Ancient Greek theater masks were large and exaggerated, so audience members far away from the performers could interpret the mood of the character. Because masks were made of fragile material such as linen and cork, no actual masks survive. Only paintings, mosaics, and sculptures of ancient Greek theater masks survive. This sculpture of an ancient Greek theater mask dates from the Hellenistic period in Greece, between 300 and 31 BCE.

Photograph by Giovanni Dall'Orto, courtesy Wikimedia. The copyright holder of this file allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed.

Download this file

  • Select Text Level:

    On November 23, 534 BCE, legend holds that the performer known as Thespis of Icaria (now Dionysos, Greece) recited lines as someone other than himself—becoming the world’s first actor
    Before this time, theater performances were either storytelling or “choral” productions. Storytellers not only told stories of Greek gods and heroes, they also danced and sang. A Greek chorus was a group of between 12 and 50 performers who spoke in unison and often wore masks. Thespis was allegedly performing as part of a chorus when he stepped forward. He spoke lines written for the chorus by himself, in character as the Greek god Dionysus.
    Today, all actors are called “thespians” in his honor.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    actor Noun

    person who performs a part in a play, broadcast, or other performance.

    alleged Adjective

    supposed or presumed.

    Dionysus Noun

    Greek god of wine and fertility.

    god Noun

    one of many spiritual deities or supreme beings.

    Greek chorus Noun

    group of performers who recited and danced in unison, commenting on the main action of a play.

    hero Noun

    person who acts in an exemplary way and is regarded as a model.

    legend Noun

    traditional or mythical story.

    line Noun

    spoken words in a performance.

    memorize Verb

    to learn by heart or commit to memory.

    play Noun

    performance of a work written for the stage.

    recite Verb

    to repeat words in a formal setting, such as a prayer or lines from a play.

    theater Noun

    building or outdoor space for hosting performances.

    thespian Noun

    actor or actress.

    unison Noun

    at the same time or in harmony.