Staging Science in Life of Galileo
Life of Galileo by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) is a major attempt to dramatize both the life of a great scientist and a crucial episode in the biography of science.
The play depicts Galileo’s confrontation with the authoritarian doctrine of the Catholic Church in 1633. Galileo (1564–1642) is insatiably curious about science and free skeptical investigation. His cunning improvements on a recently invented Dutch telescope permit him to observe the sky with clarity never before experienced by astronomers. He quickly advances the evidence for the Copernican sun-centered model of the world in opposition to the accepted Ptolemaic earth-centered model. His findings about the mountainous surface of the moon and the theory of floating bodies also contradict the teachings of Aristotle widely favored by the Church doctors.
Limited clerical support and the rise of the liberal, scientifically-minded Pope Urban VIII initially encourage the aging Galileo to spread his theories. However, Galileo’s opponents convince the Pope that the new findings pose a threat to religious dogma and may spark unrest and civil disobedience. Galileo is inevitably called before the Inquisition in Rome; after he witnesses the instruments of torture, he publicly recants the sun-centered theory and resigns himself to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The final scenes present the captive and infirm scientist as he reveals the document of his illicit ongoing discoveries to Andrea, a favorite pupil, who then smuggles it across the Italian border.
Galileo (Charles Laughton) unveils a new telescope
(photo by Ruth Berlau in 1947)
Life of Galileo is a straightforward and accurate account of key events in Galileo’s career. There are, however, several novelties in Brecht’s depiction of science that, I believe, can inspire the art and intellectual history of the present century.
Truth and scientific inquiry unconstrained by immediate practical application are as vital and elegant and pleasurable to Galileo as wine or good food, which he consumes with notable relish. As Brecht observes in his journal, Galileo “is as little able to resist blurting out the truth as wolfing a tempting dish.”
“…Brecht insists on the fullness of Galileo’s appetites to emphasize the scientist’s total fascination and deep engagement with the physical world, what one might call…his ‘sensuality.’ ”
There are indeed repeated references to food. Scene one begins with a washing, followed by a scientific demonstration and a small meal of bread and milk. In scene nine Galileo expresses his taste for the wine presented him by Ludovico, whose intellectual occupations otherwise fail to excite the great man. The anonymous gift of some geese in scene fourteen brings comfort to Galileo in his final captivity. After describing his sense of self-loathing following his recantation, Galileo says demonstratively to Andrea, “I still enjoy eating.” (Brecht may have, after all, overstated Galileo’s self-loathing.)
To be sure, Galileo is not simply a glutton; I do not believe that is the point of Brecht’s treatment. I rather believe that Brecht insists on the fullness of Galileo’s appetites to emphasize the scientist’s total fascination and deep engagement with the physical world, what one might call, although less concretely, his “sensuality.” As the Pope observes in scene twelve, Galileo “enjoys himself in more ways than any man I have ever met. His thinking springs from sensuality. Give him an old wine or a new idea, and he cannot say no.” He becomes excited as he observes the surface of the moon, still more so when he is able satisfactorily to impart his findings to a friend in scene three. He handles his instruments elegantly and recognizes the aesthetic beauty of scientific method, careful observation and rigorous debate. “A great part of his sensuality is of an intellectual kind,” Brecht remarks in the notes to the actor. “For instance, the ‘beauty’ of an experiment, the little theatrical performance with which he gives shape to each of his lessons, the often abrupt way in which he will confront somebody with the truth.”
Galileo (Ernst Busch) demonstrates floating bodies
(photo by Gerda Goedhart in 1956)
There are of course an ample number of such “little performances” and “confrontations” throughout the play. There is much debate in Galileo’s study and among the clergy at Rome, all replete with logical errors for Galileo to correct. Brecht has ably written several compelling demonstrations: for instance, the theory of floating bodies in scene nine; an improvement on a familiar chess strategy in scene seven. The opening of the play has two demonstrations. The boy Andrea describes the highly complex motion of the Ptolemaic armillary sphere, “a contraption to show how the planets move around the earth, according to our forefathers.” Galileo then illustrates the correct orbit of the earth (approximately) around the sun by placing Andrea on a chair beside the washbasin (the sun), summarily hauling chair and child around to the other side. The chair of course represents the earth. “And you’re sitting on it!” he tells Andrea excitedly.
footage from productions of
(video by Ruth Berlau in 1947)
Brecht’s journals reveal him trying out the validity of these demonstrations with Hanns Reichenbach, a pupil of Albert Einstein and reportedly a top-notch physicist. However, I would like to think that here is an excellent chance for audiences and readers to consider whether the demonstrations satisfy their own scientific skepticism and whether they are dramatically compelling.
The burden of representing Galileo’s sensuality rests to a large extent on the subtleties of acting—blocking, intonation, for example—all of which may be difficult to quantify. If nothing else, though, Brecht’s ideas may help actors present a realistic image of a scientist who can happily exist and interact with the world outside of a laboratory.
