“Prosopon” is the Ancient Greek term for "mask". It was an important element used to worship Dionysus in Athens, used in celebrations and ceremonial rites. A few paintings on vases dating from the 5th century BC show such masks. No physical evidence is available nowadays, because they were made from materials of organic origin.

Moreover, the masks were not considered objects of permanent use and were left on the altar of Dionysus after the performance. Members of the ancient chorus also wore masks. They took part in the action and made commentaries on each event they participated in. A group of chorus members, twelve or fifteen of them, all wore the same mask, being considered as one character.

Mask Details

According to illustrations from the 5th century BC, the masks resembled helmets. They were covering the entire head and face, with two holes for the eyes, a small aperture for the character’s mouth, and an integrated wig. It is curious that the paintings on the vases never show actors in performance wearing masks, but they show masks handled by the actors either before or after the performance.

The mask makers had important roles that encompassed both duties and tasks. The masks were made of light, organic materials, such as leather, wood, stiffened linen or cork, while the wig was made of animal or even human hair. The aperture for the mouth was relatively small, so that the mouth may not be seen during the performance.

The Functions of the Ancient Masks

The masks used in the ancient Greek theater performances played several roles:

  •         They were able to create dread in the members of the audience, and large scale panic due to their exaggerated facial expressions and features.
  •      They were made to hide the actor’s identity, so that he could appear in different roles without being associated with one specific character. 
  •      The variations in their design gave the audience the possibility to identify the age, sex, and social status of the character. They also made it possible for the audience to observe changes in the particular appearance of a character, such as Oedipus after becoming blind.
  •         The masks worn by the chorus members created a sense of uniformity and unity, because the chorus was in fact a multi-voiced persons.
  •      Only two or three actors could be on the stage simultaneously, and their masks allowed quick transitions between the characters they were embodying. Although women actors were not allowed, the masks enabled male actors to play female characters.

Any theater has a more or less defined structure that can be split in two main parts: the stage and the audience. Depending on the particular type of theater, these elements may be different, but their role is always the same.

On and Off Stage

The acting space is the most important area and is generally called the “stage”. This area may be a permanent part of the theater’s structure, like in arena theaters, amphitheaters and proscenium theaters, or undefined, like in blackbox theaters, so that a theater may adapt to a certain production.

In addition to the acting space, offstage spaces may also exist. In proscenium theaters, they include the wings on either side of the stage, and are called “offstage” or “backstage”. Things like scenery, props and sets may be stored there, while actors who are about to get on the stage wait for their turn. In blackbox theaters, spaces outside the theater may exist for such uses.

Theaters also incorporate additional spaces intended for both the performers and the auxiliary personnel. Sound and lighting personnel may run their instruments and view the show from a booth that faces the stage. Dressing rooms, spaces for constructing props, sets and costumes and storage space are also a part of the structure.

Seating and Audience

A space for the audience is mandatory for any theater. The audience is generally separated from the actors be a proscenium arch. This is a permanent feature of the theater’s structure in amphitheaters and proscenium theaters. This area is called “auditorium” or “house”. In blackbox theaters, this area will also be defined by the production.

All or only some of the following are included in the seating area:

  •           Arena or stalls – This is the lower flat area that is usually located at the same level or below the stage. A particular subset of the arena is usually called “parterre”
  •          Balconies or galleries – These are raised seating platforms at the rear of the auditorium. Larger theaters have multiple areas stacked vertically, the first of them being called the “grand circle” or “dress circle”. The second level is the “loge”.
  •          Boxes – Usually placed immediately to the front, side, and above the stage level, they are separate rooms with open viewing areas where five or fewer people can seat. These are the most prestigious seats of the house, often dedicated to dignitaries.

The “Theater of the Absurd” is a term launched by Martin Esslin, a Hungarian-born English theater critic, meant to describe particular plays that were written in the 1950s and later, in the same tradition. These plays were illustrating a philosophy founded by the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, saying that life had no inherent meaning. All the plays included in this artistic movement share a number of characteristics:

  •       Nonsense dialogue
  •          Impossible or non-realistic plots
  •         Meaningless or repetitive action

The Most Important Events in the History of the Theater of the Absurd

Some theatrical styles may be considered precursors to this artistic movement. It is the case of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “The Winter’s Tale”, considered to have strongly influenced the absurdist writing. They sacrifice logic and realism to bring a desired ending.

The broad comedy style, like in Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s works, has also influenced the absurdist movement. Antoinin Artaud, a surrealist philosopher, stated that it was not the literature theater produced that was very important, but its visceral effect on the audience.

The Theater of the Absurd artistic movement began in Paris, as experimental theater. This is why, even after spreading to other countries, most of the absurdist plays were still written in French. Jean Genet with “The Maids” in 1947, Eugène Ionesco with his “The Bald Soprano” in 1950, and Samuel Beckett in “Waiting for Godot” in 1953 are the best known authors of the movement.

As a matter of fact, even Esslin, in 1961, classified four authors as the leaders of this movement: Arthur Adamov, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Other playwrights were later added to the group: Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Jean Tardieu.

What Is the Theater of the Absurd All about?

It is often considered as a reaction to realism in the theater. Absurdists try to provide an unreal experience rather than to stick to the concept of real life. Time and settings, in absurdist plays, are generally ambiguous or not defined at all. Characters are often archetypal or metaphorical instead of trying to mimic real people.

This movement’s guiding principle is to observe the world without any presumption of purpose. As Esslin suggests, in the absence of a guiding principle or fixed belief, all the characters’ actions are useless and absurd. As a consequence, anything that could happen is acceptable.