Meanings: “Thespian”

May 6, 2013

Thespians unite! News from all over: “A troupe of street drummers got a shock when Helen Mirren, dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, emerged from a London theatre to berate them for disrupting her show,” reports The Telegraph, a Sydney Australia newspaper, and many other newspapers throughout the former Commonwealth.  “Outside noise became too much for the actress to bear during Saturday’s performance. Mirren acknowledged to the Daily Telegraph newspaper that she used less-than-royal language in her rant.” And “seeing Helen Mirren dressed as the queen cussing and swearing and making you stop your parade – that’s a new one.”

“I’m afraid there were a few ‘thespian’ words used,” Mirren was quoted as saying. “They got a very stern royal ticking off but I have to say they were very sweet and they stopped immediately.

Thespian:” there is a word.  First an adjective in English, it comes from the Greek Thespis, poet of 6c. B.C.E., the traditional father of Greek tragedy. Apparently it has been in use in English since the 17th century meaning “of or pertaining to tragedy or dramatic acting,”  As a noun meaning “actor,” it has been used since the 19th century.

The word also figures in American political mythology. In 1950, George Smathers ran against Claude Pepper in the Democratic primary for a Senate seat then held by Pepper. Smathers, the story goes, reportedly gave a speech to a rural audience in which he reportedly said:

Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens,and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy?

Great story, but alas, it isn’t true. Smathers did, however, win the primary, and then the general election for the seat.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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