Plato’s Symposium was written no earlier than 385 BC and is set at a dinner party in Athens in 416 BC. With its five great speeches on the nature of love, a Socratic dialogue and an interruption it is, arguably, the most profound analysis and celebration of love in the history of philosophy. From neo-Platonism to medieval mysticism, from Augustine to Dante, from Ficino to Freud, its major insights (Love as a universal creative principle or sacred force; the quest for personal immortality; the difference between physical and spiritual love) have shaped western thinking. Every time we talk about “a platonic relationship” or “my other half” we are referring, whether consciously or not, to The Symposium.
All images credit: Rachel Cherry & Southbank Centre
This is a free adaptation, first performed at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre in June 2014.
I took considerable liberties with the text throughout, concentrating especially on the way in which the arguments worked when spoken aloud rather than read on the page. It was intended as a proper, vibrant discussion, which conveyed something of the original fizz of intellectual ideas that were present in Plato’s Athens. For Plato, philosophy was a joint activity. Mutual discussion could provide more fruitful results than the intense thought of one person alone.
I cut most of the discussions about the love of older Athenian men for young boys. I did not do this just out of cowardice and political correctness but because I felt that a modern audience would find some of this so hard to take that it would detract from the main thrust of the Symposium. This is a series of arguments about what love means, whether it is good for us, how it changes us, and whether it works as well in practice as it does in theory. Discussions on Athenian pederasty (and the ethically ambiguous idea that an older lover should “school” a younger pupil out of concern for his soul rather than any physical love of his body) would have taken too much of the focus. Instead, I chose to concentrate on a series of conversations designed to stimulate thought and provoke debate on the differences between the art of love in theory and the practice of love in the lives we lead.
Another way of encouraging a thoughtful, modern, response is through casting. In this version, Aristophanes, the great Athenian comedian, was played by Chipo Chung, who is a woman. The famous speech that Aristophanes makes in the course of the Symposium is partly about gender, and therefore it seemed right to combine a man’s speech with a woman’s presence. To have a man speak it would be naturally correct; a woman makes it more nuanced.
The language is modern. I haven’t attempted a classic pastiche but have tried to make this as fresh as possible without distorting the original ideas. This has happened in the past. There is a Victorian version of The Symposium, for example, that makes the whole discussion a movement towards an understanding of the Christian love of God (rather than the Greek “gods”) which may have worked at the time but is probably taking appropriation too far. There has been an unfortunate tradition of a rather selective use of Plato’s works – one I have hoped to avoid.
There are several very good translations available if you’d like to read the whole thing. I have found the Penguin Classic translation by Walter Hamilton, and Plato on Love edited by C.D.C Reeve particularly helpful. The most detailed commentary is by Stanley Rosen.
- Michael Maloney
- Adjoa Andoh
- Ray Fearon
- Michael Nardone
- Chipo Chung
- Daniel Weyman
- Steve Toussaint
- Tunji Kasim
- Hannah Black
- Sophie Clarke
- James Runcie
We are outdoors, in between garden and woodland. The scene is set for an Edwardian picnic, although the action takes place today. There is a pale sky blue cyclorama against the stage wall which darkens as the night progresses. Paper lanterns are strung across the stage. Upstage left a swing. Upstage right a couple of deckchairs. Downstage left a wicker recliner/outdoor sofa. In the centre of the stage a mass of elegant picnic rugs, arranged in a rectangle, as if everyone was at a dinner table, in tasteful cream and beige. Around the edge of the rugs are a mass of cushions to be lounged on; wicker picnic hampers, plates, and cutlery. The food at the centre is Greek – stuffed vine leaves, humous, taramasalata, pitta bread. There are bottles of Retsina liberally displayed and a side table, downstage left, with a table cloth, champagne, ice buckets. There is sparkling water and real glasses for eight –ten.
Diotima is already on stage, on the swing, reading a book. A flute girl plays. Aristophanes lies amidst the cushions, sleeping off his hangover. Pausanias pours himself a glass of sparkling water. Erixymachus and Agathon struggle to assemble two deckchairs.
Phaedrus! I didn’t know you were coming; is Socrates with you?
He was here just now. He invited me. I hope that’s all right. I don’t know where he’s gone.
It doesn’t matter. It’s all very informal.
He was right behind me. I can’t think what he’s doing.
He’s always thinking