Thespis of Icaria (present-day Dionysos, Greece) (6th century BC), 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.
According to Aristotle, writing nearly two centuries later, Thespis was a singer of dithyrambs (songs about stories from mythology with choric refrains). Thespis supposedly introduced 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, on November 23, 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 (see picture, right).
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 said and inventing theater as we know it today. In reverence to Thespis, actors throughout western history have been referred to as thespians.
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)
- Hitheoi (Demi-gods)
Fragments (probably spurious) in A Nauck, Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887).
A branch of the National Theater of Greece expressly instituted in 1939 to tour the country is named "The Wagon of Thespis" (Greek: Άρμα Θέσπιδος, Árma Théspidos) in his honour.
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