Thespis Additional Biography

Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek actor and playwright{$I[g]Greece;Thespis} Though perhaps more legendary than historical, as none of his plays has survived, Thespis is credited with introducing the first actor into the Dionysian festival of song and dance. Thus, he is the traditional originator of Greek drama.

Early Life

In the sixth century b.c.e. or earlier, the Greeks established an annual festival to honor the god Dionysus. This “god of many names,” as the great dramatist Sophocles would later call him, was also known as Bacchus and Iacchos. He was associated with wine and other bounty and fecundity. His festival, the City Dionysia, was celebrated in March and featured a chorus of fifty singers and dancers whose performance was a part of the religious rites. Eventually, the cosmopolitan City Dionysia was succeeded by a second, domestic festival called the Lenaea (“wine press”) and held in January.

A performance of song and dance is not a drama, and it was Thespis (THES-puhs), an Athenian of whom little is known historically, who is said to have converted the former into the latter. 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.” If “Thespis” is the name of a real person, he may have been born to a father who was an epic singer or honored with a nickname later in life, for the name comes from a word that means “divinely speaking” or from a similar word that means “divinely singing.”

The first evolution of the chorus produced a leader who, presumably, would take occasional solo turns during the performance. Until a performer existed apart from the chorus to ask its members questions, to be questioned by them, and perhaps to challenge assertions made in their lyrics, however, no absolute dramatic form was possible. Thespis is not known to history until he makes an appearance to introduce such a performer, the first actor.

Scholars do not agree on the date of Thespis’s achievement. The traditional date for the appearance of tragedy as a part of the City Dionysia, or Great Dionysia, is 534 b.c.e., but late in the twentieth century some scholars argued for a later date, 501 b.c.e. Whatever the correct date, tragedies appear to have been acted as a part of the festival every year thereafter. No comedy is mentioned as having been performed at the City Dionysia until 486 b.c.e. The dramas at the Lenaea were solely comic in 442 b.c.e., and although tragedy was added in 432 b.c.e., comedy continued to dominate. None of these developments would have been possible without Thespis’s innovation.

Life’s Work

Thespis’s career as actor-playwright is inextricably connected with the awarding of dramatic prizes at the Dionysian festivals. Some classical scholars have speculated that the prize originally was a goat, a not insignificant award in ancient Greece. Eventually, the winning dramatist received a monetary prize that was donated by a prominent Athenian. Each donor was chosen by the city government before the competition began.

According to tradition, the first official presentation of drama at Athens occurred in 534 b.c.e. The prize was won by Thespis. It is believed that at least as late as the time of Aeschylus, the next great Athenian playwright, who died in 456 b.c.e., the dramatist combined in his own person the roles of writer, director, composer, choreographer, and lead actor. Thus, when Thespis invented the first actor, it may be assumed that he played the role himself. His revolutionary contribution was the creation of a character who established a dialogue with the chorus. The character did not merely inquire of the chorus what happened next. Thespis impersonated someone interacting with the chorus, contributing to the unfolding plot. He was both the first dramatist and the first actor. Thus, it is appropriate that actors are still called “thespians” in his honor.

The little that is known of Thespis is filtered through the accounts of others, accounts that may themselves be apocryphal. For example, Solon, the famed Athenian lawgiver, supposedly reproached Thespis after witnessing his first play. He felt that it was inappropriate for the playwright to tell the assembly lies. His belief that these lies might actually be believed by the audience is a testament to the seriousness and the persuasiveness of the artifice. Thespis responded that it was appropriate in a play to persuade people that imaginary things are true. Solon, according to the story, was troubled by the idea that such deception might spread into the practice of politics. The problem with this amusing anecdote is that a commonly accepted date of death for Solon is c. 559 b.c.e., fully a quarter of a century before one of the proposed dates for Thespis’s first play. If the story is true, Thespis must have exhibited in Athens before 560 b.c.e., as other sources suggest.

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