In early 2019 I had the flu. One of those lingering, rolling bouts that seem to be over then return to keep you hovering in a vaguely feverish almost pleasurable state, taking too much decongestant so your nose hurts and your eyes get prickly and dry.
I wasn’t feeling like doing anything useful so I watched movies. Coming late to the game I binged the first official tranche—as it’s called—of what would grow into the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, climaxing later with Avengers: Endgame. (Best? Iron Man 2, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy 1). Once my temperature dropped and the original fun wore off—seeing how individual movies interlock to form a larger, Homeric whole—I mostly stopped watching; though I was left with a nagging curiosity about further developments in what is essentially 1980s Southern California in space. Some time later, flu-free, after watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (begins well but gets lost in silly hero-quest Joseph Campbell nonsense before pulling itself together for a reasonably satisfying if overwrought finale) I watched the scene extras: because when something’s been that carefully put together it can be satisfying to see it taken apart.
One of three scene breakdowns features Gamora (Zoe Saldana), badass green space gal. She’s removed herself from the other Guardians to a solitary place to ponder the whole ‘something doesn’t feel right’ vibe she’s getting from the situation in which they find themselves. An unknown spacecraft appears in the otherworldly sky behind her—Gamora’s eyes narrow to slits. Spacecraft seems to be coming her way; then it is coming her way; she stands to look; cut to a close-up; the space ship fires laser rocket-type things at her; she runs; someone in the craft is trying to gun her down—intentionally or not, it’s the crop-dusting scene from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest done for thrills rather than suspense—by some miracle of the movies the shots all miss, she runs into a big cave, the unknown craft comes crashing in after, there are explosions and plot happens.
“This was a scene that I storyboarded before I ever wrote,” director/writer James Gunn tells us displaying the very basic comic-style drawings he made of the sequence. “So these storyboards that you see of mine… are sort of my emoji drawings… were the very first thing that was created about this scene. It’s completely visually oriented.” We see an intermediate computerized version based on his cartoons, followed by the scene as it appears in the movie: the workflow. What’s striking is the way that Zoe Saldana’s facial expressions so closely match Gunn’s cartoons, her eyes opened wide in close-up, her mouth a cinematic O of apprehension. The camera isn’t so much recording an inward human reaction as an outward projection, in Gunn’s words an emoji, the language of facial recognition software that, whether accurate or not, signals a recognizable shortcut, a flash-card to inform the audience what’s going on when explanations would slow the action. All of which made me think of how we represent ourselves to the world, how we read the representations of others, the acting teacher Sanford Meisner, and the Socratic Problem.
The historical personage known as Socrates was scornful of the written word, considering it dead and dishonest because not open to debate and growth, implanting forgetfulness, destructive to the art of memory.
‘The painter’s products stand before us as if they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.’
Socrates’ teachings are only available to us indirectly; via a couple of his students who knew him when he was probably in his sixties and notorious for asking awkward questions. Also through a comic playwright who’d perhaps been a (wartime?) buddy, knowing him well enough to mock him in a couple of plays. Any other direct accounts have not survived. His followers—he refused to call himself a teacher so can we call them students? groupies? disciples?—clearly revered him, each of the two we know best, Plato and Xenophon, vying to capture most truly the true sayings of the master so later generations—us—could learn from him, too. Trouble is, and this is where the Problem comes in, how much of what they recorded is them and how much is him, the man who wrote nothing down? What exactly was his philosophy?
There was a time in New York City that is now almost as much a matter of myth and fable as Classical Athens. When young people came from all over the US, and indeed the world, to study with teachers they hoped would show them the one true way to snatch fame from out of the darkness so, like Achilles battling the river or James Dean quitting a Broadway play on its opening night because he had two movies coming out, their names would live in glory forever.
