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.
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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.