(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.