Prominent among the teachers were Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. There were, however, many others, each with their own following, their own school, like the Cynics, or Pythagoreans, or the less exalted Scholiasts; Richard Boleslavsky, who first brought the system of its originator Stanislavski to the US in the twenties; Stella Adler, who accused Strasberg of corrupting it; Uta Hagen, protégé of Lynn Fontanne, one half of Lunt/Fontanne; Mira Rostova and Maria Ouspenskaya, both of the Moscow Art Theater, the former Montgomery Clift’s teacher—then as now, star names adding luster, legitimacy, and bragging rights—the latter I’m disappointed to learn, tiny and formidable in Notorious, made a point of abusing her students, feeling that it was necessary to reduce them to tears to make them learn—a tactic much admired by Strasberg.
Beyond a certain self-confidence, a willingness to believe that you know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t take much to set yourself up as a teacher of acting. If others had their advocates, the main split, the fissure dividing rival disciplines, like that between Orthodox and Reformed, Catholic and Protestant, came to be that between Lee and Sandy; between Meisner with his emphasis on Doing, and Strasberg with his emphasis on Being, each building on advances made by the Group Theater performing the plays of Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley, plays now mostly forgotten, a style that reached movie screens as Noir—‘Show me a dime, I’ll tango on a dime.’ Awake and Sing! Odets.
In the beginning, the already famous director Elia Kazan, channeling Moses, along with his fellow director Robert Lewis, both late of the Group—Kazan disenchanted with what he would later publicly name its ‘communist cell’—had the idea of setting up what would become the Actors Studio as a home, a refuge where actors could work on their art sheltered from the storms of the commercial theater. (Note: I use the word ‘actor’ in the gender neutral sense.) Keen to recruit fresh young talent eager to be moulded, each would have his own semi-autonomous group of student actors; the already established producer Cheryl Crawford being brought in as business manager. The idea created enough excitement to carry the venture through most of its first year till, in a depressingly show-biz move, a large number of the original students were disinvited via a form letter sent to them by teachers they’d come to trust and look on as friends. This was followed by Lewis abruptly quitting, angered by a particularly disloyal act on the part of Kazan, who had talked him out of directing the Kurt Weill musical Love Life only to take over the direction himself. Despite Kazan’s strong disapproval of his emphasis on ‘affective memory’, Strasberg had been one of the regulars in a roster of teachers that at one point included Meisner, taking over officially as head of the Studio in 1951.
It was there that Strasberg developed The Method, a testosterone-fueled style, heavy on improvisation and yes, ‘affective memory’—in my opinion no more reliable than its cousin ‘recovered memory’—that encouraged young men to grunt at each other as they jostled for dominance in class. In David Garfield’s somewhat hagiographic but thorough A Player’s Place, accounts of fist fights between Marlon Brando and others as they performed scenes or worked on improvs seem now like predictable territory-marking behaviors that should never have been allowed: if your scene partner punches you it’s no longer acting. In time the reliance on psychoanalysis, newly fashionable, and the personal cult of a leader who was by many accounts inclined to megalomania, dismayed some while producing fierce loyalty in others.
‘Strasberg’s characteristic approach to evaluating the actor’s work was developed from his reading of Trotsky and Lenin during the twenties. Trotsky wrote that the way in which you judge something is to ask, “What did you expect, and what did you get?” Lenin, in one of his letters responding to a village’s appeal for aid, brushed aside the emotional and generalized language of entreaty and asked such definite questions as, “How many people do you have? How many guns do you have? How many guns do you need? How many bullets do you have? How many bullets do you need?” This dramatized for Strasberg the importance of critically evaluating creative problems by reference to specific detail. He urged the actors to steer clear of the general, the rhetorical, the discursive in their explanations. “Give me the facts," he would tell them.
David Garfield, A Player’s Place.
