It feels lazy to say that Socrates, playing at the Public Theater, bears a message for our modern times. It’s undeniable that the depiction of a broken democracy, wielded to crush those who would practice free speech in the form of dissent, will hit you like a hammer to the head continuously over the course of the play’s three hours. But the essence of this production speaks to a much larger truth: that democracy as we know it has never actually worked.
Created by celebrated actor, director, and writer Tim Blake Nelson, Socrates has been a work-in-the-making for decades. Nelson majored in Classics at Brown University, and he applied a lifelong fascination with the studies of philosophy into creating Socrates, the man himself, for the stage.
The play is structured as a series of flashbacks and storytelling. Much like how Socrates served as Plato’s voice in Plato’s writing, Nelson sets up Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) as Socrates’ storyteller. Angrily interrogated by a new pupil (named only “The Boy,” but who can be none other than a teenage Aristotle), Plato painstakingly pieces together the last years of Socrates’s life and the events leading up to his entirely preventable death.
In Nelson’s Athens, patriotism abounds in many ways, shapes, and forms. The walls themselves, from the backdrop of the set to the aisles of the audience, are full of Ancient Greek inscriptions from a propaganda speech given by Pericles on the might of the Athenian democracy. We see a blacksmith who bitterly regrets his only son’s death in the Peloponnesian War, but condemns Socrates for suggesting the system that sent him there is to blame. We see the charismatic decorated warrior Alcibiades, a hero of the Athenian army, spitting vitriol for the power bestowed upon the mob – a remark which first appears to be elitist, but which actually foreshadows the vote that calls for Socrates’s death.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Socrates is everything you could ever want from a physical manifestation of the legendary philosopher. As a charming young Alcibiades (Austin Smith) says early in the show, “No one turns my soul inside out like he does.” We meet him first at a symposium, drunk and somewhat vulgar and enjoying the company of young, beautiful friends with indignant grunts. But as we see him develop his philosophical methods, to the simultaneous rise of his notoriety and popularity, Stuhlbarg softens out the edges of his character. In his search for truth, Socrates seeks to understand everyone and everything around him in a way we can not imagine the drunken reveler of the first scene. He exudes a quiet intelligence, but more than that, an insatiable curiosity. He reaches out to people, hoping to learn from them, but will not abandon his relentless questioning – the very practice which had him poison himself by the will of the majority.
The play is not without its faults. For one, it is too long. At times it reads as an overly in depth character study; at others, it will remind you of a Philosophy 101 class – and not in a good way. And its largest shortcoming is the conspicuous absence of women in the play. History has not left much room for women in a story like Socrates’s. However, the few scenes featuring Xanthippe, Socrates’s wife (gracefully and even regally embodied by Miriam A. Hyman) are perhaps the most powerful performances – but all too brief. Nonetheless, Tim Blake Nelson has done justice to the enduring legacy of Socrates, lovingly breathing life into the man and his philosophical methods in a story that feels like both a history lesson and a warning.