Thespis Wins Best Actor Award, 534 BC

by on September 8th, 2010
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If you’re familiar with the word thespian, you probably can guess that Thespis was the first known Greek actor. In fact, according to Aristotle, he essentially invented the art of acting. Before Thespis, dramatic presentations took the form of dithyrambs, a type of hymn that was sung and danced by a chorus. There might be a solo speaker, but he didn’t portray a particular individual in the presentation; he only spoke as himself. There were no actors in dithyrambs.

Our information about ancient Greek theater comes from Greek writers who were writing a time that came considerably afterwards. Our most reliable source is Aristotle, who tells us that Thespis was a singer of dithyrambs, and was the first one to introduce a new style in which performers uttered the words of the character in the story being presented. They used masks to differentiate the different characters.

Of course, Aristotle was writing about Thespis’s performance about 200 years after the event, so we should probably take his words with a grain of salt. Aristotle was passing on what he had learned, so we can probably take it for granted that Thespis’s contributions were more or less common knowledge. It appears that Thespis also wrote some of the dramas he presented, but that may or may not be the case. It is probable that other writers put his name to their works in an attempt to utilize his fame. In fact, it’s possible that “Thespis” was a stage name to begin with.

We do know that an annual festival was held in Athens in honor of Dionysius. The celebration took place in two parts, held at different times of the year. November (or what we now call November, anyway) was the time for the City Dionysia. At the City Dionysia, competitions were held for the best tragedy. Thespis won it in 534 BC, in the first documented competition The honor went all to the actor; the identity of writers of tragedies was seldom even known.

Thespis capitalized on his success by starting his own touring company, another first for the world of entertainment. He had a cart and horse, which he loaded up with costumes, masks, and props, and made his way through various cities performing at their festivals.

It’s believed that Thespis was also responsible for widening the use of masks in Greek drama, and for experimenting with new techniques of mask-making. He is believed to be the first to use white lead and linen in his masks.

Plutarch, writing in the first century AD, also mentions Thespis. In his Life of Solon, an Athenian statesman and poet, he says that Solon was critical of the moral climate that Thespis’s productions were creating. He once met Thespis after a performance, according to Plutarch, and asked him if he was ashamed to tell such lies to such a large audience. Thespis said there was nothing wrong with what he was doing; it was merely entertainment. In reply, “Solon hit the ground with his stick and said: ‘If we are so pleased with this sort of entertainment we shall soon find it in public affairs also.’” Some things never change.

Sources: “Thespis”, Wikipedia; “Dithyramb”, Wikipedia; “Theater of Ancient Greece”, Wikipedia; “Thespis”, In2Greece website; “Thespis, 6th century BC”, eNotes; “History of Greek Theater”, About.com.


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