Though the competitive nature of Athenian society is generally acknowledged, as is its obsession with prizes, with fame, the philosophers of the ancient world are almost always represented as being somehow above the fray. What little is known about their lives focuses, understandably enough, on their work. They are traditionally seen as fragmentary statues, bleached old men with beards who’ve already become who they were, not as they might have been when they were young, sweaty after a workout, eager to attract students and jostling for dominance in a crowded market-place. Added to this is the problem of translation if, like me, you can’t decipher the hieroglyphs of the originals but can only read them filtered through another’s perception. It’s hard to believe that the weirdly bloodless English of Plato’s dialogues in many translations can be accurate; so often the convoluted syntax, if proscriptively correct, itself needs translating to be understood. Or the self-consciously back-slapping old school style of others, redolent of the King James version, damp tweed, and stale pipe smoke. Could the originals really be that stilted, that evasive? Didn’t Plato mean them to sound like people being taught, arguing, learning? To avoid the deadness of the written word? To lend them Socrates’ authority before he’d established his own? If not, why did he write them as dialogues? Didn’t he have his own point of view? Didn’t he write them for a reason? When the Academy was new, how did his students sound every day? Did they take notes? Goof off? What music did they hum? What jokes did they tell? What did they call each other? How did they fall in love?
According to Wikipedia, it’s thought that as a young man Plato was a wrestler. As is known from his writings, he had two brothers. It’s likely his name was Aristocles son of Ariston, and that his family was aristocratic and well-connected. His wrestling coach gave him the nickname Platon, ‘broad’, which could I suppose be translated by today’s jocktocracy as chunky. Herodotus remarked on his broadness of chest. Was he popular? Did he win prizes? How old was Chunk when Socrates first noticed him at the gymnasium?
In his young manhood it’s disapprovingly reported that Chunk liked to dress up, was fond of ear-rings as well as rings to adorn his fingers. Was he fussy about the drape of his chiton? Particular about who he was seen with? Did he pluck his beard? His family had money, providing him with the means to set himself up with a professional to give him the full girlfriend experience if he wanted. Or indulge a hankering for boys. Was he sought-after? Whom did he love? (Socrates?) Who loved him? (Socrates?) Who courted him, brought him presents? (Probably not Socrates, who was always ostentatiously broke) Say in his mid-twenties, did he wake up one morning after yet another drinking-party (see Symposium) with yet another hangover and yet another stranger in his bed? Did he stumble down from his cold-water, fifth floor walk-up, out onto East 8th Street and into the Greek lunch counter on the corner to drink coffee and eat eggs? And did he realize that he seriously needed to take hold of himself and do something with his life? He couldn’t rely on hand-outs from his folks forever, or the pittance he made working in a bookstore, while he made the rounds trying to get hired for something, anything. How much longer would his appealing, farm-boy good looks last? Dimples melt like snow in April. And then what? Go back home to Corinth and that bank job he’d walked away from with nothing to show for his time in the city? Picking up a copy of Backstage left behind by some other hopeful, while bullshitting with Spiros the griddle-jockey he idly turned pages. Almost like it was a sign, he came to ads for acting teachers; Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics. But who was that guy he’d seen on street corners harassing passersby, cracking jokes, asking questions, making them think, exhorting them to not waste their time, to give a shit, to live a better life today so tomorrow they’d be prepared for the life to come? Who was he, and was he taking new students?
So many hopefuls arrive in the city eager to make their mark, so many fresh young faces! So many strong young hearts pumping blood through arteries bubbling and fizzing with oxygen, positively throbbing with life! Ambition is biology: maturity is boring. The city fuels itself with the aspirations of the young. Teachers can point the way or block the gates, allowing through only those who fit the criteria of their own remembered youth. Those left on the outside must fend for themselves, nursing their grievances till a sufficient backlog builds up, a weight sufficient to flatten the barriers causing a new way forward to be glimpsed through uncharted territory. Till someone pauses for breath and notices overgrown pathways already established, signs that the past is all around, just as it is today.
According to Strasberg, the key to acting was what he called ‘affective memory’. Art as emotion recovered in tranquility? Well, not quite. You might say that everyone’s lost a parent, or grandparent, or dog; dig deep enough and everyone’s lost someone. So by fixing your attention on how that felt (in as much specific sensory detail as possible), by recreating that emotion in a shabby rehearsal room, amplifying it, screwing your attention down into it, you can summon how Hamlet felt about the loss of his father, maybe even squeeze out a few tears. If this process seems ridiculous much about the mechanics of acting strains credibility, but this is how Strasberg’s teaching and the utility of ‘emotion memory’, hotly contested at the time, has come to us.
