dressed as satyrs, with actors around an aulos player with Dionysos and Ariadne. Attic red-figured volute krater by the Pronomos Painter, c. 400 BCE (Naples, NM 81673).

Figure 10.1: Pronomos vase. Drawing by E. Maylon.

Figure 10.2: Detail of the Pronomos vase showing the Herakles and Papposilenos performers, faces of two chorus members, and a female mask.

Figure 10.3: Detail from the “Pronomos vase.” Mask of Herakles.

Figure 10.4: Detail from the “Pronomos vase,” showing the inside of a satyr mask.

Figure 10.5a: Detail from the “Pronomos vase”: the Herakles mask (left)

Figure 10.5b: Detail from the “Pronomos vase”: the Herakles actor (right).

Figure 11: Dionysos with masks. Fragments of an Athenian volute krater, c. 400 (Archaeological Museum of Samothrace 65.1041).

Figure 12: Actors with masks. Attic bell-krater from Sprina, c. 400 BCE (Ferrara, Museo Nazionale di Spina T 161C).

Figure 13: Three satyr actors with masks. Apulian bell-krater by the Tarporley Painter, c. 400 BCE (University of Sydney 47.05).

Figure 14: Detail of an Attic red-figure vase fragment from Ampurias, showing a Dionysian celebration (Barcelona 33). A mask is held in the raised hand of a figure on the right (drawing by Bacher).

Figure 15: La Gioconda (“Mona Lisa”) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503–1504. Oil on wood. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Figure 17: “Dr. Angry and Mr. Calm,” created by Aude Oliva and Phillipe G. Schyns.

Figure 18: Gender illusion by Richard Russell. The same face appears female (left) when the eyes and mouth are in higher contrast to the face.

Figure 19: Full Magojiro Noh mask at different angles of inclination. Note the marked difference in expression between the faces on the far left and the far right.

Figure 19.1. Three views of the same Noh mask under natural lighting. Only the tilt of the mask has been changed. Note the softening of the facial features and the curve of the mask.

Figure 19.2. Three views of a human face that demonstrate that it does not suggest different emotional states when viewed from a variety of angles, as the Noh mask does.

Figure 20: Hollow mask. In Gregory’s experiment, as the mask rotates the inside appears to be a normal three-dimensional face rather than a concave hollow.

Figure 21: Mooney faces.