Brief History of the Sock and Buskin

A mask is not the first thing that comes to mind of a modern person looking to accessorize. Most masks we wear serve a practical purpose – to protect our health or our identity. You’ll notice that most moderns masks are also helmets. Halloween may be a time when exceptions are made and masks are worn for fun. But beyond that, masks that are worn frivolously for the sake of changing appearance are very rare and can be seen at the odd theme party or a theatrical performance. Theater is one of the main ways masks have joined the ranks of prominent items of culture in the west. The so-called sock and buskin are masks of tragedy and comedy placed next to each other – a symbol that has become so closely associated with theater that it has become a universal symbol to identify a theater on the map when labeling it with words is not feasible.

When we think of theater masks, we likely think of ancient Greece where theatrical performances were almost inconceivable without the mask. The sock and buskin represent joy and sorrow – the two emotions and potent phenomenon of life that are usually involved in a narrative arc of a play. Greek theater masks were designed to represent emotions rather than closely representing a human face in an attempt to give a specific appearance to a character. Some masks were made more masculine, while others feminine to indicate the gender of the character, and conveniently hide the gender and age of the actor. The need for that is understandable, as many plays involved female characters, but the ancient Greek cast was almost invariably male-only. Predominantly, however, the masks’ purpose was to communicate the emotion of the character as clearly as possible to the audience of the rather large amphitheater. The masks also served the purpose of amplifying the actors’ voices. The large mouths of these masks were cleverly shaped in a way that helped the actors speak freely and project their voices all the way to the back of the amphitheater. It is clear, therefore, that masks were not just the artistic choice of the director – they were essential theater equipment for the ancient Greeks.

Naturally, the masks were not merely practical and have a connection to Greek mythology. The two masks are directly connected to the two muses: Melpomene – the muse of tragedy, and Thalia – the muse of comedy. Thalia is the daughter of Zeus depicted holding the mask and a trumpet. Melpomene is also the daughter of Zeus, but one which was cursed by Hera. Melpomene was initially the muse of singing, and only after the curse became the muse of death, depicted as holding a knife.

As the masks suggest, the two genres of play that dominated ancient Greek theater were tragedy and comedy. For the Greeks, comedies were considered to be a far more difficult play to perform than a tragedy and were the purview of the most skilled actors.

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