The twin masks of comedy and tragedy are used to represent the creative arts: particularly theater, film, and television. They have their roots in Greek theater, and represented a reflection of ancient Greek mythological tropes. Their endurance across the centuries reflects the power of drama and the twin themes of joy and despair which bracket the human condition. Though they can appear separately and indeed evolved as representations of different dramatic art forms, their appearance together holds far more symbolic importance.
Myths and Duality
Masks were originally thought to be the purveyance of Dionysus, Greek god of wine. His sphere of influence lent him a sense of duality: both the joy of drunken revelry and the darker emotions which wine can evoke. The specific comedy and tragedy masks were also associated with the Muses: nine goddesses who held sway over creative expression. The muse of tragedy, Melpomene, wore the sad mask, and the muse of comedy, Thalia, wore the happy mask.
It is believed that early Greek theater evolved out of festivals to Dionysus. The masks were frequently used during these festivals and subsequently incorporated into later theater. From a symbolic perspective, the masks freed their wearers from conformity and hidden desires, allowing people to express their true selves without fear. By donning them, the people honored Dionysus and the truths his influence revealed.
Purpose of Masks
From a more practical perspective, the masks helped audience members identify the emotions onstage. The mouths were enlarged in order to allow the actors to speak more easily, and the facial expressions were exaggerated so that those in the cheap seats could still understand what was going on.
Early comedy and tragedy masks were made from lightweight materials such as wood or pottery. They were intended to cover the entire face, with the help of a wig which would completely hide the actors' head. Women did not appear in Greek theater, so men would portray the women's parts using masks.
The twin genres represented by the masks are both intended to serve as a form of catharsis. Comedy acts to deflate our preconceived notions and remind us how foolish we truly are, while tragedy permits us to grapple with dark realities such as death and failure in a safe context. Though tragedy is today considered the more "artistic" genre, the Greeks actually revered comedy more highly. The symbolic linking of the two with the masks emphasizes both their common roots as drama and the complex depth of human experience.