Tim Blake Nelson is best known as a Hollywood actor. You may have seen him play the congressman Richard Schell in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Delmar O’Donnell and Buster Scruggs in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, respectively, and Dr. Samuel Sterns in The Incredible Hulk (a fellow has to make a living). But he’s also written, directed, and produced several films, including the fine comic drama Leaves of Grass, starring Edward Norton. Now he adds to the list an extraordinary play: Socrates, directed by Doug Hughes and playing at The Public Theater in Manhattan from April 2 through June 2.
After completing a classics major at Brown, Nelson tried and failed while he was in graduate school to write a play about Socrates. It’s easy to see why he might try—the richest portrait we have of the Athenian philosopher, after all, is contained in Plato’s philosophical dramas—but also why he might fail. It’s awfully hard to improve on Plato. And that’s not the only difficulty Nelson faced when he returned to the project in 2015, at first planning to make a film. When I spoke to him in 2017—he’s a fellow Tulsan—he mused that only an A-list actor would be able to draw audiences to a movie about a philosopher. He’d need someone who combines physical solidity with obvious intelligence: unmovable in every sort of combat, Socrates was, among other things, a distinguished warrior. Russell Crowe’s name was mentioned as a possible candidate.
Plato’s Socrates is mostly cut from the quarry of heroic myth. He’s a rock around which others surge and flow on currents of emotion: anger, love, ambition, grief. (For example, in the Phaedo, surrounded by wailing friends, he drains the poisoned cup and lies down to die as if he were tucking himself in for the night.) Nelson’s Socrates is this and more. Hard and tender, powerful and vulnerable, he’s divinely noble but also deeply human.
Plato’s Socrates is mostly cut from the quarry of heroic myth. He’s a rock around which others surge and flow on currents of emotion: anger, love, ambition, grief.
So is Plato, who never appears in his own dialogues. Nelson’s master stroke is to imagine the story that lies behind Plato’s authorly mask and to tell it in a nested narrative of the sort Plato himself used to good effect. In Socrates’ dramatic frame, set thirty years after the philosopher’s execution, Plato speaks to an unusually sharp student who’s just arrived at his Academy (guess who). This spirited young man, who doesn’t for a moment buy the story from the Phaedo that Plato was absent due to sickness when Socrates drank the hemlock, elicits the truth in the form of a confession. Plato was present when Socrates died, and he wept uncontrollably. He had more than one reason to do so, for he’d already turned his back on his friend and teacher—who distrusted the written word and philosophized only in speech and deed—by writing of him. Traduttore, traditore: to translate is to betray. Socrates knew that the dialogues would be Plato’s story more than his own. But this is his signature effect: he fructifies and stirs up souls, eliciting rage or love, indictment or praise—and sometimes all of these, as in the case of Alcibiades.
The Greeks of Socrates all burn: the protagonist with the hard, gem-like flame that Walter Pater recommends, and others—like Socrates’ oily haired, leather-jerkin-wearing accuser Anytus (played by the incomparable David Aaron Baker)—producing more heat than light. Often the effect is comic, as in wonderful scenes involving the clueless Meno (Joe Tapper) and the strutting playwright Meletus the Elder (Robert Joy), but the deeper tone is that of tragedy. The character of Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) refers at one point to tyranny that disguises itself as democracy. But Nelson’s play is really about the tyrannical passions of offense and indignation that fester in the bosom of democratic equality. To the Athenians, critical questioning is tantamount to indictment, unity of feeling trumps independence of thought, and he who holds others responsible for their ideas must think himself better than them. In one scene, a blacksmith shows Socrates how he heats and works metal. Learning that the man has lost a son in battle, Socrates invites some criticism of Athenian policy; he is answered with punches and kicks. If his son’s death was unnecessary, the man seems to reason, then it was meaningless—and anyone who thinks that deserves a beating. Among other things, Socrates speaks directly to contemporary political pathologies.
Doug Hughes has assembled a company of superb actors. Forget Russell Crowe: it would be hard to imagine a better Socrates than Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the title role. Stuhlbarg’s sturdy corpulence fits the part perfectly, and his mimetic range is broad enough to do justice to one of history’s most complex and paradoxical characters. We meet him at a bawdy drinking party (the scene is drawn from Plato’s Symposium) tugging at his scraggly beard and scratching his matted scalp like a drunken beast. We follow him around Athens as he thunders and harangues, caresses and cajoles, and gently leads interlocutors through logical thickets. We leave him in the jail, sober, defiant, and deaf to the beautiful Xanthippes’ plea to consider her fate and that of their children. (The scene recalls Tecmessa’s useless appeals in Sophocles’ Ajax.) But he dies hard, in violent, choking spasms.
Treating historical fact and Platonic fiction as raw material, Nelson has molded them into an emotionally potent and intellectually stimulating new creation.
Before his death, Socrates strips for the bath. He sits over the tub washing his pale chest and limbs while Xanthippe (Miriam A. Hyman) sponges his broad back. Statuesque and stubborn, he’s turned away from his grieving wife, whose touch is alternately tender and wild with frustration and rage. But when he rises to pass her, he dangles his hand behind him for a last, loving handclasp. In these extraordinary minutes of silent action, Socrates lets us see and feel what Plato conceals: the heavy human cost of philosophical nobility.
Nelson takes liberties with Plato’s dialogues and with Greek history. (Thrasymachus was not an Athenian and the battle that resulted in the trail of the admirals was at Aegospotami, to cite a couple examples.) Is this a betrayal of history and philosophy? I suppose so, but I prefer to call it art. Treating historical fact and Platonic fiction as raw material, Nelson has molded them into an emotionally potent and intellectually stimulating new creation. I came away from the performance teeming with thoughts and feelings. How Socratic is that?