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PITY THE POOR Thespians. Those of the acting profession have given us entertainment, comfort, even enlightenment. Yet, like Rodney Dangerfield used to say, they don’t get no respect. Here are some tidbits concerning the acting profession, gleaned from one place or another.

Thespis was a Greek dramatist in the 6th century B.C. His breakthrough schtick was composing roles for individual actors as distinct from the traditional third-person narrative of the Greek chorus.

Thespis of Icaria, flourished 6th century B.C., Greek actor and dramatist. Image by sailko of Thespis’ wagon, relief of the Giotto’s Belltower in Florence, Italy, by Nino Pisano, 1334–1336.

Thespis also originated theatrical touring, taking his troupe, their costumes, masks, and other props from city to city by wagon.

Thespian Influences. The first operatic collaboration of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan was Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, 1871. It had a run of 63 performances, advertised as “An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts.”

Image of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Thespis, by D.H. Friston for The Illustrated London News, 1872. Thespis is the guy with the polka-dot sleeves and short conical hat.

The International Thespian Society is an honor society for high school and middle school theater students. It is a little known fact (for good reason) that I was a member. As of 2017, there have been more than 2.3 million Thespian inductees.

Actresses?—Not At First. In the Early Middle Ages when Holy Mother the Church got involved, their Mystery, Miracle, and Morality plays were performed strictly by men only, albeit for religious illumination of the uneducated of both genders.

Depiction of the Mystery Play of Saint Clemen as performed in Metz during the Middle Ages. Illustration by Auguste Migette, 1850, appearing in “Hurrah for Science—and the Humanities!”

Shakespearean roles were also all portrayed by men or boys, their lack of women performers inherited from these earlier priestly practices. This male-only casting is superbly depicted in one of the best movies about Elizabethan theater, Shakespeare in Love, 1998.

A trailer for Shakespeare in Love, 1998.

The first women on British stages came a half-century after Shakespeare’s time. This was in 1660, with the English Restoration that followed the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, and before his posthumous beheading in 1661.

And who says history is boring? The change in British theater came because its new king, Charles II, decided he enjoyed watching women on the stage.

Meanwhile, in Japan… Kabuki, literally the skill of dancing and singing, was originally performed by women only. Perhaps they had other sideline activities, or perhaps Kabuki was the sideline. Whichever, from 1629 men were required to play all the roles. Even today, onnagata actors specialize in female roles.

Nakamura Utaemon VI as Honnyo-no-Mae, the female lead in Sumidagawa. Image from Kabuki 21.

In contrast to Western traditions of actors as rogues, highly esteemed hereditary titles are part of Kabuki tradition.

Orson Welles—Hitchhiker. In her biography of Orson Welles, Barbara Leaming relates a tale about this legendary polymath of the theater.

Orson Welles: A Biography, by Barbara Leaming, Limelight Editions, 2004.

Welles and several colleagues had urgent transcontinental travel from New York City to a Hollywood commitment. Their 18-hour trip began with a flight from Newark airport and, on the way across New Jersey’s Pulaski Skyway, their taxi broke down.

They availed themselves of the quickest solution, hitchhiking in the first vehicle that stopped—which happened to be a garbage truck. Upon entering the airport, its driver was asked the nature of his cargo.

“Actors and garbage,” he said.

In recalling this later, Welles observed, “At least we got top billing.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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