Who Was Thespis, and What Was His Contribution to Greek Theater?

Thespis was reputedly the first actor to perform in Greek theater as an individual character instead of as part of a chorus. He introduced the style of theater known as tragedy and was also the first actor to travel from city to city on theatrical tours.

Born around the sixth century B.C. in the district of Icaria, which is in the modern municipality of Dionysos in northeast Attica, Thespis sang lively songs based on Greek mythology. According to Aristotle, these songs, known as dithyrambs, were the basis of Athenian tragic theater. Instead of remaining with the chorus, Thespis stepped out and performed all the individual roles, differentiating between characters by switching from one mask to another. In 534 B.C., at a festival in Athens honoring the god Dionysius, Thespis won first prize in a tragedy competition. After his victory, he traveled throughout the various cities around Athens carrying his theatrical paraphernalia in a wagon pulled by a horse.

The style of drama pioneered by Thespis continued to be performed until the fifth century B.C., when Aeschylus wrote the first dramas to be performed by a chorus and two actors. Although some researchers credit Thespis with having written plays, this has not been proven. However, as a tribute to the originality and inventiveness of Thespis, modern actors are known as thespians.