Socrates Unbound: The Cheeky Philosopher Has His Say Again-In Corporate Training Sessions and Ancient Ruins

Article excerpt

Theatre people don't usually need much convincing that the Greeks are still our contemporaries. Everywhere one looks, the ancient plays continue to generate reverence, envy and awe. For the past six years, however, one uniquely obsessed and multi-talented actor has set himself the decidedly idiosyncratic mission of proving the transcendent dramatic power not of any play or playwright but rather of an ancient philosopher.

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In 2001, Yannis Simonides was invited by a cultural center in Queens, N.Y., to perform a reading of Plato's The Apology of Socrates, a re-creation of the speech Socrates delivered in his own defense at his trial in 399 B.C. for corrupting the youth of Athens. What happened next is one of the unlikelier chapters in modern classical theatre. The reading became a full-blown solo show, directed by Loukas Skipitaris, which opened in 2003 and acquired international cachet as a kind of all-embracing ethical problem play for hire. To date, it has played at more than 50 colleges and cultural societies in three countries, at the United Nations, at conferences on ethics and human rights, and--most powerfully of all--in a series of ancient theatrical sites around the Aegean Sea.

The figure of Socrates has been handed down to us more or less as a secular saint--the father of Western rationalism martyred for speaking truth to power. Simonides's performance, however, has no particular axe to grind, no decided view of what the philosopher's execution proves. Simonides's decisive insight was that by channeling the man as fully as possible, inhabiting his behaviors and attitudes in all their complex contradiction, he could facilitate the most sweeping view possible of the text's ageless questions. The result leaves his audiences not only fascinated but emotionally drained.

I first saw The Apology at Columbia University last fall, performed for 1,000 skeptical underclassmen as a part of their core curriculum. Simonides entered in a rubber Socrates mask and spoke a few lines of ancient Greek that raised passing alarms about pretentiousness. As soon as he set the mask aside, though, and adopted the gangly, sporadically childlike, broadly gesturing demeanor of his Socrates, the skepticism in the hall palpably melted away. His strange mixture of moods and miens--now indignantly bemused, now arrogantly modest--generated deep curiosity about what drove this character: "Members of the court! I don't know if my accusers have affected you or not. They spoke so convincingly, they almost made me forget who I am." And as the performance proceeded, curiosity blended with growing discomfort.

The Apology is a famously cheeky oration in which Socrates not only refutes and mocks his accusers but also offends the jury by insisting he would never change his ways and asserting he deserves the same public reward as Olympic champions. Simonides maintains intensity by addressing the audience as if they were the jury. His character is a marvelously annoying and charming imp whose capricious alternation of condescension and acuity tweaks our pride just enough to make us wonder how we might have voted had we been his jurors.

Those accusing Socrates are clearly hypocrites, fear-mongering autocrats in democrats' clothing. (Historians have explained that they were exploiting public anxiety over a recent anti-democratic coup, which Socrates had tolerated rather than condemned.) The Socrates of The Apology, however, is a victim who strips himself of innocence as he talks, all but daring the court to put him to death. The principles of an ostensibly open society thus bang up against the passions of 501 patriotic jurors (chosen by lot) who feel personally provoked by a defendant who doubts their expertise. By the end, the show has elucidated with unnerving clarity just how a society that boasts of freedom of speech comes to condemn one of its leading citizens for exercising it. …