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Michael Stuhlbarg                                                   photos by Joan Marcus



                by Arney Rosenblat



Socrates a philosopher, moralist, and so-called enemy of the people comes to life in Tim Blake Nelson's brilliant prescient play at the Public Theater, where he prompts the viewer to question the strengths and weaknesses inherent in democratic rule


As the Public's  artistic director Oscar Eustis notes in the program, even at its dawning in Athens around the sixth century BC, the wisdom of the people as expressed in the ballot box is perhaps the prime shibboleth of any age. This, playwright Tim Blake Nelson sets about proving. (Nelson, who studied the classics at Brown University, has a distinguished career as an actor, director and playwright most recently seen in the Coen Brothers "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and is the praised author of "The Grey Zone,"  a film which he also directed, and "Anadarko.")


The play opens at a time following Socrates death where the audience meets Plato, the story's narrator and chronicler of Socrates' words and teachings,  portrayed with commanding skill by Teagle F. Bougere and a boy played deftly by Niall Cunningham who has come to Athens to be his mentee, likely a representation of Aristotle  The setting designed by Scott Pask, with its dark stone walls emblazoned with Greek writings that present a eulogy touching on democracy given by the Athenian general Pericles.conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tomb.  All this is offset, however, with glowing candles recessed in the walls.



As Plato begins to recount the story of Socrates, the man, to the boy who views this supposed democratic city of Athens as "murderous," asks Plato, why the city "killed its greatest thinker...Killed him like a traitor," the play shifts to happier times before his Socrates's clash with his populous society.  Socrates and his fellow elite contemporaries including the playwright Aristophanes (a delightful Tom Nelis) are engaged in friendly  banter and teasing led by his long time admirer and acolyte,Alcibiades,  played with charismatic and athletic charm by Austin Smith  


In Nelson’s play Socrates, he addresses the boy’s question as to why Socrates had to die as he explores the life and death of one of the key founders of Western philosophy (c.470 BC - 399 BC age approximately 71) proffering the eerie conclusion that the more things change the more they remain the same - question those entrenched in power and  group think at your peril.  The play is a prodigious achievement which spotlights the destabilizing effects that ideas promulgated by a sound thinker can have on the status quo.  It also provides a vivid portrayal of what has become known as the "Socratic method" of learning wherein a person's underlying beliefs and assumptions are challenged by questions.producing a cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals to stimulate critical thinking, draw out ideas and change presuppositions.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Austin Smith 


Under Doug Hughes artful direction. he paints a living portrait with his multi-talented cast, a number of whom play multi-roles (which can get confusing to the eye)  of the costs that inflexible righteousness can weigh on the guilty and innocent alike.   The mood is supported by Catherine Zuber's period appropriate costumes and Mark Bennett's sound design.  


In the lead role of Socrates, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a monumental and mesmerizing performance touched with both pathos and sly humor.   As written by Nelson, Socrates with his self-effacing, almost street preacher persona, has become a star influencer among the youth and intellectuals of Athens showing them not what to think but how to think through what appears to be his endless stream of questions.  However, as these questions chip away more and more at the foundations of his society, particularly the religious and civic myths which unite that society, fear and antagonism within the establishment mount against him.


Robert Joy, Michael Stuhlbarg, 


Several incidents that in other circumstances might have simply slipped by unnoticed are suddenly blown out of proportion.  These included the destruction of statues of the popular god Hermes and public derision of the goddess Demeter, by a group of youths led by Socrates' friend, Alcibiades, .  These incidents, according to the narrator Plato,  became "a sacrilege beyond imagining in a city mad about its gods....They might as well have destroyed the Parthenon for all the hysteria that followed."  Socrates is blamed for his influence on "Elitist" youth and far more serious for his challenge to Athens perception of democracy, "its customs and all they stood for." 


Socrates, is in fact concerned about what passes as democracy in his Athens believing it relies too heavily on the unenlightened views of the members of that society which can easily lead to mob rule. He points out that in other instances in one's life, an individual would consult a professional, "I'm simply curious, why we do not do the same when it comes to Athens, and let those best fit to lead, lead, rather than the ones who give the most entertaining speeches, largely to the uniformed, or even worse, are chosen by lottery rather than because they're qualified."  (Sound familiar, nearly 2,500 years later?)   


With words like these, "the divide widened between those who loathed and those who admired him, with no one in between," observes Plato.  "The latter, mostly the young, of course, and the former mostly their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles."   Through this growing turmoil, "a democracy divided," as Socrates rather sadly observes, he remains the gadfly and refuses to alter or even acknowledge the affects of his actions.  Until finally, where there's a will there's a way; Socrates is charged with punishable crimes, which were really "maliciously incoherent" and  actually canceled each other out as Plato recounts, "Charged for being an atheist, but also for worshiping the wrong gods"  Capping off these crimes listed against him, Socrates was also charged with corrupting Athens' youth,  Says Plato, this was a blind application of "democracy with a vengeance"  


In the second act of Socrates, Nelson through his narrator Plato  makes it quite clear that Socrates "had every opportunity not to die,"  so he, in effect, played a major role in his own fate. Among other things, he could have paid a fine, let his friends pay his file, consented to exile, moderated his speech, all these he refused to do despite the pleas of his friends and even his wife Xanthippe, a marvelous and ferocious  Miriam A. Hyman, who entreats him to remember that his death will leave her and his sons destitute. 


The only woman in the cast, Xanthippe is also given one of the few moments of unabashed humor with her doomed husband when Socrates complains, "I know you won't extol my virtues as a husband and father..given the berating that goes on under my roof on a daily basis."  To which she retorts, "A daily basis?..You're home every day?"


As the play proceeds to its pre-ordained conclusion, Socrates with his friends around him, prepares for his death, the cup of poison, (never actually referenced as Hemlock in the telling) undertaking a solemn ceremonial bath. The placement of his attending entourage  is reminiscent of the  well-known painting by Jacques-Louis David at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (whether intentionally or not) though that noble Socrates did not convey the gut-wrenching pain the philosopher endured before giving up his life.  The scene as portrayed by Stuhlbarg is riveting and scorching.


The play concludes with Socrates' friends and citizens of Athens  making offerings at Socrates' request to Asclepius, he god of healing.and Plato rationalizing Socrates' death to the boy, "He exposed us to our lies, and we killed him for it...And the lies continue, grow more and more elaborate, pernicious, irreversible.." 


But as Plato, composes himself, he sees the boy has something for him, which he reads, "Everything we do..every action...all we thought to be aimed at some good."  To which Plato responds, "Let's only hope..But now...some questions."


The nearly three hour play, though accessible,, is not an easy play to digest with its dense dialogue and sometimes academic rather than dramatic tone, but like a beautiful multi-tiered concerto, it is well worth the effort, even though you might be able to pass on some of its more repetitive movements.  Nelson in the voice of Socrates leaves the audience with an essential haunting  question of his own -- can Democracy function if its citizens demur their responsibilities to think and take action for good and against evil.



Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street, East Village


Running time: 2 hrs. and 45 min.

Closing date: June 2, 2019