Base for a statue of Thespis in the Theatre of Dionysus, 2nd century BC.
Thespis' wagon, relief of the Giotto's Belltower in Florence, Italy, Nino Pisano, 1334–1336

Thespis (/ˈθɛspɪs/; Greek: Θέσπις; fl. 6th century BC) was an Ancient Greek poet.[1] He was born in the ancient city of Icarius (present-day Dionysos, Greece).[2] According to certain Ancient Greek sources and especially Aristotle, he was the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor playing a character in a play (instead of speaking as himself). In other sources, he is said to have introduced the first principal actor in addition to the chorus.[3] He is often called the "Inventor of Tragedy".[4][5]

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;[6] he would tour various cities while carrying his costumes, masks and other props in a horse-drawn wagon.

Alleged works

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 produced rather later, in the Common Era:[7][8]

Fragments (probably spurious) in A Nauck, Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887).[9]


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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.[citation needed] In homage 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. The actors do a bad job of it, and the gods return angrily to resume their rightful roles.[10]

A branch of the National Theatre of Greece expressly instituted in 1939 to tour the country is named "The Wagon of Thespis" (Greek: Άρμα Θέσπιδος, Árma Théspidos) in his honour.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Thespis | Greek poet". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-06-29.
  2. ^ "The Origins of Tragedy". Retrieved 2021-06-29.
  3. ^ Buckham, Philip Wentworth, Theatre of the Greeks, Cambridge : J. Smith, 1827.
  4. ^ "Thespis | Greek poet". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-06-29.
  5. ^ "The Origins of Tragedy". Retrieved 2021-06-29.
  6. ^ Horace, Ars Poetica 275-7
  7. ^ Diogenes Laertius, Book V, Heraclides, 92: "And Aristoxenus the musician says, that he composed tragedies, and inscribed them with the name of Thespis."
  8. ^ Johann August Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), p. 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."
  9. ^ Johann August Nauck,Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta (1887), pp. 832–833.
  10. ^ "Libretto: 'Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old'". The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. Retrieved 2017-08-18.