The Origins of Theatre - The First Actor

The earliest origins of drama are to be found in Athens where ancient hymns, called dithyrambs, were sung in honor of the god Dionysus. These hymns were later adapted for choral processions in which participants would dress up in costumes and masks. Eventually, certain members of the chorus evolved to take special roles within the procession, but they were not yet actors in the way we would understand it.

That development came later in the 6th century BC, when the tyrant Pisistratus, who then ruled the city, established a series of new public festivals. One of these, the 'City Dionysia', a festival of entertainment held in honor of the god Dionysus, featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry. And most remarkable of all the winners was said to be a wandering bard called Thespis.

According to tradition, in 534 or 535 BC, Thespis astounded audiences by leaping on to the back of a wooden cart and reciting poetry as if he was the characters whose lines he was reading. In doing so he became the world's first actor, and it is from him that we get the world thespian.