Thespis of Icaria is considered to be the first actor in the theatre. The English word “thespian,” which means actor, is derived from his name. Along with being an actor on the Ancient Greek stage, Thespis was also a celebrated playwright, stage director and producer. None of his plays are extant.
His innovations included connecting the chorus directly to the plot, developing the idea of the power of the protagonist in drama and replacing cruder dithyrambic makeup with more refined linen masks to delineate character.
According to Aristotle, Thespis transformed the presentation of stories forever by emerging from the Greek chorus and acting an individual role. Greek tragedy is said to have been descendent from dithyrambic poetry, which were the choral presentations of Greek myth that included movement.
With Thespis, the chorus remained playing its role, while the first actor played various roles by switching masks. Greek tragedy would not add another principal actor to the stage until some 50 years later in the fifth century when playwright/actor Aeschylus first wrote tragedies to be performed by two actors and a chorus.
When the head of state requests something, you do it. After Athenian military man and tyrant Pisistratus came to power in 560 BC, he instituted many artistic and cultural innovations. One thing he did was he expanded the offerings at the City of Dionysia by having plays performed. It’s said that Pisistratus asked Thespis and his troupe to perform in that initial drama festival in 534 BCE. Thespis did, and he won the first prize for best tragedy.
According to Plutarch, Athenian lawmaker and leader Solon went to see Thespis perform. It’s noted by Plutarch that this was when Thespis had first started acting and tragedy was a new form.
Solon was elderly and living a leisurely life and in addressing Thespis after his performance he asked, “if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in a play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: ‘Ah,” he said, ‘if we honor and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business.’”
That’s the first recorded criticism of an actor that we have on hand, and it was made, ironically, by a politician.
Although we’ll never know if Thespis was the first actor on the stage, we are more certain that he was the first actor in scripted drama to appear on the Athenian stage. However, we can’t even be certain about this.
We do know that Thespis won first prize in 534 BC for best tragedy in the initial City of Dionysia festival and that he was influential enough to be written about by Aristotle in The Poetics, which is the first document we possess focusing on dramatic criticism. Whether or not he was actually the first actor on the stage doesn’t matter; Thespis was influential enough to be considered a groundbreaking force in the Ancient Greek theatre.