Summoning The Past is a cliché that’s still very much alive: a classic example from the widely admired The Misfits, 1961. Nineteen minutes in, Guido (Eli Wallach) shows Roslyn (Marylin Monroe) around his symbolically unfinished desert house. He opens a door to the bedroom he shared with his dead wife. On the threshold, the actor stops to summon the past, making clear to the audience how deeply he feels his loss and what the room represents to him. To complement such a self-consciously meaningful moment, Monroe pantomimes her vulnerability and general inability to cope. All of which raises the question of who and what the actors are in this situation, and who and what are we who observe them? That such behavior has nothing to do with life would seem obvious and yet a group of celebrated experts—director, screenwriter, editor, producer, actor, etc—all accepted the shorthand, the heavily indicated ‘emotion’ somehow recalled by the actor from his own life standing in for the character’s. The problem here isn’t how well he does or doesn’t do it, the problem is that actors don’t create they interpret. Writers create characters and situations. Putting the emphasis on what the actor is feeling instead of what the character is doing co-opts the writer’s role.
Meisner’s use of the actor’s lived experience, the As If, might seem similar to ‘affective memory’ (I apologize for the scare quotes but I don’t seem able to help myself) but is in practice its polar opposite. Briefly: I think of how it was when my elderly pug disappeared one evening, fearing that she’d been snatched by a coyote. I speculate how the pity, revulsion, and grief of my experience might clue me in to the state of a man whose daughter has been abducted by an unknown assailant. Not that it’s the same, not even close, and no matter how much I strain it’s impossible for me to feel what he felt, but the As If provides enough insight to get the imagination working. And imagination holds the key to the Meisner Technique: acting truthfully under imaginary circumstances—truthfully, not naturally. We do similar things all the time in life, we just don’t give them a name or call them techniques. In its way, the sketch I’m writing now is a kind of As If: a metaphor I’m using as I attempt to glimpse the lives of students eager for instruction who attended the philosophical schools at Athens in the mid-fourth century BCE. As If-ing them as acting students in 1950s New York, students who were also eager for instruction, provides a way to start to chip away at the marble, like tapping a spoon against an egg to crack the shell and get at what’s inside.
The same goes for the teachers. If it seems far-fetched to put Sandy Meisner in the same imaginary room as Socrates, that seems to me a better As If than to think of him as an Oxford don annotating Livy or a U of Chicago hot-shot riddled with ambition. I understand the lure of the ancients for academics but can they be trusted with what is after all our joint legacy? Students drawn to Athens came to study with celebrated teachers, they were the lure. Just as students came to study with teachers of acting when the juice was with them, before it shifted to colleges like Yale or NYU. To think of Socrates surrounded by eager young students jostling to sit where they can see and hear seems to me very much like an acting class. When philosophy concerned itself with how best to live I also don’t see much difference between Socrates singling out a student for one of his trademark interrogations and being chosen by Sandy to do a scene. For Meisner you would first have had to go through many exercises before you might be trusted to bring in the scene you’d been rehearsing with a partner outside of class, both of you anticipating/dreading being called on to present it. If you did well, if you did really well, by way of praise Sandy might say ‘That was essentially correct’. Did Socrates’ students experience the same thrill when he praised them? And the same despair when he was less than convinced by their arguments? There’s great sweetness about him in Phaedrus as he dismantles the second-hand arguments of his companion, as he might today with a young fan of Ayn Rand’s novels, while being careful not to belittle the handsome young man who, though he might be on the wrong track was nevertheless keen to learn.