“Galileo is hopeful, perhaps unwisely so, that the sun-centered theory will be accepted widely, especially among common people.”
Galileo’s capacity for hope and commitment to constructive doubt put him in conflict with the Church. Galileo is hopeful, perhaps unwisely so, that the sun-centered theory will be accepted widely, especially among common people. “Our lifetime will see astronomy being discussed in the marketplaces,” he observes in his compelling “hymn to reason” in scene one. “Even the fish-wives’ sons will hasten off to school…And the earth is rolling cheerfully around the sun, and the fishwives, merchants, princes, cardinals, and even the Pope are rolling with it.” It is precisely this kind of thinking, Sagredo reminds him in scene three, that sent Giordano Bruno, an early Copernican, to the stakes ten years earlier. But Galileo is undeterred. Human gullibility and deliberate, self-serving unreason are no bulwarks against intelligent thought. Even the most stalwart Church authorities cannot hold out long (not more than a few hundred years) against illustrative deduction and the highly suggestive evidence of the telescope.
SAGREDO: But try making one rational statement to them, and back it up with seven proofs, and they’ll just laugh at you.
GALILEO: That’s quite untrue, and it’s a slander. I don’t see how you can love science if that’s what you believe. Nobody who isn’t dead can fail to be convinced by proof.
SAGREDO: How can you imagine their pathetic shrewdness has anything to do with reason?
GALILEO: I’m not talking about their shrewdness. I know they call a donkey a horse when they want to sell it and a horse a donkey when they want to buy. That’s the kind of shrewdness you mean. But the hard-handed old woman who gives her mule an extra bundle of hay on the eve of a journey, the sea captain who considers storms and doldrums when buying provisions, the child who puts on his cap once they have convinced him that it may rain: these are the people I pin my hopes to, because they…accept proof. Yes, I believe in reason’s gentle tyranny over people. Sooner or later they have to give in to it. Nobody can go on indefinitely watching me—he drops a pebble on the ground—drop a pebble, then say it doesn’t fall. No human being is capable of that. The lure of a proof is too great. Nearly everyone succumbs to it; sooner or later we all do. Thinking is one of the chief pleasures of the human race.
“Politicians, religious figures and revered teachers might also become the subjects of skeptical inquiry.”
Likewise, “There’s happiness in doubting,” as the little monk declares after his encounter with the scientist. The monk is enthusiastic about science but apprehensive about Galileo’s findings. In scene eight he reasons with Galileo not to cast doubt over the authority of scripture and the divine rules governing the earth and the heavens. If human beings were stripped of their privileged place at the center of the cosmos, the monk contends, there would be no great dignity in the suffering of individual lives. In the end Galileo does not find the argument convincing.
THE LITTLE MONK: Let me speak about myself. My parents were peasants in the Campagna, and I grew up there. They are simple people. They know all about olive trees, but not much else. As I study the phases of Venus [one of Galileo’s discoveries] I can visualize my parents sitting round the fire with my sister, eating their curded cheese…They are badly off, but even their misfortunes imply a certain order. There are so many cycles, ranging from washing the floor, through the seasons of the olive crop to the paying of taxes. There is a regularity about the disasters that befall them…They have been assured that God’s eye is always on them—probingly, even anxiously—: that the whole drama of the world is constructed around them so that they, the performers, may prove themselves in their greater or lesser roles. What would my people say if I told them that they happen to be on a small knob of stone twisting endless through the void round a second-rate star, just one among myriads? What would be the value or necessity then of so much patience, such understanding of their own poverty? What would be the use of Holy Scripture, which has explained and justified it all-the sweat, the patience, the hunger, the submissiveness-and now turns out to be full of errors…?
GALILEO: Goodness of soul! Aren’t you really saying that there’s nothing for them, the wine has all been drunk, their lips are parched, so they had better kiss the cassock [a priestly garment]…Your Campagna peasants are paying for the wars which the representative of gentle Jesus is waging in Germany and Spain. Why does he make the earth the center of the universe? So that the See of St. Peter [Church hierarchy] can be at the center of the earth! That’s what it is all about. You’re right, it’s not about the planets, it’s about the peasants of the Campagna.
Galileo (Laughton) shares evidence with the Little Monk
(photo by Ruth Berlau)
Galileo’s findings helped set in motion much of the systematized scientific skepticism that many of us practice today; but I think there is something far more explosive in Galileo’s doubts. Who equipped with well-founded suspicions of religious dogma and of false assumptions about the orbits of planets would not begin to question the human institutions that demand false and dogmatic thinking? Time-honored chauvinisms and dubious human-centered pretensions might begin to crumble as people begin to trust credible evidence over pat assertions. Politicians, religious figures and revered teachers might also become the subjects of skeptical inquiry. “That most solemn truths are being familiarly nudged; what was never doubted before is doubted now,” Galileo tells Andrea. “This has created a draft which is blowing up the gold-embroidered skirts of the prelates and princes, revealing the fat and skinny legs underneath, legs like our own. The heavens, it turns out, are empty. Cheerful laughter is our response.” I find it is not difficult to see the precise threat of Galileo’s critical attitude. As the ballad-singer proclaims in scene nine of the American version:
Good people, what will come to pass
If Galileo’s teachings spread?
