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Sunday, February 17, 2013

He Doesn't Look Like a Thespian: Bobby Says Thanks to the World's First Actor

Thespis--- actor, tragedian, storyteller, touring performer
(I wonder if Daniel Day-Lewis will ever play him in a movie?)
Early this morning, around 3:30am, the pellet stove in my house, our only source of heat, clanged, sputttered, and then died.  Today, in my part of the world in Maine, the wind bears a chill to the bones.  My sister lent our household two big space heaters, keeping us from freezing.  I hung up blankets and comforters to separate the rooms, trying to effieciently heat as much of the house as possible.  Because these space heaters use a tremendous amount of electricity, the lights have been off for most of the day, and I am just now sitting down to share some quick thoughts before letting the computer rest some more. 

The reason I am sharing this is because I have been thinking like a caveman today, optimizing warmth where I can with minimal light, and it has led me to imagine the big bonfires, and these cavepeople gathering 'round, telling stories.  Which then led me to look at my life as a storyteller, which, thought by thought, fascilitated a travel back to Ancient Greece in my mind to think about Thespis, who, according to Aristotle, was the first person to be what we call an "actor" today (remember, actors are storytellers... which is why we are all actors). 

Thespis is believed to have been born in Icaria, known today as Dionysos, and was a singer of dithyrambs (stories of mythology sung by a chorus).  It is believed he invented the idea of having an actual character in a play who was apart from the chorus, who would be known as the "hypocrite" or the "responder".  This is believed to be the first instances of dialogue in a play.  He also had a new style of singing the dithyrambs, where he would wear many different masks to portray different characters throughout the song.  This whole new way of doing things was called "tragedy".  

On November 23, 534 BC, a competition was held to find the best tragedy at the city Dionysia, Athens, and Thespis won!  Hot from this victory, he decided, why not?, I might as well invent what people years from now will call the touring company!  And that's just what he did.    He packed up masks, costumes and other props in a horse-drawn wagon and went around to different cities, performing. 

He was the Orson Welles of Ancient Greece!

Thespis, his very own touring troupe
Thespis is given credit to being the first--- presumably, before him, no one had ever assumed the identity of a character for the purpose of storytelling.  It's difficult for me to imagine a world where someone could actually BE the first person to play a character.  To be honest, while I take nothing away from Thespis, and heartily thank him for practically creating theater as we know it in the Western World, I cannot help but believe that he may have been the first "documented" actor, I think it is also possible that storytellers before him, without even realizing it perhaps, slipped into a character.  It's just so hard not to....

So little is known about Thespis other than what I have reported.  Some claim that in addition to everything else, he also started the tradition of make-up, because, as some claim, when not wearing masks, he would paint his face in order to portray a character.  But this is impossible to say.  Even what Aristotle writes of him is about 200 years after the fact of his existence.  It is kind of a history that is so woven into the mythology of that time and place, and is almost impossible to separate.  Even the "known" works of Thespis are all disputed, and no one quite knows for sure.  What is undisputed, though, is that he did exist, and he is the reason we in the English-speaking world have adopted the term "thespian" when talking about an actor.

Some superstitious folk like to believe that the spirit of Thespis still travels to theaters across the world, causing good-natured michief during a performance, but I personally don't belive so.  My guess is he causes no mischief at all (because he knows what a hard job it is), but rather watches, fascinated by how the art of storytelling continues to grow and flourish.  Perhaps, even, he wears a mask featuring a great big proud smile.

Thank you for taking a look at Theater is a Sport today.  If you would like to become a fan of Theater is a Sport on facebook, just follow this link:!/TheaterIsASport  If you would like to learn more about me as a playwright, please follow this link:!/pages/Bobby-Keniston-Playwright-Page/148232788536601

If you have any questions or comments, or just want to talk about Thespis some more, feel free to drop me a line at

Tune in tomorrow.  Until then, please remember, as no doubt Thespis would tell you:  theater is a sport.


  1. Interesting, but not as much (my thing) as some of the other blogs. Keep them coming. This is a wonderful new experience for me.

  2. I found this very interesting. I never knew where thespian came from.