Little Bits of History

Why Thespians?

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 23, 2012

Athenian theater

November 23, 534 BC: The city Dionysia in Athens holds a contest. According to many Ancient Greek sources, but especially Aristotle, there was a contest held on this date to found a new form of entertainment. Aristotle lived about two centuries after this date, but oral tradition was strong in this time and other sources corroborate his information. Thespis was an entertainer of the day, performing songs called Dithyrambs, or stories about ancient mythology containing choric refrains. He is given credit for inventing a different presentation using only one performer who employed masks to indicate the different players in the myths.

Thespis became a strident proponent of an even newer type of entertainment – tragedies. He was said to have created the idea of a person performing not as himself, but in the guise of someone else. With the winning of this competition, he also invented touring, taking his show on the road. He would tour the countryside in a horse drawn wagon which contained his costumes, masks, and other props, literally taking his entire show on the road. He is sometimes given credit for writing plays as well, but most modern scholars believe this to be incorrect.

Acting has a long history, beginning – at least according to the tales of the time – from this date. Prior to Thespis’s style change, the singer of the dithyrambs would announce that So-and-So said something or did something, but Thespis took the leap to become the So-and-So and speak in his stead or act out the scene. Therefore instead of saying, for example, “Dionysus, did this, Dionysus said that” he would proclaim, “I am Dionysus. I did this.” In Ancient Greece, all actors were adult males and they also played any female or youth roles needed.

Today, actors come in all ages and genders and perform across a wide range of media. They can perform live on stage in a theater, live but taped for television, on a stage for taping for either TV or film. Actors assume the roles needed for the production and are often required to metamorphose into something completely different than their everyday lives. They often use dialects or accents and can imply much with body language and facial expressions. Many actors are professionally trained, but it is not a requirement even for professionals. Many communities also have local theaters where plays are put on to the delight of theater-goers unable to get to some of the leading venues.

The art of acting consists in keeping people from coughing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s a living, breathing thing, acting. – Frank Langella

Acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion. – Robert Quillen

Good acting is consistency of performance. – Jim Dale

Also on this day:

Healthy Hearts – In 1964, the first coronary bypass graft surgery was performed by Dr. Michael DeBakey.
Censorship – In 1644, John Milton wrote about freedom of the press.
Hijacked – In 1985, EgyptAir Flight 648 was hijacked.