EVANSTON, Ill. --- He is often brash and prodding, a peculiar character said to have traipsed around Athens barefoot while trying to spark a revolution of the mind.
Meet Socrates -- the icon of Western thought -- as his fifth-century contemporaries might have known him in Emmy Award-winning Yannis Simonides’ theatrical adaptation of the great philosopher’s trial defense speech, as reported by Plato.
During the one-man show at Northwestern University, “Socrates Now” will put the audience in a ringside seat at the famous 399 B.C. trial.
Focusing on the complex character of the engaging and highly enigmatic philosopher, “Socrates Now” will take place at 4 p.m., Friday, Jan. 9, at McCormick Auditorium in the Norris Student Center at Northwestern.
Simonides, who has performed the show all around the world over the last decade, brings Socrates to life so that audiences might come to known him better and be inspired.
“Socrates’ purpose was to teach his fellow human beings to live the good life, to live better,” he said.
More than a year ago, “Socrates Now” first wowed a packed house at Northwestern.
Dubbed the “bad ass of Athens,” the Greek founder of Western philosophy was sentenced to death because his questioning embarrassed influential Athenians and was claimed to corrupt youth.
So, who was Socrates?
“Everybody thinks of Socrates as a brilliant intellectual who could talk you under the table,” said Sara Monoson, professor of political science and classics at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “But there is a lot of controversy over what Socrates was really like.
“Was he a brilliant examiner of ideas and a model of moderation? Or, was he an oddball who liked to go around in bare feet, unwashed and wearing lousy clothes? Was he an early advocate of free and open discussion or a subversive corrupter of youth?”
The truth is likely some combination of two disparate personas, Monoson said. What makes “Socrates Now” so unique is the actor’s ability to express both.
The primary impetus for Simonides’ visit to Northwestern is the invitation he received from Monoson to engage not only in the performance but also in her new project, “Socrates in the Vernacular.”
The project examines ways in which 20th- and 21st-century writers and artists working in all kinds of genres have used or borrowed from the figure of Socrates in creative ways.
“What interests me is the argument of how these Platonic pieces, such as ‘The Apology’ and ‘The Republic,’ and also works by Homer, make us live better, rather than think,” Simonides said. “The major purpose of my trip is to work very intensely with Sara in making some decisions on the material.”
Following each performance of “Socrates Now,” the audience engages with Simonides in an animated discussion about virtue, justice, politics, civic duty, and life and death that is highly relevant to the particular audience and time.
While Monoson cannot say for sure what the discussion will focus on following the Friday performance, she suspects that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” might come up.
“In the letter, King likens his own commitment to direct action -- peaceful protests, sit-ins and the like -- in bringing a necessary tension to society to Socrates’ commitment to self-examination -- rational scrutiny of one’s moral assumptions -- and the way that produces a tension in the mind,” Monoson said. “For King, seeking justice requires a tension in society; for Socrates, it’s a tension in the mind.”
Nelson Mandela had passed away on the morning of Simonides’ first performance at Northwestern on Dec. 5, 2013.
“During the open discussion, we had a particularly riveting conversation about the importance of being an agitator,” Monoson said. “Mandela and Socrates were both good at making people uncomfortable with certain assumptions. Nelson Mandela went to prison for standing behind his beliefs; Socrates was sentenced to death for his.”
Simonides implores audience members to ask questions that Socrates would ask today. He asks them: What would you challenge? What would you say needs to be examined?
As part of her new endeavor, Monoson is working with Simonides to develop an adaptation of Plato’s “Republic” for the stage in a manner similar to the one Simonides uses in “Socrates Now.”
“Of course, it is not possible or advisable to even try to reproduce that whole monumental text for the stage. The plan is to create a performance piece that allows Simonides, once again as Socrates, to bring to the fore the fascinatingly theatrical elements that drive the complex argument forward, to give audiences a way to appreciate the way the text creates a spectacle for the mind’s eye.”
During his visit, some portions of the script Simonides and Monoson are working on will be read as part of a seminar on the theatrical elements of “The Republic” for the research workshop on classical receptions at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.
“We want to explore the merits of dramatizing these texts with humor and light spirit so they become more accessible, less boring,” Simonides said.
Monoson said it is all about ensuring a deeper understanding of the enduring interest of classics by a wider audience.
The Friday performance of “Socrates Now” is free due in part to sponsorship by the departments of political science, philosophy and classics, the Research Workshop in Classical Receptions at the Kaplan Institute and the Classics Cluster in The Graduate School.