The Drinking Party, 1965 Film Adapts Plato’s Symposium to Modern Times

The word “sym­po­sium” tends to con­jure images of a for­mal, aca­d­e­m­ic gath­er­ing, which it most often is these days. It’s kind of a stuffy word, but it shouldn’t be. In Plato’s day, it was sim­ply a drink­ing par­ty, the kind you might have with a group of brainy acquain­tances when the last course is cleared, there’s no short­age of wine, and no one has to work the next day. (This being ancient Greece, these were all-male affairs). Plutarch defined a sym­po­sium as “a pass­ing of time over wine, which, guid­ed by gra­cious behav­ior, ends in friend­ship.” Plato’s Sym­po­sium, the best-known of his dia­logues, is much more in the lat­ter vein—a cel­e­bra­tion among accom­plished friends to mark the tri­umph of the poet Agathon’s first tragedy. The dia­logue con­tains sev­en speech­es on love, includ­ing of course, one from Plato’s pri­ma­ry mouth­piece Socrates. But the main draw is com­ic play­wright Aristo­phanes; no under­grad­u­ate who takes a phi­los­o­phy course for­gets his roman­tic ori­gin myth, in which love actu­al­ly is a yearn­ing for one’s miss­ing oth­er half.

When writer and direc­tor Jonathan Miller decid­ed to adapt Plato’s clas­sic text into a film in 1965, he evi­dent­ly decid­ed to com­bine both the mod­ern, aca­d­e­m­ic def­i­n­i­tion of “sym­po­sium” and its clas­si­cal prece­dent. His film is called The Drink­ing Par­ty, and involves its share of that in mod­er­a­tion (as in the orig­i­nal), but it also trans­pos­es Plato’s casu­al gath­er­ing to a group of stu­dents in for­mal attire din­ing on a neo-Clas­si­cal ter­race with an Oxford don, their clas­sics mas­ter. Each char­ac­ter adopts the role of one of Plato’s Sym­po­sium speak­ers. A few things to note here: the excerpt above is of rel­a­tive­ly high qual­i­ty, but the com­plete film itself (below) did not fare near­ly as well: trans­ferred from a well-worn 16mm print from a uni­ver­si­ty archive, the film is mud­dy, scratched and quite dim. This is too bad. Miller’s film, which was shown to col­lege phi­los­o­phy stu­dents in the 60s and 70s, sunk into cul­tur­al obliv­ion for a cou­ple decades, and copies of it are very rare. Nonethe­less, this is well worth watch­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for stu­dents of phi­los­o­phy. The Drink­ing Par­ty was pro­duced as part of a mid-60s arts doc­u­men­tary series called “Sun­day Night,” which ran from 1965–1968.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Find The Sym­po­sium and oth­er great works in our col­lec­tion of 375 Free eBooks.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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