in prison with socrates

prison of socrates

Philopappos Hill, also known as the Hill of the Muses, is often overlooked due to its proximity to the more famous Acropolis. But the presence of a large monument at the summit – clearly visible from the Parthenon – called to us this afternoon and so we set out to hike to the top and discover what exactly was there. Meandering through the forest we came upon a series of caves with bars on them and realized we had stumbled upon something much more interesting than any monument; we had found the legendary prison of Socrates. And while I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss why Socrates was imprisoned, why he believed it would be unjust to try to escape, and why he drank from the cup of poison hemlock without protest, somebody was obsessed with the prevalence of bees buzzing around the entrance and so, unlike Socrates, we beat a hasty retreat.

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at the theatre: the anarchist

When David Mamet writes a play with emotionally driven characters and a plot hinging on dangerous points-of-no-return and vigorous debate the results are often visceral, whether you appreciate the mise en scene or not. This playwright specializes in unflinching drama and, yes, it is often riotously funny and startlingly vulgar, too. The point being that love him or hate him – and Mamet has his fair share of vocal champions and detractors – there is no arguing with his skill as a dramatist when he delivers to an audience people living his or her own desperate emotional truths. When Mamet chooses to write a dialectic, however, the results are often less than engaging. His chief skills as a master storyteller drop by the wayside – as they should, the dialectic method is a dialogue in search of the truth and not a debate. Disguised as drama, however, it has little resonance below the neck. The Anarchist, Mamet’s latest play, now in previews at the Golden Theater, unfortunately falls in to the later category. For a man whose reputation has often (maybe unjustly) been said to rest upon a propensity to display his dramatic balls, so to speak, it makes for a doubly disappointing evening at the theater. What’s most frustrating is that the premise doesn’t lack the potential for dramatic fireworks: Cathy, a longtime inmate with ties to a violently anarchic political organization is up for parole. Her warden, Ann, wants to be certain that if Cathy is released it’s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individual’s responsibility to society versus the state’s responsibilities to the individual, which would make for fascinating reading but not, alas, compelling viewing. Stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger do their level best to inject a human element into the arguments but the drama onstage is not anarchic or revolutionary or even radical. It’s confused.

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rock of ages

The first thing you notice about Alcatraz is how small the prison actually is.  Rather than the industrial-sized farm for felons you may have expected, The Rock only occupies a minor portion of the island it inhabits – the rest being given over to a protected wildlife habitat among the ruins of the 19th century fort that once defended San Francisco Bay.  It’s almost, you could say, an intimate place to be an inmate.  In truth, it never held more than about 200 prisoners at one time – though granted those mighty few happened to be some of the most dangerous men in the world at the time: Al Capone,  Machine Gun Kelly, Doc Barker, and Robert Stroud – the Birdman of Alcatraz – to name just a few.

In use as a Federal Penitentiary for just 29 years, it’s amazing how much mythology has accrued.  Perhaps it’s due to the tantalizing proximity to the city itself:  prisoners in the isolation ward known as cell block D faced the shoreline and reported that when the breeze was right they could hear music and noise wafting over from the yacht club’s parties just a mile away.  Or perhaps it’s the prison’s seeming impenetrability, offering no chance of escape:  36 prisoners were involved in 14 escape attempts but no prisoner successfully escaped.  Three of them did make a daring, deft attempt – immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz – but the official story reports that despite all the effort involved in chiseling through the concrete around their air vents and leaving papier mache dummies tucked up in their beds, the three men u;timately drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland.

Another lesser-known fascination with the island lies in its role as part of the civil rights movements of the 1960’s:  on the morning of November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians landed on the island (despite an attempted Coast Guard blockade) and began an Occupation to protest the government’s confiscation of native lands.   Lasting 19 months, the occupation was eventually ended by a force of government officers who removed the last of the dwindling protesters. Though fraught with controversy, the Occupation is hailed by many as a success for having led to the end of the government’s Termination  & Relocation policy, which sought to assimilate native tribes into mainstream society. (Interesting side note:  as a child, the actor Benjamin Bratt was in the occupation with his mother and his siblings.)

Then again, maybe we all just have an abiding – if slightly creepy – fascination with people and places that operate outside of the social norms.  How else do you explain the line of idiot tourists eagerly waiting to have themselves photographed inside a  crumbling jail cell?

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