The history of the one-person show is likely as old as language itself. Maybe older. It’s not unreasonable to imagine an overly animated, pre-linguistic Australopithecus grunting out story points in an attempt to get his fellow knuckle-draggers to giggle, or scratch their protruding hominid brows in wonder.
In all cultures, shamans, as they came to be known, held the sacred office of orally imparting knowledge to the tribe. To do so, they had to couch their wisdom in a story that was easily digestible, and the more gifted of them seemed to channel a higher power when doing so. Shamans were also aided by the myths themselves, which often possessed magical elements. It’s not a big leap to see a listener transferring the supernatural aspects of a story onto an enthusiastic storyteller. The Greek word enthusiasm literally means the god inside. En = in. Theos = god.
Without exaggeration, one could claim that good storytelling is what allowed some species to thrive over time, while other less capable storytelling species died out. A good story is nothing short of life saving.
As a Greek American, I’d argue that the first official first smash-hit, long running, one-man show, was by Homer. The Iliad was a hard ticket to get back in the Archaic Age, (8th to 6th centuries BC), primarily because there were no tickets, but also because Homer was the only one spinning the yarn. The show was so successful that Homer couldn’t help but knock out a sequel, The Odyssey, and tour the greater Greek Diaspora one more time.
All oral traditions were an attempt to preserve history and knowledge prior to the written word. By couching ethical guidance and essential cultural traditions in a dramatic framework, one could hold an audience’s attention, while instilling values, cultivating group identity and accumulating wisdom over generations.
That said, it’s my belief that Homer originated the one-person show for perhaps the oldest reason in the proverbial book: working with other people sucks.
I imagine Homer gathering a group of friends for an early rehearsal of The Iliad. There were so many roles, male, female, deities, animals… a producer’s nightmare. No were there scripts back then. Each performer had to literally hear their lines in order to learn them. You can bet there was confusion over what the hell dactylic hexameter was, even after Homer explained how linguistic structure would help you remember what to say, while also making it easier for an audience to hear…
Then there were the personalities. The guy playing Agamemnon was hung over from one too many libations to Dionysus the night before, the woman playing Helen had previously slept with two other cast members, and the brat playing Telemachus was pissed off he had to wait for the end of the story to get some meaty scenes. Homer likely hit the closest wine bar, sucked down a skin of fresh pressed grape juice, gnawed a dozen Kalamata olives, and after spitting out the pits, said “Forget these diva’s, I’m doing all the parts myself.”
It’s rumored that he work-shopped the piece on a large flat rock on the island of Chios while his agent, let call him Agentus, scratched out extensive notes on papyrus. The first note being that an eight-hour running time was not exactly audience friendly. It would work better as a cable mini-series stretched out over two seasons with a cliff-hanger finale at the end of season one. Homer just shook his head.
Agentus also advised him that killing off all of the main characters would depress his audience beyond consolation. “At least keep one alive. Odysseus, I’d say. He’s wily. Why not do a thing where he’s trying to get back home to his wife and kid, and keeps getting waylaid and whatnot, you can milk it for all it’s worth, blah blah blah… And then he finally gets home, and there’s a big reunion, and for Zues sakes, end it up!”
It was good advice, and Homer eventually took it. Sadly, Homer and Agentus parted ways after a massive argument over merchandizing. Agentus was convinced they could rake in the drachmas selling action figures after each performance– Ajax, Paris, Menelaus, Helen, The Cyclops and Lotus Eaters. But Homer was all about the work.
The show eventually opened to rave reviews and ran for a few hundred years before a new form of story telling started to unfold in Athens. Suddenly, working with other people started sucking less because of a new invention called writing. Now, multiple thespians could play out different parts of the stories, instead of just one. There were large choruses of singers filling in the blanks for the audience. There were sets and props, costumes and masks, and cranes swinging actors around the stage. It was nothing short of revolutionary and seemed to mark the end of the one-person show. Except, it didn’t. Solo performance safely co-existed side by side with larger casts over the next two thousand years, from the Troubadours to the Bards, to the Broadway stage, because for as much as it’s a blast working with other people, it’s still easier and cheaper going it alone.