Thespis Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


The name “Thespis” (THEHS-puhs) comes from a word that means “divinely speaking” or from a similar word that means “divinely singing.” According to one tradition, Thespis’s home was Icarios, or Icaria, in northern Attica, near Marathon. Yet an extant ancient source refers to him simply as “Athenian.” He is credited with inventing the first actor, a character separate from the chorus performing at the festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Perhaps his first dramatic efforts were rather crude representations of the doings of satyrs, lustful, mischievous goat-men. The etymology of the word “tragedy” can be traced to a word meaning “song of goats.”

According to tradition, the first official prize for Athenian drama was presented in 534 b.c.e. to Thespis. Some scholars argue for a later date, 501 b.c.e. At least, Thespis can be said to have lived probably from before the earlier date until after the later. It is believed that Thespis combined in his own person the roles of writer, director, composer, choreographer, and lead actor. As the only one of his players to impersonate individual characters, Thespis would play one part after another in the same story, frequently changing his mask and disguise.


Thespis, through his creation of the first actor, changed the Dionysia festival from a pageant of song and dance into drama. Actors, “thespians,” take his name to pay...

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