Tuesday, November 23, 2010

November 23, 534 BC – Thespis Insults the Gods

Since the dawn of language, and perhaps before with simple hand gestures, mankind had performed the art of storytelling. Great hunts, tragic tales of lovers, and, most importantly, the epics of the gods all served as material to be related to one another and the younger generations for entertainment and moral instruction. Storytelling among the ancient Greeks evolved out of the chanting of priests to become a more secular chorus, telling the tales of great men and gods, especially Dionysus, the patron of the art.

According to ancient manuscripts studied by modern historians, some 2500 years ago, a creative Greek by the name of Thespis of Icaria attempted to introduce “acting” to western civilization. Rather than singing from the chorus or as a solo storyteller, Thespis stepped alone in the amphitheater and sang from behind a mask as if he were Dionysus himself. The audience was struck, unsure quite what to think until an elder from the front stood and called, “Blasphemer!”

Thespis was obviously not Dionysus, and portraying himself to be an avatar of a god was a strict crime of sacrilege. He was taken before the Athenean court, given fair trial, and exiled from the city for fear that the gods would instigate a plague or bad fortune in a city allowing such arrogance. Thespis disappears from history, and acting would forever be a distasteful action among the European peoples.

Storytelling, however, flourished. During the republic and empire of Rome, satyr songs would give long, satirical descriptions of modern life in rich verse. Bards and monks relating the story of the Passion delighted audiences throughout the Middle Ages. As Europeans began to explore and colonize other peoples, they encountered new types of storytelling such as the shadow play of Japan and the body-language of dance among Southeast Asian and Polynesian peoples, many of which would find their places among European theater. Other arts, such as Japanese kabuki and African mask-dances would be frowned upon as barbaric and arrogant lies where “actors” portrayed themselves as true people or even spirits.

It would not be until the invention of the motion-picture camera that acting would return to the view of the western world. Originally, the camera was used to capture important events such as the funeral march of royalty or shocking images like staged train crashes. Through the work of French and later German “directors”, a new style of voyeurism would be shown as people invisibly watched the lives of others. Reality films would gradually fade as “fakies”, scripted and acted fictional accounts would be recorded and shown. Initially as scandalous as the acting of Thespis, counter-culture would embrace the stories, and its significance would eventually gain some recognition among the populace at large along the same lines of modern dance and lyric-less poetry.

Even in today's forward-thinking times, fakies are viewed as morally questionable, not necessarily evil, but not as genuine of an entertainment as a well told story.


In reality, according to the writings of Aristotle and others, Thespis was well received in his first-person portrayals, even of Dionysus. He spread his fame, as well as the new style of portraying characters through various masks, traveling in a wagon throughout Greece. Third-person storytelling, while still significant, takes a supporting role to acting on stage or film.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to think of alt-histories about the arts. If you change Gilgamesh, Homer, Euripides, the writers of "Beowulf," or Chaucer, perhaps the whole history of storytelling in the West changes.


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