I don’t know exactly when it was that Sandy came up with an idea as brilliant as it is simple, or as simple as it’s brilliant. After he’d lost his voice to cancer and left the Playhouse that had been his home? When he began teaching professional classes? Whenever it was—certainly later than the 50s—he found a way to improvise without having to invent stories about what you’re doing and why. Left to their own devices people come up with terrible plots and worse exposition; Studio improvisations cited by Garfield in his history show just how bad they can get, defaulting either into pulp gangsterdom or amateur psychotherapy, anger and self-pity being our most easily summoned emotional states. Perhaps inspired by an exercise carried out by Group Theater members deliberately talking gibberish to improvise around the text of scenes from plays they were rehearsing, Sandy’s exercise lets an actor understand that words in a script have no literal meaning; which might seem contradictory but in life if we say, ‘I’m so glad’ it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re happy. Or if you say to someone, ‘God, I hate you!’ you could be congratulating them, or sympathizing, or declaring your love. No matter how much you stress a word or act the adverb—angrily, modestly, merrily—you can’t make that word mean its meaning by how you color it, as the British might say, how you make it sound.
He paired actors off: the first said something simple, a phrase, the first thing that came to mind, the other repeated it back, the first repeats that, and so on: the Repetition Exercise. It can go on for some time just using those same words: “Do you see me?” “Do you see me.” “Do you see me.” “Do you see me?” “Do you see me?” (Something might happen between the actors to cause a slight shift; one might smile, the other lean forward) “I do see you.” “I do see you?” Almost at once, by ignoring the literal meaning of the words—try it yourself, repetition turns them to mush—by not making conscious sense actors will begin to talk to one another, will discover intention behind the words, will communicate.
I was in a class taught by Sandy which is where I learned this technique. For someone who is embarrassed by improvising and has no aptitude for it, this was a revelation. He’d devised the exercise for actors like me, who had some experience and were looking to free themselves from the tyranny of the text. Meisner meant it to be something you used for five or six weeks till you’d grasped the idea and could move on to Shakespeare or Williams, or Days of Our Lives; to any situation where you’re required to memorize lines and repeat them back, creating a truthful recreation of life being lived—however stylized—by connecting with the character’s intention. Once you know your part well enough, once you’ve done the work to really get it in your body, you can walk out on a stage feeling that you have no idea what’s going to happen. You can be free to improvise within the text, never repeating yourself though your intention remains the same. You do the same thing, just never in the same way. This is how a play can come alive and acting becomes an art.
Since his death, Sandy's simple exercise has become an industry, taken up by teachers around the world, written about and discussed, overshadowing the rest of what he taught. College drama department acting classes devote whole semesters and years to its teaching. Hopefuls in New York pay good money to acting teachers who teach nothing else. Devotees spend years saying I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay to each other without ever learning why.
Let’s say that Chunk found his way forward, how to pull himself together and cut the crap. As he was discovering, the trick was to ask the right question; to assume that if you knew nothing, neither did anyone else. And then to follow up, to keep following up, and if that pissed people off so much the better: feelings aren’t thought. That the master refused to be called teacher only gave his teaching greater heft, as Chunk no doubt tried to explain to his skeptical family. Did they worry about his future? Why couldn’t their Ari find himself a nice young man instead of wasting his time on such a notorious loser? Did he try to get them to understand that if Socrates wanted to be rich like all those other so-called teachers who charged admission to their classes, he could do that easy. But he didn’t. “Well why not?’ his father might want to know. “What’s wrong with him? He think he’s better than everyone else?” Ari was pissed that his brothers were laughing at him, concerned that his father might cut him off so he’d be forced to find a job because what could he even do? Maybe he could write? Not those political speeches or trial appeals that hacks wrote for money but something else, something that could be somehow meaningful? Then he could maybe read what he’d written and charge admission? But what could he write that anyone might want to hear? What did he know that was worth anyone’s time?
Even when he was on trial for his life, when everyone was begging him to chill, Socrates refused to take it seriously, suggesting to the jury of his fellow Athenians that instead of condemning him to death or sending him into exile the city should be awarding him a lifetime pension for services rendered. Writing it out later, it seemed to Chunk that the old man had deliberately mocked his accusers, the whole idea of the trial. Maybe that’s why instead of letting him walk, as had been kind of expected, they’d condemned him to death. He'd pissed them off that much! This came as a shock. Maybe not everything was up for debate? Following him to his cell, Chunk and the other disciples, those most favored, maybe shook their heads, consoling themselves with the thought that the only real surprise about the whole shitty business was that he hadn’t been dragged out and stoned to death years before.
