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Alan Mendez, Ro Boddie, Michael Stuhlbarg & Joe Tapper in Socrates

Review of Socrates, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, at the Public Theater

Donna Herman
Donna Herman

It never fails to amaze and sadden me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tim Blake Nelson's Socrates, enjoying its world premiere anchoring the "Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming" at the Public Theater, is a perfectly timely example. Widely acknowledged as a founder of Western philosophy and the father of ethical or moral philosophy, Socrates' famous trial and death are explored in Socrates. The mixture of the birth of democracy and ethics will leave modern audiences stung by the parallels 2500 years apart.

Socrates (Michael Stuhlbarg) lived in ancient Athens, regarded as the cradle of civilization, not least because it was the first state to adopt democracy in 508 B.C. - roughly 40 years before Socrates was born. And while the philosopher's ideas are revered today, Socrates leads us on a journey, narrated by his famous pupil Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) to A Boy (Niall Cunningham) just after Socrates' death, that informs our understanding of his place in ancient Athenian society.

A Boy has been brought to Athens to study with Plato after the Boy's father has died. Quite bright and full of the zealous belief that everything Athens and Athenians stand for is to be condemned because they killed his idol, Socrates; he wants nothing to do with Plato, Athens or democracy. Telling A Boy that he knows nothing of democracy or Socrates because he wasn't there, Plato convinces A Boy to let him explain how it really was.

In scene after scene, what has come to be known as the "Socratic method," is illustrated effectively by playwright Nelson. Questioning another person to draw out and challenge their underlying beliefs and assumptions in every single dialog. Rarely does Socrates answer a question without another question or make any statements except to say that he is not a teacher, and he is not the wisest person in the room. 

Naturally, this behavior is infuriating, and Socrates reveals that, in his own time, Socrates was less than beloved. Plato says of him "He was in fact utterly confounding...He was both ugly and beautiful, crass and eloquent, unkempt and impeccable. Unspeakably, arrogantly rude, and we all loved him desperately." Well, not everyone. Socrates says of himself at the end of the play "I have badgered people like the gadfly that keeps coming back to bite the horse." Relentless questions asked by cute toddlers of parents who adore them make them tear out their hair; when posed by an "arrogantly rude" adult philosopher, they drive grown men to violence. Add weak democratic principles to the fear and loathing of the mob, and you have the stuff of tragedy. Hmmm.

The trick in dramatizing a philosophical topic, is how to make ideas active and urgent. Relevancy isn't the issue here because the subject matter is dripping with it. In the case of Nelson's Socrates, there needs to be some generous pruning of the script. Perhaps some of the many scenes of Socrates questioning and infuriating everyone he meets. Likewise, I could have done without watching him take an infuriatingly thorough bath for 5 minutes while nobody said a word. The trial and his death (maybe without so much time devoted to his death throes) are dramatic indeed, and riveting. The lead up could be accomplished with more dispatch.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Argument and inquiry are the engines of Tim Blake Nelson's "Socrates," which opened on Tuesday night at the Public Theater, starring a sublime Michael Stuhlbarg in the title role. In a meticulously handsome production by Doug Hughes, this is a play that hums with intelligence. It takes a fitting form: Everything that unfolds within it, telling the story of the great philosopher, is prompted by a question from a young man new to Athens, who in the wake of Socrates' death by hemlock finds the place "murderous.""
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times

"Socrates is the centerpiece of the 2019 Onassis Festival, whose subject is democracy, and the play's debates about the viability of popular rule prompt audible audience reactions. (One worker says he wants to "make Athens great.") That dialogue may be where the show's head is, but Stuhlbarg is its beating heart. Without him, this ambitious enterprise would be dead on arrival, no hemlock required."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York

"It's not a good sign when you're watching a play about one of the most important philosophers in world history and you can't wait for him to stop talking and die already. That, sadly, is the case with Socrates, the new drama by actor Tim Blake Nelson that attempts to bring this historical figure to theatrical life but mainly succeeds in boring the audience to tears. World-premiering at off-Broadway's Public Theater, the play can certainly be commended for its intellectual rigor and astute illustration of the Socratic method. But it ultimately comes across as more rhetoric than drama, the equivalent of a very long homework assignment. Three hours long, to be exact."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

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