Monthly Archives: May 2012

Conflict and Consensus in Early Hexameter Poetry

Have a look at the blog for Conflict and Consensus in Early Hexameter Poetry, a conference to be hosted at Durham in early July!

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Socrates in Hollywood

The trial and death of Socrates played an immeasurable role in the determination of the character of philosophy in the ancient world.  From early literary and philosophical treatments during his life, such as Aristophanes’ Clouds, to the ‘Socratic’ dialogues written by Plato and Xenophon, as well as those by other ‘Socratics’ (and which my colleagues Christopher Rowe and George Boys-Stones will soon make available to everyone in the English-speaking world), to the biographical accounts of his life in the Hellenistic era, Socrates was seen as an exemplary figure throughout the ancient world.  The problem most ancient had was figuring out what, precisely, Socrates stood for.  Was he just annoying busybody, or rabble-rousing revolutionary?  Or did he perhaps mastermind an oligarchic plot against the democratic state of Athens?

Socrates in Hollywood

Such a question was raised in 1953, when CBS produced a television show based on what we might call a ‘historical’ news report, entitled You are There.  Typically, the show would start out like a standard news report, except that the news item would be an item of the distant history, e.g. the Salem witch trials, or the persecution of Galileo. In episode 14,  entitled “Death of Socrates”, Walter Cronkite (the show’s anchor), takes us back to 399 BCE, to the prison where Socrates is awaiting his death, and implicitly back to Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, where “all things are as they were then”:

Click on the above image to see a clip from Episode 14, "Death of Socrates".

Charles Russell produced the show, and it was directed by Sidney Lumet.  The writers for this episode are listed by imdb as Walter Bernstein and Arnold Manoff (both uncredited; more on this later) as well as Shirley Gordon, Saul Levitt, and Howard Merill.  In addition to Cronkite, it starred John Cassavetes as Plato, Barry Jones as Socrates, John Breslin as Phaedo, and E.G. Marshall as a vibrant and problematic Aristophanes.  See, for example, the ‘interview’ with Aristophanes:

E.G. Marshall as Aristophanes (click on the photograph to see the clip)

An acute listener will hear the numerous blunders and errors in these clips (‘Hellenistic’ not ‘Hellenic’ world, ‘Theater of Dionysius’ not ‘Dionysus’).  And the elenchus in this scene is a bit sloppy and ill-formulated (‘our beliefs are all our beings’?).  But those concerns are really for historical purists (like myself).  Within the context of its production, 1950s America, however, we are faced with an interesting question: what, if anything, prompted CBS to retell the story of Socrates’ trial and death at this particular moment in time?

Now it is a well known fact that America was a strange place in 1953.  In particular, an ideological battle was raging concerning ‘un-American’ affairs, and a great number of people involved in the entertainment industry were being investigated for proliferating ‘un-American’ ideology in radio and television.  CBS, in fact, was considered a hotbed of suspicious activity, and the producer of the show, Charles Russell, was considered a major player (along with Edward R. Murrow, another producer who subsequently exposed the fraudulent accusations of Joseph McCarthy a year later, in 1954).

So we might have our suspicions that the ‘Death of Socrates’ episode on You are There (as well as others) was standing in as a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism and the accusations made against many actors, writers, directors, and producers on the so-called ‘Hollywood Blacklist’.  And we might see in Aristophanes a reference to figures such as Walt Disney or Ronald Reagan, who, as active members of the Hollywood community, nevertheless undertook to attack communism in America by testifying against other people in the entertainment industry.  I wasn’t sure if this was all mere speculation, that is, until I saw the series of autobiographical radio essays written and presented by Cronkite himself, one of which (Oct. 27, 2003) actually discusses You are There, and the “Death of Socrates” explicitly:

Walter Cronkite on You are There; click on this photograph to get the NPR webpage and scroll down to see the episode marked 'Oct. 27, 2003: You are There' (you might need Realplayer to listen to it)

Remember what I mentioned about uncredited writers?  The old problems of the authorship of Socrates attend the story of his trial and death, whether in the 390s BCE, or in 1953 CE.

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