Democracy on Trial: “Socrates”

This Spring’s Must-See Stage Event is at N.Y.’s Public Theater

Marco Romani
In Medias Res


Michael Stuhlbarg (far right) captivates as the man whose trial puts Athenian society itself on trial. (Joan Marcus)

Spearheading the 2019 Onassis Festival “Democracy is Coming,” Socrates is a tour-de-force of dramatic intensity and intellectual acumen that plunges its spectators into the social, political, and philosophical tensions of classical Athens.

Written by Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and directed by Doug Hughes (The Big Knife; Junk: The Golden Age of Debt), the play is centered around the gadfly of the city, and particularly his trial and death, through a stunning theatrical adaptation of Plato’s dialogues and other ancient sources on Socrates’ life.

Plato himself (Teagle F. Bougere) shepherds the whole performance as narrator, while the young boy Aristotle (Niall Cunningham) is the on-stage addressee of the narrative.

From beginning to end, however, the stage is dominated by a shabby, long-bearded Socrates, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whom aficionados of the Public Theater may remember starring in the title roles of Hamlet and Richard II (while moviegoers will recall his appearances in Doctor Strange and The Shape of Water among others).

If the breathtaking strength of the Platonic text were not enough to keep the audience engaged for the duration of the two-and-half-hour show, Stuhlbarg’s magnetic voice and presence would doubtless do the rest.

As readers of In Medias Res know well, Plato never wrote for the theater. As a matter of fact, he frequently wrote against the popularly acclaimed playwrights who, in his view, had turned the city into a “theatrocracy”. His dialogues are meant to be read rather than performed, while subtly negotiating an intermediate communicative space, programmatically situated halfway between orality and written culture.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Nelson’s crucial merit is not only to acknowledge and embrace the challenge of adapting the source material (especially Symposium, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo) to the theater stage, but to tackle that challenge in a masterful, genially innovative way.

The result is a seamless cut-and-thrust between Socrates and his interlocutors, among whom Anytus (David Aaron Barker) and Alcibiades (Austin Smith) deliver particularly memorable performances.

Yet Socrates is not just about Socrates — that is, it is not merely a celebration of the man and his legend. The play is, first and foremost, about the overarching subject-matter of the Onassis/Public Theater Festival: democracy.

“Democracy is a word anyone can use”, as the protagonist exclaims in a tone of dismayed resignation, moments before being condemned to death by will of the people, the demos of Athens. Thus, “why trust the majority?” is one of the many urging questions with which his thundering, passionate voice fills the air.

At the same time, the Thucydidean prose of Pericles’ funeral oration inscribed on the backdrop wall (scenic design by Scott Pask) reminds both characters and audiences that democracy is a fragile ecosystem, which can often be transfigured into oppressive, autocratic forms of government. “Man”, Socrates comments, “is well suited for tyranny”, especially if tyranny itself is disguised in democratic clothes.

The thrilling power of Socrates resides precisely in its ability to ceaselessly highlight the pitfalls and dangers of any kind of democratic rule — not without an explicit critique of the exclusionary shape that democracy took in ancient Athens, where women, non-citizens, and slaves were fundamentally denied access to civic participation.

In this connection, it is especially significant that the figure of Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife (superbly portrayed by Miriam A. Hyman), acquires here a prominent position along with humane, positive connotations that she never enjoyed in the ancient Greek sources.

In short, go see Socrates this spring. Whether or not you are a fan of Nelson’s (or Plato’s) critical meditation on democracy, you will not regret diving into a full-immersion dramatic experience of the timeless, nerve-racking questions that an ancient Athenian thinker raised, discussed, and finally died for.

Socrates, produced by the Public Theater in collaboration with the Onassis Cultural Center NY, runs from April 16th to May 19th, 2019. The performance schedule is: Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m (exceptions: no 1:30 p.m. performance on Saturday, April 6. The performance on April 16 is at 7:00 p.m. The performance on April 23 is at 8:00 p.m.). For tickets and further information please visit the Public Theater’s page for the show. For other events in the Onassis Festival 2019, visit their webpage.

Dr. Marco Romani holds a Ph.D. in Classics from Harvard and works as Outreach Manager at the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study. He lives in Manhattan.



Marco Romani
In Medias Res

Dr. Marco Romani holds a PhD in Classics from Harvard and works at the Paideia Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes the classical humanities.