Thespis (//; Greek: Θέσπις; fl. 6th century BC) of Icaria (present-day Dionysos, Greece), according to certain Ancient Greek sources and especially Aristotle, was the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor playing a character in a play (instead of speaking as him or herself). In other sources, he is said to have introduced the first principal actor in addition to the chorus.
Thespis was a singer of dithyrambs (songs about stories from mythology with choric refrains). He is credited with introducing a new style in which one singer or actor performed the words of individual characters in the stories, distinguishing between the characters with the aid of different masks.
This new style was called tragedy, and Thespis was the most popular exponent of it. Eventually, in 534 BC competitions to find the best tragedy were instituted at the City Dionysia in Athens, and Thespis won the first documented competition. Capitalising on his success, Thespis also invented theatrical touring; he would tour various cities while carrying his costumes, masks and other props in a horse-drawn wagon.
Titles of some plays have been attributed to Thespis. But most modern scholars, following the suggestion of Diogenes Laërtius, consider them to be forgeries, some forged by the philosopher Heraclides Ponticus, others by or altered by Christian writers:
- Contest of Pelias and Phorbas
- Hiereis (Priests)
- Himitheoi (Demigods)
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It is implied that Thespis invented acting in the Western world, and that prior to his performances, no one had ever assumed the resemblance of another person for the purpose of storytelling. In fact, Thespis is the first known actor in written plays. He may thus have had a substantial role in changing the way stories were told and inventing theatre as we know it today. In reverence to Thespis, actors in the English-speaking part of the world have been referred to as thespians.
Thespis was the title character in an 1871 comic opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the first collaboration between the two men, although the musical score has mostly been lost. The story involves Thespis and his troupe of actors temporarily replacing the Gods of Olympus, while the latter come down to earth to "mingle" with humanity.
A first season episode of the TV series Sports Night was named "Thespis" and referenced him.
- Buckham, Philip Wentworth, Theatre of the Greeks, Cambridge : J. Smith, 1827.
- Horace, Ars Poetica 275-7
- Diogenes Laertius, Book V, Heraclides, 92:"And Aristoxenus the musician says, that he composed tragedies, and inscribed them with the name of Thespis."
- A Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), page 832: "Thespidis quaecumque feruntur ab impostoribus esse ficta vix est quod moneam, et proditur hoc fraudis genere usus esse Heraclides Ponticus......Heraclidis igitur crediderim esse fr.1-3; nam fr.4 non dubito quin alteri post Christum saeculo debeatur."
- A Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), page 832-833.
- "Libretto: "Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old"". The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. Retrieved 2017-08-18.