Who Was the First Actor? The Origins of the Art Form

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“Thespian” is a classical term that may immediately conjure the image of someone in Elizabethan garb standing onstage, holding a skull, and declaring, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”

The word, which dates back to the 6th century B.C., carries a lot of weight; not only does it imply a certain level of craft and dedication, but it’s also directly linked to the origins of acting and the way we tell and absorb stories. 

Everything we associate with the craft today, from Shakespearean theater to Broadway to cinema to television, began more than 2,500 years ago with a muddled history involving god worship and a traveling bard. If that’s all Greek to you, read on.

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The history of acting

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The origins of theater

On top of being a hub for breakthroughs in philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, mathematics, and science, ancient Greece was also the birthplace of theater. While most of the concrete details have been lost to time, the most reputable description of the art form’s origins comes from the writings of Aristotle.

Ancient Greece society revolved around the worship of the many gods and goddesses in its pantheon—including Dionysus, the god of “wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness, and wild frenzy.” Greeks celebrated this deity in a festival called the Great Dionysia, which took place each spring in Athens. Established in the 6th century, this government-backed festival drew thousands of people from all across the country. Though reports vary, this was also a time when women, slaves, and prisoners could experience a modicum of the freedom usually reserved for male Athenian citizens.

The multiday festival consisted of processions, animal sacrifices, athletic competitions, drinking, music, dancing, and performances of hymns called dithyrambs. These were epic narratives about Dionysus told through large-scale choral performances and dance.

The first actor

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According to Aristotle, the world’s first actor was Thespis of Icaria, a poet who stepped out of the chorus at the Great Dionysia in 534 B.C. to play an individual character who held a dialogue with the chorus. As he began to expand his repertoire, he differentiated his personas by wearing various linen masks. In doing so, Thespis created the concept of a protagonist—and acting altogether.

Supposedly, the poet won an award for his performance: a goat. According to legend, this became the source of the word “tragoidia,” which translates to “goat song”; this, in turn, evolved into the modern word “tragedy.”

Thespis’ transformation into someone who wasn’t himself caused quite a stir at the time. According to historian-philosopher Plutarch, an Athenian lawmaker named Solon confronted the actor after a performance, asking if he “was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people.” The bard went on to create the concept of theatrical touring when he began traveling from city to city, performing atop a horse-drawn cart. He also wrote a few plays himself.

Thespis has another legacy that persists to this day: According to superstition, leaving a bare bulb, known as a ghost light, burning onstage is a practice used to ward away his mischievous spirit, which is said to wreak havoc on productions that don’t honor the tradition.

The origins of theater in ancient Greece

Aeschylus, Sophocles

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In the wake of Thespis’ contributions, Athenian theater began to flourish. In 472 B.C., Aeschylus wrote what is considered to be the first play, “The Persians,” which added a second speaking role (the antagonist) to the equation. The work ushered in the era that came to be known as the golden age of Greek tragedy. Dramatic competitions between playwrights became a tentpole of the Great Dionysia, as rigid religious narratives fell away in favor of stories rooted in history, myth, and current events.

In the 5th century, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Phrynichus emerged as fierce competitors at the Great Dionysia and innovators when it came to the development of drama: They continued to add speaking roles to their plays, lending more importance to dialogue, emotion, and character than the expository chorus had. 

Comedy also began to emerge during this period; the earliest surviving example is Aristophanes’ “Acharnians,” which debuted in 425 B.C. Other prominent playwrights in the genre included Menander, Diphilus, and Philemon.

Who was the first movie actor?

When the earliest moving pictures emerged, beginning with 1888’s “Roundhay Garden Scene,” it was dazzling just to witness footage of people doing menial tasks. Narrative film made its debut shortly afterward with 1893’s “Blacksmith Scene,” directed by William K.L. Dickson. The 40-second film depicts three men wielding sledgehammers and sharing a drink. Since the people on camera weren’t actual blacksmiths, the short marks the earliest example of anyone acting onscreen.

Although many of the earliest films are now lost, the most famous surviving work is Georges Méliès’ 1902 sci-fi short “A Trip to the Moon.” The prolific filmmaker directed, edited, and starred in more than 500 movies between 1896 and 1913.  

In the early days of moviemaking, actors weren’t billed at all, so there was no such thing as a marketable “star.” Despite this, it was normal for a performer to appear in dozens of films per year.

In 2019, Andrew Shail, the senior film lecturer at Newcastle University, discovered the earliest example of publicity for a film actor: a poster of French performer Max Linder in 1909’s “Le Petit Jeune Homme.” Shail believes that Linder, who began as a popular stage actor, was the world’s first movie star. The performer, who was a major influence on Charlie Chaplin, became a household name, starring in hundreds of films between 1905 and 1925. He and his wife, Hélène Peters, died that same year by joint suicide in a Paris hotel room. 

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