Socrates’ death gave Chunk his calling, his second act; he’d spend the rest of his life writing down what he’d heard him say, or at least what he remembered; filling in blanks where he could, asking around to see what the other guys remembered. In later years, as his own ideas expanded, did Chunk start to play fast and loose with the facts, making up stuff about the past, turning it more into an account of what he hoped had happened instead of the sad flat truth of coping and disappointment? Like that drinking-party after Agathon won the prize for Best Play when he was so handsome that everyone wanted to sit beside him to swap their ideas about love? Socrates showed up late because he’d had to stop in the street to finish a thought the way he used to do—so of course he got to sit with the good-looking winner and flirt. Behavior maybe Chunk knew well? Then that goddamn Alcibiades burst in—had he even been invited?—shit-faced and gorgeous, wreathed in garlands and trailing flute-girls. Cutting to the chase he plonked himself down next to Socrates—elbowing Agathon out of the way—to tell him again how much he loved him, how much he’d always loved him. To accuse him of leading him on, of being a cock-teaser, and how he’d done the same with Charmides and others just as good-looking who loved him. Why would he never give in? He think he was too good to love? That he could only be loved?
Was any of that true? Who cares? Chunk was imagining that golden age when they’d all been young, all those men now old or dead or forgotten, when there’d been leisure enough to drink too much and obsess over love. He’d been twelve at the time so there was no way he could have had any direct knowledge of what went on. He says as much at the beginning, setting it up as a story told by some guy who’d heard it from another guy who’d been one of the guests who remembered every word, more or less, even after all this time. Given the characters Chunk assembled for the cast of his play written to honor his master, to recall him as he had been in his prime, his fictional Symposium, it would be a pretty safe bet that the subject they’d choose to discuss would be love. What else would they talk about? What was more creative, transformative, more essential, more revealing? In that brief peace interrupting the endless war that ground Athens down, in that time when it seemed like they’d turned a corner before it all went horribly wrong—so many people blamed Alcibiades for that!—what else would have the same urgency or resonance? If the city was fallen they still owned the past and the hope for its future. In these bleak times that’s surely worth something?
When he felt himself ready to pass on his own version of the Repetition Exercise, Plato started his own school; an Academy to last as long as there were students eager to learn, expanding to meet the demand as more and more newcomers joined the original select few. Did he have scheduling conflicts? Did he live to overhear students in hallways say to each other after class, ‘Plato said…’ the way he had about Socrates? Did he have favorites? Did he lose his hair? Did he get sick of the sound of his own voice? Finally he’d come to adapt his nickname, leaving his wrestler days behind as he settled into middle-age, grappling with how to make a better world, writing it all down, all his evolving thoughts on how to understand our lives, and the guessed-at truths beyond, leading to inevitable rules and systems, theories and arguments.
Because, as he no doubt discovered, when you write stuff down people are apt to read it and pretty soon they’re going to want to improve it, or purify it, or tell you you’re wrong; you can never control how people understand your words or what use they’ll make of them. Like that other teacher whose disciples tried to remember long after his death what it was he’d said that was so important. They all had different accounts they told to different people who went on to tell others who then maybe started writing it down years later, quarreling over who had the right version, and which of the sources had known the teacher best. Not to compare Sandy with Jesus, but in his fervent years he never wrote out his lessons either. Neither did Strasberg, though to save them for an assumed posterity he did make tape-recordings of his lengthy and often cruel critiques of his students’ work—an activity that doesn’t count as teaching in my admittedly partisan book. They depended on the force of their personality, and the willingness of students to believe. What you learned depended on what you heard.
When I told him what had become of his simple exercise Sandy shrugged. I guess by then he was reconciled, or proud, or past caring. Had it been possible to make Socrates aware that his thought exercises had become the underpinning of whole centuries of conjecture I’m guessing he’d have likely laughed. If he didn’t have a sense of humor, how did he get so many young men to follow him? As he liked to point out, it wasn’t his good looks—though it’s possible he was an unreliable witness. From what is known he was pretty tough, he’d served three times as an infantryman, had been a wrestler, and Alcibiades was pretty disappointed when the private match he set up between them didn’t lead to anything less strenuous but more intimate. The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues often shades into romance, a fact that seems to have unnerved generations of translators and commentators who have felt it their duty—after thanking wives and children in the acknowledgments—to warn readers that, anachronistic or not they should brace themselves for homosexual content ahead, perhaps even homoeroticism.
