mask, cover or partial cover for the face or head used as a disguise or protection. Masks have been worn from time immemorial throughout the world. They are used by primitive peoples chiefly to impersonate supernatural beings or animals in religious and magical ceremonies. Particularly notable are the masks of W and central Africa; the wooden masks of the Native Americans of NW North America, which sometimes represented totemic animals; the False Face Society of the Iroquois, whose masked dancers were thought to ward off evil spirits; and the gold and turquoise-mosaic masks of Aztec warriors and priests. Masks have always been especially important in drama, and their use has been continued into modern times. They are an integral part of Japanese drama, especially of the No plays, and of Chinese temple dramas (see Asian drama). The many masks used in ancient Greek drama represented the character being portrayed by the actor and were constructed to portray a fixed emotion such as grief or rage. Greek masks had metallic mouthpieces that enhanced the resonance of an actor's voice. The use of masks was preserved in the Roman theater, passed into the early Italian theater, and was a characteristic device of the commedia dell'arte. The mask was used in the miracle dramas of the Middle Ages and appeared in the 20th cent. in the works of the German expressionist playwrights and in Eugene O'Neill's plays The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed. The making of death masks (reproduction of the face of a dead person) is an ancient practice. Roman death masks were made of wax, and Egyptian death masks of thin gold plate. The modern method first applies oil or grease to the face and next a coat of plaster of paris, which is permitted to harden and is then removed. This procedure results in a mold that is used to cast the mask. Although a similar process was used for life masks, it often proved dangerous to the sitter and unsatisfactory in results. Protective masks include those used by medieval horsemen, gas masks, surgeon's masks, and masks used in certain athletic events. See African art; North American Native art; masque.
See R. Sieber, Masks as Agents of Social Control (1962); J. Gregor, Masks of the World (1937, repr. 1968); A. Lommel, Masks (tr. 1972), W. Sorrell, The Other Face (1974).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.