Author’s note: This review contains spoilers.
Tim Blake Nelson’s excellent new play, Socrates, retells the story of a pivotal event in world history: the trial and execution of one of the West’s first great philosophers—Socrates.1 Socrates’s life—and death—profoundly affected the two most influential philosophers in history, Plato and Aristotle.2 The play illustrates the character and ideas of these thinkers, indicates where they conflicted or overlapped, and does so via a thrilling integration of drama and discourse.
Nelson is widely known as an actor (Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but not as a writer or director, though he wrote and directed the films The Grey Zone and Eye of God. Nelson began writing Socrates thirty years ago when he studied classics at Brown University.3 The current version of the play, directed by Doug Hughes (who also directed An Enemy of the People), has a top-notch cast, led by the fabulous Michael Stuhlbarg (who played Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man). The costumes, simple music, and sparse sets are so authentic that one feels transported from the Public Theater in New York City to the Agora in Athens, back in the cradle of Western civilization.4
The play is set in 369 BC, thirty years after the death of Socrates, but it makes liberal use of flashbacks (and even contains scenes that blend past and present) to tell the tale of the “gadfly” of Athens. Plato (played by Teagle F. Bougere) is the story’s chief narrator, and, as the play opens, he is interviewing a potential pupil. He asks the teenage boy (played by Niall Cunningham) what he thinks of Athens, and the boy responds brashly, “I find it murderous,” referring to the city’s execution of its greatest thinker thirty years before. Plato proceeds to explain to the boy—who is, in fact, Aristotle, though he’s never named in the play—the nature of Athenian culture during the decades leading up to the death of Socrates in 399 BC. It was a period marked by tyranny, plague, and war, but where speech was still free and philosophical discourse flowed. . . .
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1. Nelson incorporates text from four of Plato’s works that cover the last days of Socrates: The Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo.
2. Their influence is most famously portrayed by renaissance painter Raphael in his work School of Athens.
3. Genesis Johnson,What to Know about Tim Blake Nelson’s Play Socrates at the Public Theater,Playbill, April 15, 2019. http://www.playbill.com/article/what-to-know-about-tim-blake-nelsons-play-socrates-at-the-public-theater.
4. The wall panels feature Ancient Greek inscriptions of the text of Pericles’s Funeral Oration.
5. Back then, jurors were drawn randomly by lottery instead of by their ability to judge the merit of a case objectively. Socrates even challenges this process, saying jurors should only be qualified if they go by the evidence.