Sandy liked to flirt and make people laugh, too; could be seductive in his way. He’d entertain his classes with impersonations of Strasberg. I don’t know if the favor was returned. As for Socrates, perhaps Aristophanes came closest to the truth with the grotesque clown he put on the stage? Certainly it made the original laugh, as we’re told in Symposium which ends, after almost all the other guests have either gone home or passed out, with the playwright sitting with the not-teacher who is explaining to him—the amateur explaining to the pro as amateurs like to do—that just because he’d had some success with his little comedies there was no reason he couldn’t write a decent tragedy if he tried. The playwright’s sideways eye-roll and silent sigh echoes down the centuries. At least, that’s how Chunk liked to imagine it, as he tried to recapture that most exciting time in his life when he was young and found a teacher to show him the truth.
Given the oppressive ongoing fiasco of our present politics, the constant alarums and excursions, why does it matter that an actor’s face should be represented as an emoji? Maybe because actors, on stage but more importantly these days on screen, show us who we think we are, how we represent ourselves to ourselves. We like best movies that flatter us, that show us how caring we are, or funny, smart, generous, daring; movies that invest us with superhuman strength and fortitude; movies that show us winning the prize despite impossible odds, to fly and never die; that let us be beautiful. If the script allows, an actor can try to connect with the truth, not necessarily the reality, of a situation; or they can retreat into the fantasy of an imagined emotion to reflect back at us what we want to see, a comforting validation of our assumptions—“I really identified with that character.”
When he woke, when that last night was over, was Socrates secretly glad? At last people would have to stop asking dumb questions, believing that he knew the answers: though whose fault was it if that’s what they believed? I’m pretty sure he’d have agreed there’s such a thing as being too smart. Sandy was glad to retire to Bequia where he could live in peace without having to look all the time at faces eager for certainty. Let someone else take a turn, let someone else listen to kids repeating endlessly Do you see me, Do you see me, Do you see me. The morning they brought the hemlock—it was delayed almost a month because they had to wait for the sacred ship to return from its annual trip to Delos, a time when no one could be put to death, not even Socrates—in one of those rare fragments of reality somehow preserved from two and a half thousand years ago, Plato tells us that the master spent his last hours of life composing a little song for the god who had offered him guidance throughout his life, alerting him whenever he was about to do some wrong thing. Happy always to embrace the day, whatever the day might bring, his last action was to compose a little hymn of thanks. He didn’t write it down because that wasn’t the point; what mattered was the doing not the feeling.
Plato wasn’t there at the end. He makes a point of recording that. How much of that final great scene of Phaedo in which Socrates helps his followers understand why, if he is to be true to himself he can’t try to escape, he must drink the poison and in that way reclaim his agency, how by following his example they will be able to face their own end with equanimity, claim their own bliss in the life to come. The scene has been much imitated over the years, Saint Joan, A Man For All Seasons, etc, but how much of it can we take to be factual, a true account? How much is invention?
The coldness was spreading about as far as his waist when Socrates uncovered his face—for he had covered it up—and said (they were his last words): ‘Crito*, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius**. See to it and don’t forget.’
‘No, it shall be done,’ said Crito. ‘Are you sure that there is nothing else?’
Socrates made no reply to the question, but after a little while he stirred; and when the jailer uncovered him, his eyes were fixed. When Crito saw this, he closed the mouth and eyes.***
Such was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.****
*Socrates’ oldest friend who had begged him to escape then later helped him die.
**To thank the god for a good life? Or for an easy death? And also the traditional gift for a lover to bring to the young man he was courting.
*** Unlikely. Although we’re not told how he did this or how long it took.
****Plato’s not wrong. Unless of course he made it all up and that’s the Socratic Problem.