Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.08

Andrew D. Irvine, Socrates on Trial. A Play Based on Aristophanes' Clouds and Plato's Apology, Crito, and Phaedo Adapted for Modern Performance.   Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2008.  Pp. viii, 136.  ISBN 978-0-8020-9538-1.  $17.95 (pb).  



Reviewed by Maya Alapin, University of Oxford (maya.alapin@balliol.ox.ac.uk)
Word count: 1227 words

Socrates on Trial does not pretend to be an advanced scholarly work; it is a play for performance and classroom use, intended to inspire interest in ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the life and death of Socrates. Irvine openly admits that the primary sources the play interprets, the Clouds (Act 1), the Apology of Socrates (Act 2), and the Crito and Phaedo (Act 3), are not cited directly, but used imaginatively to inspire consideration of Socrates' plight. The simple introduction, notes and bibliography are of limited use to seasoned classical scholars, but their clarity and obviousness are welcome given Irvine's goal of attracting a new audience, particularly a young one. As a whole, the introduction, play, notes and references offer an excellent bite-sized package for any student to begin an investigation of Socrates' life and thought. For teachers, the book may be used as a whole or in parts to pique interest in classical texts that students might otherwise consider irrelevant or opaque.

The First Act retains the vulgarity of the Aristophanic voice, and even includes the use of leather phalloi and extensive punning ('ass-tronomy'), but significant elements of the Clouds are missed, most importantly, the final destruction of the Thinkery by Strepsiades. Jokes are modernized for contemporary audiences: 'and with such a deep understanding of assholes, I bet he's an expert in fending off lawyers!' Expletives abound, perhaps to the point of being inappropriate for sensitive and very young readers/viewers. Irvine is particularly courageous in using extensive profane sexual language (in true Aristophanic form), but again, young viewers may be shocked.

Act Two is special in that it recreates the scene of Plato's Apology of Socrates in a tangible way, by inviting extensive audience involvement. As the Chorus Leader announces at the beginning of the Act: 'Athenian juries weren't quiet...if you hear others heckling, you're welcome to join in!' Actors are placed throughout the audience to promote such heckling. Additionally, 'jury members' (the audience) are invited to vote for Socrates' guilt or innocence by approaching the Archon on stage with black and white stones. This Act, more than the other two, features long passages which directly reflect the content of the classical work at hand; the opening monologue from Socrates is translated almost word for word from the Greek original. This Act includes few additions to the text it interprets, for example Anytus and Meletus shout abusive terms of Socrates ('liar! liar!'), and Achilles and Thetis appear in the courthouse embodied 'as in a vision'. Plato also screams out at one point -- perhaps a dangerous deviation from Plato's intention to be anonymous as a dramatic character throughout the dialogues. Having Socrates reference death as 'getting a fancy new apartment' also seems too far of a creative interpretation in view of the poor man's well-known asceticism. Despite these quandaries, the Act is effective in delivering Socrates' message in the original dialogue --about the shamelessness with which he has acted in life, his willingness to respect the laws despite the harsh repercussions, and the fact that doing the virtuous thing does not depend on the consequences it brings about, but rather on the intentions and convictions that motivate the action. Socrates' deep belief that death might not be an evil at all is well communicated, along with the unwaveringly courageous (even saucy) attitude he maintained throughout his trial and eventual sentence.

The Third Act is deliberately the shortest, as it aims to avoid the need for a second intermission (while also allowing for the time-consuming audience participation in Act Two). This brevity comes at the price of even more highly creative use of the dialogues it is meant to represent than the previous Acts. Crito's argument with Socrates about possibly fleeing the sentence is represented by characters familiar from the First Act, 'the Weaker Argument' and the 'Stronger Argument'. This is perhaps a confusing conflation of the pens of Aristophanes and Plato for an uninitiated reader. Moreover, the long exchange between Socrates and his wife Xanthippe is questionable since the relationship between the couple is deliberately ambiguous in Plato's own texts. To my knowledge there is no reason to think that Xanthippe was angry with Socrates for his choice given what is available in the Platonic corpus, and certainly not that she berated him in the language of pop-psychology: 'Life isn't about making perfect decisions. It's about doing the best you can in difficult circumstances'. Xanthippe further announces that Apollodorus cannot be present to watch the final minutes of Socrates' life, but anyone who knows the Phaedo cannot help but hear Apollodorus's wailing in the background. Without the presence of this traditional ('feminine') instigator of tears, it is difficult to swallow Irvine's closing chorus:

There's so much more to life than tears,
More good than bad, in our few years.
If this is what we've learned today
We've done our part in this short play.

True to the original format of the dramas, Irvine's Chorus Leader opens each of the three Acts with concise and effective summaries of the original source material and upcoming plot. Whether these interjections help or disturb the dramatic flow of the show is likely up to the performer; when read, these passages are strangely modern given the tone of the piece as a whole.

The play is refreshingly illuminating on the relationship between Socrates' execution and the lasting influence of Aristophanes' negative depiction of him on the evolution of the Athenian psyche. This connection, often underemphasized in modern analysis, is especially poignant given the unity of the three Acts (and hence the originals from which they draw) -- in this sense, Irvine's dramatic presentation reflects the original power of dramatic performance as no traditional essay or article could.

While the play obviously does not represent the details of the Clouds or the Platonic dialogues entirely accurately, Irvine is quite open about the fact that this is not his intention. The play succeeds in recreating an atmosphere of direct democracy and of depicting Socrates as deeply convinced of his own innocence. His commitment to obeying the laws is also emphasized, as is his persistent questioning of the general Athenian standard of moral education. Profound ethical questions surrounding the justness or unjustness of executing democratic dissenters are unambiguously raised. Irvine's sacrifice of some facts in favor of a direct, compact and accessible play is left for the reader to judge. There is no doubt that the play is engaging, funny, insightful, and true to central Socratic positions and that it will appeal to a modern audience, particularly to students.

As with the current state of the ancient plays, Irvine's book suffers from the challenge of being more widely disseminated as literature than as the drama it is intended to be. To ease this difficulty, Irvine offers detailed production and classroom notes as well as a pronunciation index of Greek names, all of which enable even a reader to imagine the play as performed. They may aid professors and even high school teachers to recreate the drama on a small scale in the classroom. The play comes to life as a whole at the Telus Studio Theater at the University of British Columbia as this review goes to press, under the direction of Joan Bryans. Whether Irvine has presented Socrates as lovable enough to save will once again be up to the 'jury'.

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