Little Bits of History

Thespis

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 26, 2014
Thespis

Thespis

December 26, 1871: Thespis premieres at the Gaiety Theatre in London. Also called The Gods Grown Old, it was an operatic extravaganza as well as the first time WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan worked together. No score was ever published and most of the music has been lost. The theater was used to host many different types of works created in the burlesque style. Thespis was a moderate success as a Christmas entertainment and ran until March 8, 1872 after 63 performances. It was advertised as “An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts”.

The work referenced ancient Greek gods when Thespis, the father of drama, traded places with the gods on Mount Olympus. The gods had grown old and were ignored and when they returned to Earth, they were unimpressed with the way life on earth had turned out. The now inept leaders were disgusted with their lot and returned to Mount Olympus and sent Thespis and his group of actors back down to Earth. There are three pieces of music which remain today. Little maid of Arcadee was one of four numbers to receive an encore on this date. The song enjoyed popularity even after the demise of the play.

The play was under rehearsed and many critics noted it was in serious need of shortening. Carriages were to be called for at 11 PM but the play was still running at midnight. It did not receive good reviews for these and other reasons. All was not lost. There were nine such entertainments offered that year as holiday entertainment and of those nine, five closed before Thespis did. Gaiety usually ran seasonal performances for only a few weeks and this was offered for months – an extraordinary run for the venue. The opera was altered after the first performance, something Gilbert and Sullivan would do for many of their offerings in the coming years. By the third night of the run, a critic reported that not a single hitch in the performance remained.

Gilbert and Sullivan were one of the most famous Victorian era theatrical partnerships. Librettist Gilbert teamed up with composer Sullivan on fourteen comic operas between this date and 1896. HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado were their most famous. After Thespis, the two did not work together again for four years but each worked separately and became famous in his own right in the interim. Their next work together seemed to have been designed by fate. Gilbert had written a short libretto on order but the woman who was to play the lead died in childbirth and the project was abandoned. Then Richard D’Oyly Carte needed a short piece to fill a bill and since Gilbert already had the libretto, it was decided to ask Sullivan to write the score. Thus, Trial by Jury was ready in just weeks.

Soon after the production of Pygmalion and Galatea I wrote the first of many libretti, in collaboration with Mr Arthur Sullivan. This was called Thespis; or, the Gods Grown Old. It was put together in less than three weeks, and was produced at the Gaiety theatre after a week’s rehearsal.  – WS Gilbert

Until Gilbert took the matter in hand choruses were dummy concerns, and were practically nothing more than a part of the stage setting. It was in Thespis that Gilbert began to carry out his expressed determination to get the chorus to play its proper part in the performance. – Arthur Sullivan

It is terribly severe on Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the joint authors of Thespis, that their work was produced in such a crude and unsatisfactory state. Thespis on its own merits—merits of literary worth, merits of fun, merits of song writing deserves to succeed; but the management has crippled a good play by insufficiency of rehearsals and a want of that requisite polish and aplomb without which these merry operas are useless. – The Illustrated Times review

I must say that not a single hitch in the performance is now to be perceived, and that the applause and evident delight of the audience from beginning to end, the piece occupying a space of time within two hours. – London Figaro review of the third performance

Also on this day: Kwanzaa – in 1966 the first Kwanzaa was celebrated.
Searching – In 1986, Search for Tomorrow went off the air after more than 35 years.
Zounds! Sounds! – In 1933, a patent was granted for FM radio.
Storming Scandinavia – In 2011, Cyclone Dagmar made landfall.

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.