Some years ago—more than a decade now—we had a colloquium on Socrates at NYU, and I remember one guest speaker saying that he thought it was understandable—not to say excusable, but understandable—that many Athenians saw Socrates as a threat to the democracy, thus accounting for his sentence. This sentiment plays for a laugh in the world premier of Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates, when the character remarks that more have voted for his death than for his conviction. A detail of the trial found in Diogenes Laertius [II, 42], it is of a kind with the dramatic license Nelson takes with his major sources—Plato’s Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Meno, Phaedo, and Symposium—for a dramatization of Socrates’ trial and execution.
The story is told in flash-back to a “boy” (credited as such, but a freeborn youth, later revealed in the close of the frame narrative to be the author of the opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics) newly arrived at Athens to study with Plato. After a dramatic reimagining of Alcibiades’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, the device of the flash-back allows the drama to unfold in a straight chronological retelling of Socrates’ trial (in act one), and imprisonment and death (in act two). Director Doug Hughes seems clearly inspired by Jacques Louis David’s 1787 painting The Death of Socrates in staging this tableau. The realism of his on-stage hemlock poisoning removes any doubt that the Nietzsche of Birth of Tragedy would denounce the scene as decadence.
Produced as a part of the Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy is Coming, the play is a hit, with its original run having been extended—despite the Times finding it a bit long and talky.1 The production is notable for its racially inclusive casting and sympathetic portrayal of Xanthippe. While it sticks close to its sources and does not engage with the most recent scholarship in Socratic studies, the script is remarkable for its portrayal of Plato as an author troubled by the artistic and moral responsibilities of his decision to write Socratic discourses. For its part, the audience was less interested in such issues or the coups de théâtre than in the resonances with contemporary U.S. politics.
No word yet on whether Socrates will reprise his role in the new Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
1. Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Times, April 16, 2019.