As long as theater has existed, actors have used stage makeup. From ancient Greece to the theater of the Orient to present-day Broadway, theatrical makeup has been an integral part of any play. The use and application of makeup for the theater has evolved over thousands of years.

Ancient Greece

The majority of plays in Greek theater were performed by masked actors, and we have little evidence of makeup playing a central role in the actor's appearance. The Greek masks acted as a sort of megaphone, as their shape created a natural means of vocal amplification. More importantly, in Greek theater, an actor might play several parts. Rather than cumbersome makeup changes, an actor could simply change masks to indicate that he was playing a new character. There is some evidence, however, to support that early Greek plays may have featured actors who wore lead-based white makeup with red accents. This toxic makeup would be popular for centuries, both onstage and off.

Peking Opera

Peking Opera's popularity peaked in during the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911. Actors originally wore masks, but later opted for makeup in order to show facial expression. Featuring brightly colored swirling designs of black, red, blue and white, Peking Opera performers studied facial characteristics to develop a standard for creating facial makeup that could instantly tell you everything you needed to know about the character.

Japanese Kabuki Theatre

Kabuki makeup is also highly colorful and stylized. The actor wore a silk cap, and then added a wig appropriate to his role. A white oil-based foundation is applied as a base, and then covered with a white matte makeup. In kabuki, it is the eyebrows and mouth that are the most stylized. Most makeup is white, red or black. As in Peking Opera, the makeup style reveals a great deal about the character.

Elizabethan Theatre

The theatrical makeup of Shakespeare's day was made from whatever could be found. Lead paint was popular, both as makeup of choice for Queen Elizabeth as well as on the stage. Facial features were accented by chalk powder or soot. Corks were burned, and used to apply full dark lines upon the face to highlight facial features or to give the look of a soldier in battle. False beards became popular during this period as well. Most theaters were open, and so all plays were lit with natural light.

Restoration/Enlightenment-era Theatre

Makeup of this era was characterized by a polished, feminine look on both men and women. White lead face paint provided the base for both men and women. Hair was covered with elaborate powdered wigs, which women often adorned with seeds pearls, jewels or feathers. Beauty marks were drawn in on both men and women. Lip color and blush were used on both sexes, and would have been made (as it had been for centuries) from natural ingredients such as insect bodies, berries and animal fat. Plays were often performed in theaters lit only by candles and gas light, so the makeup had to be larger than life to be seen clearly.

Ibsen and the Naturalist movement

Ibsen's plays, and all plays of the Naturalist movement, were characterized by a desire to show realistic situations and characters. The overdone makeup of the past was replaced simple makeup in a naturalistic style, or else no makeup at all. Greasepaint evolved roughly around this time. Greasepaint was made from lard and pigments, and was used in turn of the century theater as well as in early movies.

Modern Theatre and Current Trends

The so-called pancake makeup we recognize today was developed in 1914 by Max Factor. Popular stage makeup brands today include Ben Nye and Mehron. Today's makeup is safe and does not include toxic lead. Theatrical makeup today can be used for a natural look, or for a detailed creative look, as for the musical "Cats." With the advent of liquid latex, great prosthetics can be created for any role.

About the Author

Tucker Cummings

Tucker Cummings is a freelance writer based in New England. She holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of New Hampshire and is a member of the Association of Professional Business Writers. Cummings is also a food writer and curates the blog, Brave New Breakfast.