The two masks are associated with ancient greek drama with the smiling and frowning faces. They are the Comedy and Tragedy masks that were worn in ancient Greece during the golden age, around 500 – 300 BC, and are paired together to show the two extremes of the human psyche.
The Comedy mask is known as Thalia, who in Greek mythology is the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry, portrayed as a happy, cheerful young woman crowned with ivy.
The Tragedy mask is known as Melpomene, who is the Muse of Tragedy. Melpomene is depicted with the tragedy mask in one hand, and a knife or a club in the other.
The masks and costumes were highly stylized and exaggerated making the characters easy to identify even from a great distance. The actors with comedic roles wore thin soled shoes, while tragic actors were elevated on stage wearing thick, raised platform shoes, called ‘cothurni’. All the actors were male, and they all played multiple roles, so a mask was used to show the change in character or mood. Masks challenged the actors to portray their characters’ feelings in more subtle ways, with voice and body language, since they couldn’t use facial expressions.
The two masks are now used as the symbol for theater, in memory of its origins in ancient Greece.