The Greek dramatist and actor Thespis (c. 580–520 B.C.E.) is accorded by legend the position as creator of the tradition of ancient Greek drama. Thespis is said to have been the first ancient Greek performer to represent another character on stage instead of simply reciting or singing a text, and theatrical actors are now known as thespians.
The earliest ancestor of Greek drama was a kind of ritual choral hymn, called a dithyramb, which was carried out by a large circle of men and boys in honor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. As Greek society developed and became more complex, the dithyramb began to lose its religious function and take on elements of storytelling. Members of the chorus might lend special expression to parts of these stories and try to bring them alive, but they did not try to convince audiences that they themselves were actually part of the story. They came closer to drama as it is known today when they began to wear costumes and masks, and to differentiate the roles of members of the chorus according to what was being spoken or sung.
The facts of Thespis's life are obscure. He was known as Thespis of Icaria—not the Greek island that bears that name today, but now the city of Dionysus in southeastern Greece. In the late 530s B.C.E., he was described as an aging figure, so he was probably born in the early sixth century B.C.E. How he became involved with the embryonic forms of Greek theater is unknown, as is how he came to relocate to the ancient Greek metropolis of Athens. His life in theater would have been shaped by two more new factors. First, he lived under the rule of Pisistratus, a populist tyrant who circumscribed the role of Greek elites but also patronized the arts and was interested in writing down and thus preserving Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Pisistratus also tried to stimulate new forms of cultural expression.
As his art developed, Thespis seems to have been strongly innovative in at least three ways. First, he seems to have used masks in a way that none of his predecessors had. First he covered his face with white lead paint, then added purslane, and finally developed a woven linen mask. These were not the choral masks used by the earlier dithyramb singers but were specially designed to heighten the impact of the material Thespis was performing. Second, he seems to have emphasized his distinct role by engaging in dialogue with the chorus, much as later figures in Greek tragedy would. Aristotle, in the Poetics, asserted that Thespis jumped out from among the chorus and assumed the role of Dionysus.
The third way in which Thespin was innovative was his level of creativity, and this seems to have irritated no less important a figure than the Athenian politician and poet Solon (c. 638–558 B.C.E.). According to an account by the Greek-Roman writer Plutarch recounted and quoted by William Ridgeway in The Origins of Tragedy, Solon asked Thespis at the end of one performance if he were not ashamed of presenting lies in front of the high-powered crowd in attendance. Thespis responded that he saw no harm in performing “for sport,” whereupon the angered Solon slammed his staff into the ground and warned that “if we go on praising and honoring this kind of sport, we shall soon find it at work in the serious affairs of life.” The story, if true, suggests that Thespis offered a degree of dramatic realism that was deeply surprising to an educated and intelligent observer of his own time.
Later writers credited Thespis with writing plays, but it is not clear that he did so. In any event, none of his writings, if they existed, have survived. Nevertheless, the artistic world in which Thespis worked was changing in a key way: for people of this time, artwork was increasingly becoming something that could be created, fixed, and written down, not simply recited or enacted as ritual. In the words of Jennifer Wise in Dionysus Writes, “In order to view Thespis’ performance of a dramatic work in 534 B.C.E. in its proper light …, it must be borne in mind that he lived in a time when the defining performative materials of Greek culture were no longer exclusively oral, but were subject instead to the scrutiny of readers.” For Thespis, arriving in Athens perhaps sometime in the 530s B.C.E., an artwork was not a reenactment of an ancient myth, but a new creation that might even be written down, preserved, and presented again at a later time.
All of these factors came together in the late 530s, when Pisistratus inaugurated (or expanded) an Athenian event known as the City of Dionysia Festival. This festival seems to have featured choral presentations featuring strong dramatic and narrative elements—essentially plays as we know them today. According to an account by the much later Roman poet Horace, Thespis was something of a traveling performer who went from town to town in a wooden cart and recited dramatic poetry. Pisistratus offered a cash award for the best tragedy at the festival, and despite his advanced age Thespis was asked to perform with his troupe and, in a performance that may have occurred on November 23, 534 B.C.E., took first prize.
Without any record of what he performed, it is impossible to know exactly what Thespis did that day. Still, the accumulation of stories surrounding him, from different parts of his life, suggests that he exerted some kind of transformative effect on the Greek theatrical world of his time. The theatrical competitions in Athens continued even after the death of Pisistratus in 527 B.C.E., and later writers expanded on the ideas that Thespis is likely to have developed. The poet Phrynicus, at the century's end, took the crucial step of applying the storytelling and dramatic effects of Thespis's dramas to historical subjects, thus approaching the Greek tragedy as it has come down to the modern world.
Ridgeway, William, The Origin of Tragedy, Blom, 1910, reprinted, 1966.
Webster, T.B.L., The Greek Chorus, Methuen, 1970.
Wise, Jennifer, Dionysus Writes, Cornell, 1998.
Ancient Athens website, http://www.ancientathens.org/ (January 17, 2017), “Thespis.”
National Geographic online, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/ (January 17, 2017), “534 B.C.: World's First Actor Takes the Stage.”
Public Broadcasting System website, http://www.pbs.org/ (January 17, 2017), “The Origins of Theatre—The First Actor.”❑