No altar boy will serve the mass
No servant girl will make the bed.
Now that was grave, my friends, it is no matter small
For independent spirit spreads as do diseases.
Change Holy Writ…? What will be left at all?
Why: each of us would say and do just as he pleases!
Above, a clip from the ballad in scene nine,
music and performance by Hanns Eisler in 1947
Hanns Eisler: Dokumente
(Berlin Classics, 1995)
To my mind, Brecht’s Galileo is very far from caricature. He displays compassion for the people whose lives are affected by powerful rulers and science alike. His firm conviction in the intelligence of human beings lends his character warmth; yet he displays human frailty as he fails to recognize the danger to himself posed by his ideas. Brecht’s play presents an image of a scientist who feels, suffers, tells jokes, recognizes his own mistakes, enjoys eating, and talks comfortably and passionately with friends. The image stands in stark contrast to the socially inept “mad scientists” and “absent-minded professors” that characterize any number of American films and children’s cartoons. Life of Galileo makes significant strides in presenting a more plausible alternative to these popular examples and could yet inspire filmmakers and producers of other mass entertainments to lend greater nuance to the representation of scientists.
Galileo (Laughton) talks with Sagredo and Virginia
(photo by Ruth Berlau)
Life of Galileo may also help direct actors who wish to present science, doubt and evidence-based reason as sources of great pleasure and vital, but sometimes dangerous ingredients of healthy debate about human society and its leaders. These are the play’s keynotes and important tenets of Brecht’s theory of drama. Brecht had many changing views as to what constitutes drama. His writings nonetheless express an interest in science as an inspiration for really entertaining art, and they make repeated calls for a theater in which characters scrutinize their world skeptically.
“…[S]cientists, together with playwrights and actors, may in fact do much to enliven theater and bring a new profound dimension to it.”
At a time when science is arguably more remote than in recent memory—this is the subject of several excellent books by Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan—Life of Galileo may be a helpful model for professional scientists who wish to make their work more readily available and understandable to the general public. Consider, for instance, a challenging scientific text broken down and made more engaging through the declamations of a talented actor. Brecht goes so far as to have Galileo recite a long passage from the astronomer’s theoretical Discorsi† to great effect in scene thirteen.
By staging science in a theatrical way, perhaps with laboratory-style demonstrations; by demonstrating the skeptical scientific method; and by drawing on the real-life dramatic scenarios that face scientists and policy makers: scientists, together with playwrights and actors, may in fact do much to enliven theater and bring a new profound dimension to it. “People who know nothing about either science or art imagine that those are two vastly different things that they know nothing about,” Brecht observes somewhat wryly in his unfinished treatise on theater, The Messingkauf Dialogues. “They fancy they’re doing science a favor if they allow it to be unimaginative and are promoting art if they stop people expecting art to be intelligent.”
Bertolt Brecht in 1946
(photo by Ruth Berlau)
Life of Galileo is one of Brecht’s most significant plays; so much so, that it occupied him for the last twenty years of his life, and he produced three different versions. I will briefly summarize the key differences in Brecht’s revisions of the play. The first version appeared during his Danish exile in 1938. The second, completed in 1947, was written largely with and for Charles Laughton. A final version combined elements of the previous two; Brecht prepared it for his West German publisher, Suhrkamp, and it ultimately served as the text for the 1956 Berliner Ensemble production in East Berlin, with Brecht’s old friend Ernst Busch in the title role.
As Brecht’s English-language editors Ralph Manheim and John Willet have observed, the historical situations in which the author found himself prompted him to re-evaluate the principle themes of the work each time. In 1938 the conflict of authority and free skeptical inquiry had pressing implications following the first major triumphs of Fascism in Central Europe. By 1947 the production and deployment of the first atomic bombs had prompted Brecht and Laughton to question the tremendous cost to society of unbridled scientific and technological advance.
The American version introduces the idea of a “Hippocratic oath” for scientists and presents the case for science with a social conscience. Shortly after the American premiere Brecht and Laughton ended their collaboration, due in part to Brecht’s appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and growing pressure on Laughton to distance himself from Brecht’s left-wing circle.
The final version of Life of Galileo followed Brecht’s departure for East Germany and the death of Stalin; it may have particular relevance to students of East German and Communist cultural history. The import of historical events on Brecht’s writing is a highly fascinating subject, and it may be a helpful framework for present discussions about Brecht’s work as well as the social implications of skepticism in general.
Changes/additions made March 27, 2008 (tmh)
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