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.)