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Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, and Michael Stuhlbarg takes on the role of the ancient philosopher.  Here, Nelson discusses the life and teachings of Socrates, and the decades-long process of bringing the play to the stage.

How long did it take you to write the play?
I started researching it in the summer of 2015. I have a day job as an actor, and sometimes movie director and screenwriter, so I worked off and on since then. When I was in graduate school, I tried to write this play and failed miserably. I wrote maybe 30 pages and understood pretty quickly that I didn’t have the life experience, the knowledge, the abilities as a playwright to structure such a big story. I just didn’t have it in me. But 30 years later, I had the hubris and set about again trying to write the play, and this time with a measure of diligence and focus and a little more belief in myself.

What made you persist?
The predicament Socrates faced in Athens by being such an aggressive proponent of free speech and unlimited inquiry in the first democracy always interested me. The predicament of him being in that polity and behaving by the rules in such a corrosive way that they trumped up reasons to kill him. I also was interested in the character of Socrates inside the dialogues of Plato.

I became even more interested when I began to understand the character was often at odds with what we understand now to be the historical figure of Socrates. I wanted to delve into the tension between the Socrates in Plato and the Socrates who wandered the streets of Athens. And to try to understand why Plato would’ve depicted him in the ways that he did and put thoughts into his mentor’s mouth that Socrates never would’ve uttered.

Why was Michael Stuhlbarg the guy to play Socrates?
Michael and I have known each other since drama school. And I recognized in him already in his first year, when I was in my third year, a singular talent for truthful transformation. In other words, he could inhabit characters great distances from himself but carry himself into those characters in a truthful way. No matter how dramatic and challenging the transformation, there would always still be inside the character a palpable soul.

You and Stuhlbarg have both been in Coen brothers movies. Could Socrates be a Coen character?
Ethan [Coen] did major in philosophy in college, so I wouldn’t put it past him. Socrates is a Coen-esque character in his willingness to live life on the extremes.

What’s it like going from film to theater and vice versa?
I hope each nourishes the other, and I try to make sure that continues to happen. I certainly recognize that writing for stage is different than writing for film. I love living a life in which potentially I can get to write [Socrates’] story for the stage and see a great theater director like Doug Hughes guide Michael Stuhlbarg and a fantastic New York theater cast through the telling of it. And then perhaps get to tell that story on film using a completely different vocabulary and approach that has all the drama, action, violence, surprise and arresting beauty and captivating ugliness that film demands. 

Things You Didn’t Know About Tim Blake Nelson

AGE: 55 BIRTHPLACE: Tulsa, Okla. MOST INTERESTING “WATCHMEN” CHARACTER: Rorschach FAVORITE ANCIENT GREEK TEXT: Plato’s “Crito” NEXT PHILOSOPHER HE WOULD WRITE A PLAY ABOUT: Epicurus FAVORITE COMIC SERIES: “Doonesbury” ARTISTIC PURSUIT HE WISHES HE HAD TAKEN UP: Jazz piano

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