Thespis fl. 6th century b.c.-
Greek poet and actor.
Thespis is traditionally credited with inventing the genre of tragedy and with being the first actor; before him drama was performed only by the chorus, without the use of actors or sets. Aristotle maintained that Thespis also originated the use of the prologue and the set speech. Thespis is believed responsible for expanding the use of the mask in drama—a hallmark feature of the ancient Greek theater—employing a variety of mask-making materials including white lead and linen. None of his plays are extant and some scholars have even ventured so far as to claim that no such person as Thespis actually existed, except in legend.
Virtually no reliable information exists regarding the life of Thespis. He was most likely born near Athens, in the district of Icario, in Attica. Tradition has it that Thespis, in his plays, had occasion to impersonate legendary or historical figures. Plutarch, in his Life of Solon, relates that Solon once saw Thespis acting. After the performance, he asked Thespis “if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before so many people. When Thespis said there was nothing wrong in saying and doing such things in entertainment, 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.’” The scholar Arthur Pickard-Cambridge believes that Solon's anger was caused by Thespis's prologue and speech innovations. There are convincing contemporary reports that Thespis won first prize in a dramatic competition, the first recognizing tragedy, in about 534 b.c. Horace reports that Thespis toured local towns with his chorus standing on a cart or wagon, performing his plays at various festivals in Attica.
Although the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, cites several titles of Thespis's plays, scholars consider them highly suspect—partly because it is known that at least one other writer, the fourth-century b.c. philosopher Heracleides Ponticus published tragedies under Thespis's name to aid in their acceptance, and partly because the Suda is notorious for its anachronisms and reliance on uncertain sources. Although some researchers have made claims in modern times that four extant fragments, two of which are only one line long, are the works of Thespis, they are not widely regarded as authentic. Scholars generally believe that Thespis's preferred meter was the iambic trimeter and that his language may have been sometimes coarse and vulgar.
With not even fragments of his work extant, Thespis is most often relegated to a passing mention in the broader study of the origins of Greek theater. Some critics such as James H. Butler and Francisco R. Adrados insist there is not enough evidence to credit Thespis with inventing tragedy, and that there is barely enough evidence to suggest that he even existed. Others, including Thomas Wood Stevens and Gerald F. Else, accept Thespis as the originator of tragedy and as the first actor. While some scholars contend that Thespis may be an assumed name and that someone else may have created the tragedy, others point out that nothing of substance changes whether or not Thespis is accepted as being the real name of the person in question. Some critics reject outright Horace's claim that Thespis worked from a wagon, claiming that he was confused and citing lack of supporting evidence. While acknowledging the lack of reliable evidence, Thespis's defenders insist that he was a real person as well as a legend.
SOURCE: Stevens, Thomas Wood. “The Invention of Tragedy.” In The Theatre: From Athens to Broadway, pp. 8-15. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1932.
[In the following excerpt, Stevens explores how Thespis, in adding an actor to the already established dithyramb form, in effect invented tragedy.]
It is the scholarly fashion to decry Aristotle; he so seldom quotes his authorities. But he alone of the men near the first crest attempts to tell about it systematically. The height was reached in the fifth century before Christ. He wrote in the fourth. Already the evidence was difficult to gather. Tragedy arose among the leaders of the dithyramb, he tells us; this might convey everything, if we knew more about the dithyramb.
As a form, it is first mentioned in the seventh century. In the sixth, it had ceased to be a drunken improvisation, had engaged its poets, composers, creative dancers, and had become a definite ceremonial. Arion added to it passages of speech; Pindar wrote:
Whence did appear the Graces of Dionysus, With the Bull-driving Dithyramb.
And again, for the actual use of the dancers:
Look upon the dance, Olympians Send us the grace of victory, ye gods who come to the heart of our city, Where many feet are treading and incense steams; In sacred Athens come to the holy center-stone.
Come hither to the god with ivy...
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SOURCE: Else, Gerald F. “Thespis: The Creation of Tragôidia.” In The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy, pp. 51-77. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Else discusses the significance of Thespis's name, credits him with being the originator of a new genre, explains his choice of meter, comments on how he was influenced by Solon and Homer, and explores the techniques he used to gain the sympathy of the common man.]
Unlike Solon and Pisistratus, Thespis can never be more than a name to us. The earliest extant mention of him—if it is indeed he—is in Aristophanes' Wasps in 421 b.c.1 There is no proof or even likelihood that copies of his plays still existed in Aristophanes' time, much less in the fourth century, and therefore no likelihood that Aristotle or his pupils could have used them as sources.2 The various other remarks about him from antiquity (carefully collected and discussed by Pickard-Cambridge in Dithyramb Tragedy and Comedy, pp. 97-121) give us very little solid evidence, and most of that little goes back to Aristotle but no farther.
There is in the first place a question about his name. ‘Thespis’ looks like one of the “short names” which were popular in Attica: for example Telon (for Telemachus), Admon (for Admetus), Parmis (for Parmenon), Zeuxis (for Zeuxippus).3...
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SOURCE: Adrados, Francisco R. “From Agricultural Festival to Theatre.” In Festival, Comedy and Tragedy: The Greek Origins of Theatre, pp. 319-68. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in Spanish in 1972, Adrados contends that tragedy developed from agricultural rituals and festivals and that Thespis, if he ever existed, was more of a refiner than an inventor of the genre.]
1. FESTIVAL AND LYRIC. UNITY AND DIFFERENTIATION OF LYRIC. THESPIS
Greek Lyric as a whole was influenced by Epic, a profane genre from a remote epoch, though not without traces, which will not concern me here, of a religious origin. But Lyric directly originated from those elements of ritual in which dance, words, and music played a part. In several of its genres the dance was lost, and so too, to a large extent, was the mimesis which at first often accompanied it. A greater and greater emphasis was given, especially in genres like Elegy and Iambic Poetry, to words at the expense of music. The lyric genres arose from hymns and threnoi and fragments of verse dialogue of different kinds, from exhortation to insult and sarcasm. It arose in Agricultural Festival, and continued in celebrations derived from that, like the sporting celebrations and the symposium.
It is not possible to go into the details of...
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Butler, James H. “Tragedies.” In The Theatre and Drama of Greece and Rome, pp. 5-12. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1972.
Summarizes what is known of Thespis and maintains that it is not enough to establish with certainty his role in the birth of tragedy.
Flickinger, Roy C. Introduction to The Greek Theater and Its Drama, pp. 1-118. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1922.
Includes a brief account of Thespis's contribution to drama and explains why Solon considered his acting to be lying.
Mantzius, Karl. “The Drama.” In A History of Theatrical Art in Ancient and Modern Times, pp. 94-110. New York: Peter Smith, 1937.
Dismisses the story of Thespis traveling on his cart around Greece as a myth but guardedly credits him for developing tragedy and expanding the use of masks.
Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur. “Thespis.” In Dithyramb Tragedy and Comedy, pp. 69-89. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Collects and discusses twenty-three passages that refer to Thespis, some dating back to the fifth century b.c.
Walton, J. Michael. “Drama before Aeschylus.” In Greek Theatre Practice, pp. 33-58. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Background account that also traces the...
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