Thespis Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.


Thomas Wood Stevens (essay date 1932)

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 bound.
Bromios we mortals name Him, and Him of the mighty voice. …
The clear signs of his Fulfillment are not hidden,
Whensoever the chamber of the purple-robed hours is opened,
And nectarous flowers lead in the fragrant spring. …
And voices of song are loud amid the pipes,
The dancing floors are loud with the calling of crowned Semele.

Then came the first eminent showman, Thespis, who split off his own individual form of the ritual, and made a new thing of it. The dithyramb itself went on, grew old and sober, was given official place in the festival—each of the ten tribes competing, each with its chorus of fifty. When we come to the oldest complete texts, the dithyrambic poems of Bacchylides, we find them no madder and no more inflamed than a cantata. But the twist Thespis gave created a major art.

Considering how few are the lines by which we know him—Mr. Picard-Cambridge lists only twenty-two references, scattered through four centuries—Thespis is a singularly vivid person. He took the dithyramb with spoken interludes from Arion and made a sort of play of it by the sheer idea of inventing the actor and all that this implies. We think of him as leaving the leadership of his chorus to a lieutenant and, leaping upon the sacrificial table beside the altar around which the dance was circling, proclaiming himself, wreathed and bronzed, not the devotee, but the god. Questions by the coryphæus, answers by the actor—I am the god: a transubstantiation accomplished in one flash of imagination. Impersonation added to action—here was the essential of drama. The heart of the city responded.

Of course there were conservatives. Solon was one. Solon regarded the actor, pretending to be somebody else—and Thespis, changing his make-up, pretending to be a number of different people—as a plain liar, and not to be encouraged. If this game of disguise and fiction went on, the morality of the state would suffer.

“What do you mean by it, and why do you do it?” demanded Solon. “For sport,” answered Thespis—dissembling the glory and profit which also accrued. “All the worse,” damned Solon, and went off in dudgeon, pounding the street with his righteous staff. There is a difficulty in believing this interview, on account of the lateness of the author, Plutarch, who could not have known either man personally. But there are always Solons; and even if there never lived a man named Thespis, the first answerer who declared himself the god must have answered thus to some Solon or other. And long after this argument, and after the new form had been generally accepted, Solon went about saying there was nothing really new about it—that it had really been invented by Arion.

Thespis got himself a cart, fitted it up with his changes of make-up and wardrobe, and such other properties as his play needed, and made the rounds of the rural Dionysia. He was a small-town man in the first place, from Icaria, and he knew what the provinces wanted. His technic perfected, he came back to Athens. His type of performance was in demand. The name tragedy was attached to it: goat song. Whether this was because the dancers of the dithyramb had worn the goat skin of Dionysus about their loins, or because of the wantonness of their songs—the goat has always suffered in reputation with the...

(The entire section is 1969 words.)

Gerald F. Else (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 11092 words.)

Francisco R. Adrados (essay date 1972)

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.]



Greek Lyric as a whole was influenced by Epic, a profane genre from a remote epoch, though not without traces, which will...

(The entire section is 7485 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 190 words.)