Whether you’ve studied philosophy or Greek history, or simply ever been asked a question in classroom, chances are you have heard of Socrates and his Method. He is credited with being one of the most influential minds of all time.
Actor and director Tim Blake Nelson, best known for his performance as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and for playing the title role in Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, returns to the writer’s chair with his new play Socrates, currently running Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre. The drama, set in the times of the ill-fated philosopher, follows his rise to success as he gains support from the people of ancient Athens until his execution at the hands of the government.
“The ancient thinkers, dealing with what it is like to live a strong, ethical life in the simplest and most direct terms possible, have always interested me,” says Nelson. “Socrates, in particular, in the fact that he was ultimately executed by the city of Athens for the way in which he pursued an ethical life, felt to me like one of the most important stories I could ever tell.“
The story is over 2,000 years old, but Nelson believes the core message rings true today—maybe more than ever. Socrates, famous for his critiques on democracy, was persecuted for his views and accused of corrupting the minds of young Athenians.
“I think people are going to leave the theatre understanding that the questions that plague us right now in a really turbulent time in our democracy ... that those questions have been around for millennia,“ he says.
Taking over three decades to come to fruition, the script had to find a way to encapsulate all of Socrates’ beliefs into the last stage of his life without risking the integrity of the story. “When I tried to write it 30 years ago, I didn’t have a clue as to how to pull it off,” he says. “After 30 years of watching a lot of plays, I felt like I’d give it another try and this time, I had better luck ... and now here we are.”
While 30 years seems like a long time, the more surprising fact is Nelson’s ability to write a play of this caliber with such a rich acting and directing career.
“I’m just very disciplined in how I use my time,” says Nelson. “If I’m acting for four days a week when I’m on a film, my writing mind is resting so then I can go and write. Then, when I’m writing, I’m essentially getting rest as an actor so that I can go and do that.”
As an actor and director, Nelson has a special perspective as a writer. He credits the cast of Socrates, led by Michael Stuhlbarg in the titular role, a longtime friend and colleague of Nelson‘s, with pushing his words to the next level in their performance, guided by director Doug Hughes.
“What the actors have done truly without exception is deepen the material in ways that I didn’t expect, and that starts with Michael, but it permeates all the way down to one and two line roles,“ he says. “The role of Socrates is comprised of an enormous challenge and if audiences get nothing else from the evening, being in the presence of Michael as he accomplishes this role is going to prove unforgettable.“
Stuhlbarg and Nelson’s friendship dates back to their drama school days at Juilliard, and Nelson has admired Stuhlbarg’s work ever since.
“I’ll always write for Michael. I’m lucky he was available and wanted to take this part on,” says Nelson. “He’s—as only Michael does—living the part.“
Socrates never shied away from being controversial, and the same is to be said about Nelson’s writing. He delves deep into some of life’s hard-hitting questions—Is democracy fair? What does it mean to be virtuous? What is death?—making this a show relevant to all, not just philosophy buffs.
“All of the questions of the play, I feel, are integral to my life ... and I would argue, personal to us all,” he says. “Even if you ignore those questions, that’s still an ethical statement, just as ignoring political statements is still a political act.“
Socrates is currently in previews and officially opens at The Public April 16 for a limited engagement run through May 19.