Who is Socrates Smith?
Updated: Aug 6
'The Lost Photographs of Socrates Smith', Mildura Arts Centre, 2019
It's been on my mind to explain the origins of my stage character, Socrates Smith.
Socrates first appeared in my unpublished novel 'My Friend Socrates', later revised as
'The Tin Parrot' and published in a limited edition in 2019. [Available on my website as a PDF here: https://www.samlloydart.com/the-tin-parrot]
During a road trip to Mildura in 2015 it occurred to me that I had experienced things, growing up there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that could be worth writing about: the distinctive environment and Mildura's isolation from centres of culture; the shrinking of distance due to global communications and technology; the cultural revolution of the 'Summer of Love' and the Vietnam War; the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 and so on. I also felt I had a story to tell of a young would-be artist and rebel growing up in this distinctive environment and time.
I started to think about a character who would represent 'me' at that time of my life; I wanted him to have a commonplace surname like mine . . . Smith, say. I thought of him as a rebel and a teenage philosopher, and the nickname 'Socrates' came to me. Of course, the alliteration of the 'Ss' worked nicely. I should emphasise I had not heard of the novel Jasper Jones (Craig Silvey, 2009).
Socrates Smith was born!
In the novel/s he is a super-charged version of myself, more radical, more courageous, more extravagant; he shares with me a frustration at the slowness of the world to catch up with his big ideas, and a troubled childhood dominated by a manipulative father.
I launched 'The Tin Parrot' at my exhibition 'The Lost Photographs of Socrates Smith' at the Mildura Arts Centre in 2019. This exhibition recreated the final scene in the book, in which Socrates' friend Robert mounts an exhibition in this very gallery as a tribute to his dead friend. The exhibition opening turns to chaos when police and emergency services burst in to defuse a fictitious 'bomb'.
It occurred to me it would be good if Socrates arose from the dead at the exhibition opening. I engineered a break in the speeches during which I disappeared; my daughters dressed and made me up as 'Socrates'; Socrates then appeared, and 'he' sang a couple of convict protest songs. This was the first time Socrates appeared 'on stage'. [Watch the video here https://youtu.be/EmR8tckwKYA]
All this time, Socrates was to me a teenage character; in the novel his subsequent life is described only in a letter; I never developed it fully. It was in 2020 during the first lockdowns that I started to imagine an older Socrates: a Socrates of the age I was now.
I started writing a play, which evolved into 'Socrates Smith's Crusade for the Planet'.
In this work, Socrates is an adult yet is somehow stuck in the world he inhabited as a teenager. He is (or perhaps fantasises that he is) a travelling public speaker exhorting Australians to act on climate change, yet at the same time he is still a high school student. I resolved this contradiction through the artifice that he had continually failed to graduate from high school, as had his erstwhile companion, Dunno Willingham (Dunno grew from being a side character in the novel into Socrates' constant wise counsel and comic foil).
Sam Lloyd as the teenage Socrates Smith, at the opening of
'The Lost Photographs of Socrates Smith', MAC 2019
The origin of Socrates Smith as depicted in 'Socrates Smith's Christmas Cracker', 2021
This show never happened. Dramaturg Crystal Haig and I planned to put it on at the Perth Fringe in 2021, but lockdowns prevented us. Perhaps it was a good thing: the work has multiple scenes and cast members and was too ambitious as my writing/acting debut.
Sam Lloyd rehearsing as Socrates in 2020 for 'Socrates Smith's Crusade for the Planet'
In 2023 I again became interested in putting Socrates on stage. I wrote a one act piece, almost entirely monologue, in which Socrates presents a lecture on one of my favourite writers, J. L. Borges (Borges' preoccupation with fictitious but believable 'histories' had inspired the 'Lost Photographs' exhibition). Socrates has now lost his Mildura connection altogether and is entirely an adult (albeit preoccupied with his past life). I feel that he has come of age as a character.
I hope that Socrates has a future on the stage. I already have new pieces for him to perform. In one, He and Dunno buy a house (a comment of the housing crisis); in another he applies for the unemployment benefit (a comment on the cruelty of government-induced joblessness).
I hope he has more opportunities to express the things that most annoy him:
human greed, stupidity, and folly.
Publicity graphic for 'An Evening with Borges'