Friday, November 23, 2018

Thespis—The First Actor Takes a Bow

Thespis with a mask in a Roman statue.  He stepped out of the chorus and portrayed a character becoming the first known actor.

According to sources the first actor in history, a guy named Thespis of Icaria, stepped to the stage on this date in 534 BCE.  To which my reaction was how the hell do they know that?  It turns out that we know the date pretty well because he did it at the City Dionysia in Athens during the first ever competition for a new form of performance art called Tragedy.  Not only that, he won a prize for it.  Think of it as a Hellenic Tony.  This was documented by, among others some guy named Aristotle. 
The City Dionysia and its poor cousins the Rural Dionysia were ritual performance festivals celebrating the god Dionysus, deity of wine and fertility.  In addition to general revelry with a touch of debauchery these festival featured virtuous competitions—agons—of oratory.  Over the years this evolved into presentations featuring a chorus and a speaker who told a story of the Gods.
What this guy Thespis evidently did that was new, fresh, and startling was that he stepped out of the chorus and addressed it not as a yarn spinner, but as a character in the tale.  Whoa Nellie! This was exciting new stuff!  And the guy evidently wrote his own stuff, making him also the earliest known dramatist.

A performance by Thespis as imagined by Gustav Klimt in 1888 for the Burghtheater, Vienna.
These productions known as Tragedies featured music, dance/mime, and originally just one character/actor in a mask  who speaks to the chorus which both narrated the story and interacted with the hero—inevitably the single character.  It was perfect for shining a light on any ham.
All of this fulfilled Aristotle’s conditions that separated drama from ritual mysteries which had a long history in ancient Greece.  The new drama did not require that attendees/worshipers purify themselves with fasting, bathing, and the application of perfumed oils.  Nor did they have to participate in processions or any other part of a ritual.  They were passive observers to scene enacted for them.  Finally attendance was not limited to priests, priestesses, and a handful of a sanctified elite, but was open to all citizens and—gasp!—even to non-citizens, slaves, and visitors.  The audience was born.
Seeing how he invented the whole thing, Thespis had an obvious leg up in that first completion.  Likely the fix was in.

Thespis in the Wagon of Dionysus--the first traveling company.
 Thespis was smart enough to take advantage of the good publicity.  He traveled from town to town, village to village in an open Wagon of Dionysus from which his musicians played and he declaimed snatches of speeches.  Think of it as analogous to the 19th Century circus wagon.  Thus Thespis also invented the touring troupe, coming attractions, and theatrical publicity.  Smart man.
His first play, the one that took home the honors at Athens was Orpheus and Dionysus.  He evidently wrote and performed several more over his career.  None of these survive, but that did not stop a shrewd philosopher named Heraclides Ponticus—the guy most famous for figuring out that the Earth rotates on its axis from west to east, once every 24 hours—from either reconstructing or outright forging plays by Thespis about 300 years after the fact.  Other phonies attributed to him were penned by early Roman admirers.
The earliest preserved Greek Tragedies date to the century after Thespis by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each of which embodied further elaboration on his original form—most notably the addition of a complete cast of characters.
A well preserved Roman bust of an idealized Thespis found in the ruins of Herculanium
The Romans, who stole their theater culture and everything else that was not nailed down from the Greeks, especially admired and romanticized Thespis.  He was represented in mosaics, frescos, and sculpture found in theaters and in the temples of Dionysus’s Roman alter-ego Bacchus. 
Years later English Elizabethan players like that chap Shakespeare would dignity their dubious and suspect profession by calling themselves Thespians.  It sounded so high class and classical.

In 1871 W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had their first collaboration, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old described as an “opera grotesque in two acts, staged a London’s Gaiety Theatre.  It was considered a Christmas time amusement.  In ran for a respectable 63 performances but the music, which was never published, has been lost.

Illustration of Thespis by D.H. Friston in The Illustrated London News   shows Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, Thespis and Mercury.

The modern Greeks, who are vain about their ancient culture, also celebrate Thespis with a modern prize in his name.  Back in 1939 the National Theater of Greece even sponsored a national tour called The Wagon of Thespis. 

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